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Fix the software of policymaking and listen to the voice of people

Photo: ReutersPremium
Photo: Reuters

  • The government must focus on the process of policy formulation through genuine consultation to make headway on reforms
  • Our celebrated ‘first generation’ reforms of the 90s that reduced controls on industry were easer to do than those we now must, given the larger and wider set of people who’d be affected.

The Indian economy is in a slump, and so reforms are an imperative. But the complications of banking sector reforms, the ongoing struggle of labour reforms, and the saga of agricultural reforms have all made clear that India’s policymakers are having a hard time pushing ahead with reforms. Arvind Subramanian, former chief economic adviser to the government, says that “restoring dynamism (in the economy) requires improving the ‘software’ of policymaking itself: the way that policies are formulated, publicly articulated, and implemented." (18 January 2021, Mint). That policies to produce desired outcomes require good processes, not only domain expertise, is vividly clear from the agitation of farmers against the new laws the government is trying to impose on them by side-stepping democratic processes.

The necessity of reforming processes for plans and policy was highlighted by former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in his second term, when he commissioned an internal review of the Planning Commission. Economic growth, though fast, was neither inclusive nor environmentally sustainable. Several people from industry and civil society said India needed more plans and policies. They recommended that the Planning Commission be changed into an ‘implementation commission’.

The celebrated ‘first-generation’ reforms of the 1990s reduced controls on industry. They applied to a limited set of stakeholders, compared to the more difficult ‘second-generation’ reforms necessary in land, environment, labour, agriculture and public services. Implementing these democratically is more difficult because they need the participation of a much wider range of stakeholders. The country needs systematic processes to convert contentions among stakeholders into consensus, and confusion in implementation into coordination, so that the intentions of plans and policies are translated into outcomes. India has good economists and domain experts, but needs better processes for making and implementing policies. Manmohan Singh said that the Planning Commission should transform itself from an institution making plans and allocating funds into a “systems reform" commission, and into an “essay (force) of communication".

An international benchmarking exercise was undertaken with the World Bank’s assistance to learn how other democratic countries make and implement policies, especially those with good track records of inclusive growth, such as Germany, Japan, Sweden and Korea. The study revealed that the key was systematic involvement of citizens and stakeholders. The principles of good processes were distilled, and best practices studied. These were being put into a package of ‘software’ for dissemination to states and ministries by the Planning Commission when the government changed.

The Indian state has an unusual capacity for large-scale implementation. It conducts elections on a very large scale, whereby hundreds of millions of voters, even in very remote areas, cast their votes. The administration of the pulse polio vaccine to make India polio free is another example. Wherever ‘one size fits all’, and a standard procedure must be applied, the Indian state can do it well. However, when variations are required to suit local conditions and behaviourial changes are needed, such as in the design of toilet solutions, school education and public health, community participation is essential. Local-system solutions implemented by stakeholder communities are necessary for such systemic problems.

Reforms are even more difficult when fundamental rights and questions of justice are involved, as they are in matters of land, labour, agriculture and the environment. In these domains, policies cannot be designed by ‘technical’ experts only. Voices of citizens must also be listened to. Stakeholders must be involved early on to get the policy right and gain support in implementation. Moreover, the quality of stakeholder engagement determines the quality of the policy.

Government functionaries claim they consult others extensively. However, most consultations are purely proforma. Representatives of stakeholder groups are invited to meetings, and their attendance noted. In most meetings, they are lectured to and their views briefly noted, which they are assured will be considered. Draft policies are put on websites and comments are invited within a few days. Most citizens are not aware of this. Some do respond, and their responses are counted as ‘consultation’ even if they are not read by policy formulators. Many stakeholders do not have the technological wherewithal to download and respond to huge files. The numbers of persons supposedly consulted may be impressive, but in effect, there is hardly any consultation.

The principal complaint of Wada Na Todo, the platform created by civil society organizations to give feedback to the erstwhile Planning Commission under the United Progressive Alliance-2 government was that planners and policymakers do not really listen to people. They consider citizens to be uneducated masses who must be explained to (if at all), not listened to. The concerns people express are dismissed as either illogical objections or political obstructions. This is the principal cause of today’s impasse over farm reforms.

Constitutions, laws and formal institutions are the hardware of democracy, while processes of dialogue between the government and citizens and among citizens themselves are its software. This software is essential for economic policymaking too. India’s software of policymaking is poor, and the software of its democracy is breaking down. The government must fix it. Else, the trust of citizens in its ability to govern well, and democratically, will diminish.

Arun Maira is former member, Planning Commission

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