Why is Indian bureaucracy not delivering?

Despite impressive economic growth India has failed to achieve the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), particularly when it comes to hunger, health, nutrition, gender, and sanitation

Photo Courtesy: Social media
Photo Courtesy: Social media
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Naresh Chandra Saxena

Despite impressive economic growth in the last three decades India could not achieve many of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) set by the United Nations, particularly in hunger, health, nutrition, gender, and sanitation.

India’s social indicators are today worse than countries poorer than India such as Bangladesh and Vietnam. Besides, growth has not helped the most marginalised groups, such as tribals and women. Of all the disadvantaged groups, tribals, especially in Central India, have been the worst sufferers, primarily because of anti-tribal forest policy, displacement laws, and poor governance. Production of minor forest products from Government forests has gone down in the last 70 years, affecting tribal livelihoods.

As regards women, the number of females to 1000 males for the age group 0-6 has been consistently falling; from 927 in 2001 to 914 in 2011, and to 896 in 2015-2017, which is the lowest since 1947.

Compared to 2011-12, the labour force participation rate (LFPR) for females fell by around 8 percentage points from 31.2 to 23.3 per cent in 2017-18. So, more than three-quarters of the females in the age group 15-60 are neither working nor seeking jobs, leading to women's disempowerment. Thus, in addition to improving delivery, we need to address policy issues too, both for tribals and women.

Divergence between growth and development witnessed in India clearly explodes the trickle-down theory that rapid growth by itself would take care of the underprivileged.

Though India has done well where contractors are involved, such as road transport and power supply, India does poorly in all programmes that require active involvement of grassroots bureaucracy without contractors; whether it is the quality of education, immunisation, health care, maintenance of land records, supplementary nutrition through Anganwadi centres, groundwater management, crime control, and so on.

Inclusive development must aim at economic growth with elimination of poverty, improvement in social indicators, and reduction in inequality as equally important goals, while ensuring at the same time that there is no damage to environment.

However, translating these macro-policies into action would need good governance and accountable administration, without which even the best policies and laws remain on paper only, or result in leakages.

Unfortunately, governance in India at the state and district levels is quite weak, manifesting itself in poor service delivery, uncaring administration, corruption, and uncoordinated and wasteful public expenditure.

Is something wrong with the IAS?

Most IAS officers are brilliant, hard-working, and honest. Many of them also try to remain distant from unscrupulous politicians. But people are more interested in the outcomes that the system is responsible for, rather than in their personal qualities.

· Are teachers and doctors present in their place of posting and providing quality services?

· Are widows and disabled receiving their pensions regularly in time?

· Are programmes being evaluated timely and objectively?

· Do land records reflect the ground reality and are updated without bribes?

· Are street vendors and rickshaw pullers able to earn their livelihoods without harassment?

· Are outcomes being measured and reported honestly, so that corrective action can be taken to improve delivery?

I am afraid the answer to these questions is in the negative.

The system does not perform well, though people at the top are world class. US academic Lant Pritchett has an interesting explanation for why things go so shockingly awry in India.

He calls this the flailing state syndrome, 'a nation-state in which the head, that is elite institutions at the national (and in some states) level, remains sound and functional but that this head is no longer reliably connected via nerves and sinews to its own limbs.’

‘As a result, nothing works, because field level agents of the state, from health workers to teachers and engineers, are increasingly beyond the control of the government, at state and national level. In police, tax collection, education, health, water supply — in nearly every routine service — there is rampant absenteeism, indifference, incompetence, and corruption'.

Granted that radical reforms cannot succeed in isolation without political support, non-performing administration leaves little choice to the politicians but to resort to populist rhetoric and sectarian strategies.

As Chidambaram put it, 'Civil servants design the projects and programmes, they make cost and time estimates, and they are directly responsible for implementation; yet, many programmes have failed completely and many others have yielded unsatisfactory results'. If the administrative processes can be streamlined, even routine administration with average leadership should suffice to produce results.

For instance, in 2017-18 government spent Rs 12,312 under NREGA on each rural poor in Kerala - the least poor state in India – as against a paltry Rs 918 in Bihar and 943 in UP!

The number of rural poor in Bihar is six times similar number in Tamil Nadu, but expenditure on NREGA in Tamil Nadu in 2017-18 was three times that in Bihar.

The Ministry needs to earmark NREGA funds for states, on the basis of poverty, just as PMGSY allocations are in proportion to state-wise shortage of rural roads. ‘Free-for-all’ approach punishes poorer states as they are not able to compete with better governed states in attracting funds from GOI.

Defunct legislatures

Holding bureaucracy to account for results through informed debates in the assemblies should be the main task of the State legislatures. Unfortunately, in practice they rarely meet.

Today, many legislative assemblies meet only for 20 to 30 days in a year. The Haryana Legislative Assembly, for example, held only ten sessions from 2009 till March 2014, meeting for a total of 54 days – an average of 11 days per year. The assemblies for UP, Gujarat, Punjab and Uttarakhand sat for an average of 22, 31, 19, and 19 days respectively each year.

In the 12th Gujarat Assembly (2007–2012), over 90 per cent of all bills were passed on the same day that they were introduced. In the Budget Session of 2011, 31 bills were passed of which 21 were introduced and passed within three sitting days.

Judging from the manner state assemblies function, one could conclude that India is not at all a ‘deliberative democracy’. In practice legislatures only rubber-stamp executive decisions.

Most legislators at the state level are not interested in their legislative responsibilities, but rather seek a share in the executive pie. Many use their back-door access to influence decisions relating to contracts and licenses, as well as transfers and posting of officials.

Such backseat driving affords legislators informal control over the bureaucracy, that promotes irresponsible decision-making and encourages corruption. The constitutional separation between the executive and the legislature has disappeared in India. This has resulted in erosion of internal discipline among civil servants.

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