Command-and-Control Has Failed

Formulating government programs is just one part of the puzzle. Implementation matters. This government has the wrong approach.

We Indians love large numbers. We also love big ideas. This probably was one of the reasons why Narendra Modi, as a new Prime Minister in 2014, embarked on a series of mega initiatives – all touted as game-changing ideas – to accompany the promise of ramping up implementation of existing schemes. Investing political capital in social reforms to keep pace with the image of a young country full of high aspirations is a terrific idea. Hence, a “Swachh Bharat” and a “Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao” went hand-in-hand with a “Stand-up India, Start-up India” and “Skill India”. Some of these big ideas just had to be floated, given the convincing mandate the voters had handed Modi. This was also an attempt to signal that the new government meant business, and a decisive shift away from the lethargic implementation record of UPA 2.

In the UPA era, one criticised the government for an over-reliance on rights-based programs, where there was a tendency to legislate and sit back. Even in widespread programs like MNREGA – as evaluations showed in 2013/14, people on the ground were not aware of their rights, how the scheme was supposed to work, and grievance redressal mechanisms available to them. The Narendra Modi government has taken quite a different approach, with their focus on ‘delivering’ products and services to beneficiaries.

For those of us concerned primarily with the progress made on social and human development indicators and the performance of social programs, the progress in the last four years has been far from satisfactory. First of all, a government program, focused excessively on steep targets and promising a frantic pace of implementation, immediately brings out the skeptics within us. The focus on chasing targets often takes away from the quality of implementation – this is not essential, but holds true more often than we would like.

Coupled with the pressure of targets, it also seems that the government, and in particular, the Prime Minister, failed to grasp a basic reality about governing a large and complex country, which is that a central command-and-control style cannot work. In Narendra Modi’s experience, this may have delivered a semblance of administrative efficiency in Gujarat. But Gujarat is a state with a population of six crore, and even there development has been so lopsided that it languishes close to the bottom of any list of major states when ranked on human and social development indicators.

What we have in Delhi today is the Prime Minister’s Office attempting to control the implementation of programs throughout the country. IAS officers based in the states are handy extensions of this governance mechanism, but without taking state governments on board, and without handing over the stick to people’s representatives at the district and local levels, grassroots development will remain elusive. It is therefore unsurprising that the tale of this government’s mega-schemes is littered with patchy implementation and exclusions on the ground.

Implementation on the ground requires local leadership, and an administrative machinery that can support the action. Instead, an over-emphasis on technology at the expense of human capacity is a worrying trend. For example, the idea of Jan-Dhan – Aadhaar – Mobile (JAM) can appear exciting, but without a legal framework to address grievances, and without accountable institutions that can act on the grievances registered, implementation will be found wanting. This is exactly why exclusions due to Aadhaar are a concern, and why public banks penalising Jan-Dhan account holders for their inability to maintain a minimum balance strikes us as unfair, if not outright illegal. Add to that instances of bureaucratic impositions mandating use of toilets to access public services, where public systems have failed to reach, and the situation appears even more worrisome with respect to equity and the pro-poor nature of the government’s development agenda.

Where the government has found moderate success is in a selected few areas of ease of doing business, such as the new bankruptcy law – a largely technocratic reform that was pushed through by the regulators and the judiciary. There are also valuable lessons from the moderate successes in the infrastructure sector, particularly the progress made in roads, electrification and renewable energy.  But somewhere down the line, the tent of big ideas seems to have collapsed. The Goods and Services Tax (GST) was a game-changing reform – designed originally by the UPA, but refined by the current government – that faltered due to lack of readiness. Enough has been said about how Demonetisation was a disastrous idea; and the Skill India mission hardly found a mention even in the 2018 union budget speech. One doesn’t hear much about start-ups these days either.

Implementation of transformative ideas and large behavioural change programmes requires a vibrant feedback mechanism. It requires strong state-level and sub-state level leadership, and coordination between the different major players. When the NITI Aayog was launched and the phrase ‘Team India’ was in currency, one feared that the central government’s proposal was one that overlooked entirely the relationship between the state and the centre, and between states themselves. The acrimonious political culture of the last four years have deepened the fissures between the Centre and the states, with very little exception. Almost everywhere else, the deliberative mechanisms are broken, and feedback loops seem to not to be functioning.

This is a challenge any government at the Centre will face in the implementation of social programs. It is probably unrealistic to expect a drastic shift in implementation culture in the final year of a government’s term. But to make lasting progress, these reforms to the culture remain crucial.