Reforming governance

Print edition : October 08, 2004

A tribal woman participating in a food-for-work programme in a Orissa village. The success of the government's plans in priority areas such as rural development depends on the effectiveness of the administrative mechanisms in delivering the goods. - ASHOKE CHAKRABARTY

Any attempt to change the systems of governance must, therefore, look at the realities and devise ways in which they can be eliminated before changes are worked out. Any attempt to reform the administration has two major hurdles to clear: the complexity of the system and corruption.

PRIME MINISTER, Manmohan Singh, has rightly made the reform of the system of governance a key part of the immediate work he has set for his government. No development plan or project in any of the sectors he has declared to be priority sectors - education, rural employment, irrigation, health, among others - will really work and produce the results expected unless the means used are effective. A surgeon cannot operate with a blunt, infected scalpel.

One wonders, though, where he intends to start his reforms. At the top? Or at what is referred to as the cutting edge? Or at both, and at the levels in between? There have been attempts made to try to reform the system of governance before; we have two recent ones, and the reports of the two committees, both headed by former Chairmen of the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC), Lt. Gen. Surendra Nath and P.C. Hota, are with the government. They do not, from what one has learned of them, cover the entire system, but certain key aspects of it. And we still do not know what the government intends to do with these reports.

Whatever the government finally does, the Prime Minister would do well to keep in mind that even the most well-meaning bureaucrat who examines proposals to reform the administration will not be terribly keen to recommend any action that might jeopardise the further advancement of his breed, or the security of service they have at the moment.

Besides, there are two other basic facts that are sometimes looked at rather cursorily. One is that the system of governance is not one system; it is a complex of a myriad, interlinked systems and some of which function in a context peculiarly their own. The second is that in most of these systems there is an inbuilt world of payoffs that are difficult to eliminate.

What this translates into, for one thing, is that streamlining procedures and practices in one area of governance may well give rise to some totally unworkable problems elsewhere. To give a minor example: in the years that when I was Director-General, Doordarshan, one of the problems that came up was the provision of some avenues of promotion to floor managers, who are people in the studios who literally `manage' the studio - ensuring that the settings are all right, that everyone is in the right place, that there is silence during a take, and so on. Years of doing just this naturally led to a frustration and demoralisation that showed in sloppy work, surly behaviour and even a refusal to work. Somebody then got a bright idea; why not promote them as production assistants? That would give them an incentive to work; the best would become production assistants and then go on even higher, perhaps, becoming producers in the fullness of time.

This sounded a good idea and was put into effect. What then happened was something that we should have foreseen but did not, and which resulted in a greater mess; we lost the best floor managers we had, and gained some totally clueless production assistants who were a liability to the harassed producers who were saddled with them. This was a direct result of trying to improve things in one system and not foreseeing what would happen in others.

Now imagine this happening on a far bigger scale, where crucial development projects are involved.

But even more sinister is the entire web of payoffs and bribes that permeate all the systems that deliver services to people, particularly the poor - from the medical orderlies demanding money from patients sometimes just to stand in a queue to get a receipt, to babus wanting percentages from those who owe some money for treatment, from the payment demanded to put children in schools to all manner of extra `fees' extracted from impoverished parents the business of feeding off people in need of services, and so on. Any move to remove this system, or install a system that results in an end to such payments or a reduction of the payments expected, will be opposed fiercely, in many cases by unions and associations of karamcharis and minor officials.

If these are not effectively dealt with, the result will be as effective as the government's pathetic efforts to stop the growth of inflation. They will have, as we have seen, many good reasons to explain why the inflation rate is going up - we are good and convincing with these - but do not seem to be able to stop it doing so.

Any attempt to change the systems of governance must, therefore, look at the realities and devise ways in which they can be eliminated before changes are worked out. It will help if traditional assumptions are thrown out and radical new ways of governance looked at.

Can, for instance, a particular project be given to a non-governmental organisation (NGO) or a private agency to execute in one district, and that NGO or agency given all the powers it needs to implement the project, by taking away the powers by the established bureaucratic system to stop, impede or in some way slow down the implementation? Can the funds for this be given to the NGO or agency at the top, directly, without their having to go from desk to desk in some Ministry to get clearances and having to listen to broad hints that a little chai pani would ensure their funds would be released speedily?

Must proposals go to financial advisers who would write `Please examine' and pass it on to the deputy financial adviser, who would write `At once, pl' (that is, please) and send it to an assistant financial adviser, who would write `With pps' (with related papers) to a clerk, or dealing assistants as they are called? Then the proposal - provided for in the budget, mind you, as a part of the United Progressive Alliance's declared scheme to help the rural poor - comes up, when the assistant thinks it proper, to the assistant, the deputy and finally the financial adviser. Eventually, usually after some months, the proposal may be cleared. Unless the chai pani is paid and then the recipient personally takes the file from one desk to the other and brings it back with the approval.

But if the funds are released right at the top - it is not impossible, international agencies such as the Ford Foundation do it - the NGO or private agency can begin work straightaway. They may well do a bad job; but the agreement with them could have inbuilt safeguards, much as a contract with a builder. And the monitoring could be done either by senior, responsible officials personally or by other agencies known for their integrity and impartiality.

A system like this could be tried; or some other. The point is, the methods must be totally different, if the government wants results and not just statistical claims. The traditional systems can then either be altered to conform to the new models or done away with. Yes, there will be a drastic reduction of jobs; but a system of early retirement benefits would mitigate the hardships that this would cause.

It would be expensive, certainly; what the government needs to consider is whether the extra expenditure over a few years will not be worth it in the long term, when new systems of governance - totally new, staffed by a different breed of people - actually deliver on the promises made to the people, and policies bear fruit. That surely would be worth the expense.

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