Every government formulates new policies, schemes, projects, flagship programmes, and centrally sponsored schemes. These often overlap given the bevy of socio-economic and educational schemes under the three-tier architecture of the Indian government. Some of the schemes are remodelled or renamed and new policies and development schemes initiated. The vital issue is that the qualitative and quantitative targets, outputs and outcome are seldom met within the time-frame and budgetary allocations and resources. Governance can be complex and complicated in a developing country like India given the diversities in a plural politico-socio-economic fabric and in multidimensional ways.
Constitutional safeguards such as the judicial system, parliamentary committees, constitutional safeguards, watchdogs, statutory offices, anti-corruption enforcement agencies must work more diligently and in tandem, exercising all the requisite checks and balances to transform India’s development narrative in the coming years.
The problem lies in the proverbial three-monkey statues in which one monkey is blind, the second is dumb, and the third is deaf. India’s public offices and the bureaucracy or the so-called steel frame function like the three monkeys. They must be inspired and motivated by the plaque at the Nehru Memorial Museum at Teen Murti Bhavan in New Delhi, where the quote of Pandit Nehru, the first Prime Minister is embossed ~ Desh ki janta hame pradhan mantri na kahe, pratham sevak kahe or as the present Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, reiterates that he is the Pradhan Sevak of the country.
Civil servants of all ranks, hues and shades must be sincere to the core to serve as committed sevaks and not as masters of the people they govern. This is the first and foremost prerequisite to change the development narrative of independent India if it has to be an inclusive India of 1.3 billion people. Improving governance is imperative.
A government that promised to take care of every citizen with the slogan Sab Ka Saat Sab Ka Vikas, now contends with non-inclusive jobless growth. Authentic, complete, and a relevant data base is essential for quality governance, informed decision-making and measuring outputs and outcome. The Central Statistical Organization’s mandate is to provide credible statistics for making proper administrative decisions. India’s economic growth is measured by GDP and national income related statistics.
When base years are changed and inclusion and exclusion of items for the wholesale price index and Consumer Price Index and job creation data are frequently changed, manipulated or suppressed, India’s real status in vital economic sectors will not be available for decisionmaking. When the basket of goods and services are changed from time to time for tabulating performance indicators in key sectors of the economy such as agriculture, manufacturing, and service sectors, the country is deprived of the real growth story. In spite of digital India’s various targeted flagship programmes like Make in India, Stand Up India, Start Up India, Skill India, Smart Cities, Amrut, Swachh Bharat and citizen-centric developmental schemes, the youth is direly distressed due to endemic unemployment.
India’s project execution is invariably inflicted by three major lacunae. More than 90 per cent of these projects are not executed as envisaged in the policy documents or as planned. Except Delhi Metro, most of the projects are impeded by time and cost overrun and implementation without achieving the specified qualitative and quantitative outputs and outcome.
The CAG reports highlight various inadequacies in implementation, notably inadequate planning based on incomplete, unreliable and relevant database, proper feasibility study, lack of effective monitoring, lack of financial and other resources, non-release of funds by the authorities for the projects on time, non-utilization of funds, non-achievement of planned outputs, unsuccessful tendering process, delay in procurement, lack of inspection, supervision, quality and right quantity specifications and non-conformity in rules during procurement.
External audit reports of the CAG offer a post mortem analysis, but these lessons can be used for preventing similar pitfalls in project planning, implementation, monitoring and taking corrective and preventive action. Administrators seem to neglect learning these valuable lessons when the projects fail.
Consequently, CAG reports tend to repeat the same comments and the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) and the Committee of Public Undertakings (COPU) highlight the same stereotyped observations and recommendations. Public administrators seem to give less importance to correct the chronic systemic and procedural bottlenecks, but rather get busy in replying routinely to the CAG reports and the queries of the Parliamentary Committees. Lessons from the past are seldom learnt, and as a result such deficiencies in project execution get repeated year after year in every report on different departments of the government.
Not learning from the mistakes, ensuring effective monitoring and effecting midcourse correction are a tragic reflection of the administrative superstructure. Every ministry boasts a citizens’ charter. Public servants have to abide by conduct rules, code of conduct and professional and ethical standards. All government offices are legally bound to reply to queries raised by the public under the Right to Information Act.
Of course, there are elaborate frequently updated General Financial Rules, Delegation of Financial Rules, Standards of Office Procedures, tendering and procurement rules, CAG, CVC instructions including e-tendering and e-procurements and reverse auctioning. An internal audit wing is mandatory for every ministry. Finance wings perform perfunctorily in all departments of the government. The officials posted in these wings are not properly trained to carry out effective financial propriety audit scrutiny and offer valuable actionable comments to be carried out by the administration before incurring the expenditure.
Matters proceed in a stereotyped way, and chronic problems recur year after year in every government department. Officers come and go, but the systemic and procedural bottlenecks are never corrected. This results in enormous loss to the public exchequer due to inadequate scrutiny, misuse or abuse of powers, waste of resources and learning lessons from the past in planning, implementation, monitoring and taking corrective, and preventive action.
The year-end review of the National Institution for Transforming India (NITI) Aayog, the think-tank entity created out of the ashes of the Planning Commission and released by the Press Information Bureau in December 2018 recounts the narrative of India’s experiments with development in the key sectors of health, education, water and sustainable development.
The nation is privileged to have new SMART indexes to measure the progress. It is indeed heartening to note that the policy tank’s innovative indexes ‘Healthy States, Progressive India’ Report namely the ‘Health Index’ introduced in February 2018, the Composite Water Management Index, launched in June 2018, the ‘School Education Quality Index (SEQI)’, ‘SDG India Index’ and the ‘Digital Transformation Index’ (DTI) will be able to capture the state of development in India’s 29 States and 7 UTs by measuring smartly the progress in the respective sectors.
What cannot be measured cannot be assessed and hence measuring performance by SMART indicators and ranking the states and UTs on outcomes in critical sectors will facilitate the public administrators and key stakeholders, indeed the people of India to know what is really happening in the country so that proper remedial and preventive midcourse action can be taken to put the nation on the trajectory of accelerated economic development and inclusive growth.
NITI Aayog has developed many indexes to capture the status of all significant domains of public administration and to make informed decisions. The District Hospital Index or Health Index was created in February 2018 by NITI Aayog to measure and monitor the performance of hospitals, focusing on outputs and outcomes. What is more important is that ‘The ‘Healthy States, Progressive India’ Report must be used for effective governance.
The Composite Water Management Index, launched in June 2018, the ‘School Education Quality Index (SEQI)’, ‘SDG India Index’ and the ‘Digital Transformation Index’ (DTI) are important tools not only for measuring the states’ progress in respective sectors but taking midcourse correction. Another vital tool is ‘Sustainable Action for Transforming Human Capital’ (SATH) aimed at transformation in education and health, by ‘hand-holding the states towards improving their social sector indicators and providing technical support over three years’.
(To be concluded)
(The writer is a former DG in the Office of the CAG of India. Views are personal)