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Slothful governance

At a time when almost everything is freely available everywhere, it is not understood as to why the Government believes in centralised purchases and the rigmarole of antiquated procedures when budgets can be allocated to smaller units to buy from the market at the market price

DEVENDRA SAKSENA | New Delhi |

The saying “Success has a thousand fathers while failure is an orphan” must have been coined by someone with an Indian connection. We are a people who avoid responsibility like the plague. Ask the student who failed at the examination; rather than telling you that he did not study, he will go into a long diatribe about how the examiners were ignoramuses who could not understand what he had written. Conversely, if a boy does well in an examination, all and sundry will claim credit for his performance. This trait, amusing at the individual level, is disastrous when adopted by the Government and leaders of society. Yet, most processes in the Government of India involve so many people that they appear to have been deliberately devised with the singular aim of diffusing responsibility should things go wrong.

After the Bofors scandal, the crucial process of defence procurement has been made so convoluted that it is almost impossible to complete the process of weapons acquisition within a reasonable time or even the tenure of one Government or of one civil servant. For example, Dassault Rafale fighter aircraft which were approved for purchase in 2012, are being delivered in 2020. Significantly, against an initial order of 126 aircraft, we have finally contracted only for 36, leading to a huge shortfall in our defence preparedness. Moreover, the Rafale aircraft is of 2001 vintage; because of humongous delays in our procurement processes, we appear to have acquired something ancient rather than state of art.

Then, we had the infamous 2-G Scam in 2010 wherein the CAG alleged a loss of Rs 1.76 lakh crore to the Government. Even after 10 years, not a single rupee has been recovered and not a single scamster been convicted. However, the inertia in the Telecom Department, brought about by sustained investigation by enforcement agencies, resulted in a freeze on new investment and modernisation. Resultantly, BSNL and MTNL, which were leaders in the telecom sector in 2010, have been reduced to basket cases.

The Coalgate scandal, unearthed in 2012, followed a similar trajectory. Investigating agencies got into the act after the CAG alleged a loss of Rs 1.86 lakh crore in coal allocation. The coal industry suffered in the aftermath of deallocation and auction of coal mines so that, despite having substantial coal reserves, we are currently importing more than 200 million tonnes of coal, valued at more than Rs 1 lakh crore. Only some officials and surprisingly, a minister in the Vajpayee cabinet, have been convicted but the bigger fish appear to have swum away.

The Bofors scandal had an unexpected denouement when the Delhi High Court quashed all charges against the accused and held that the probe was going nowhere and it was wrong to waste public money on the endless investigation. Earlier, when the Kargil war started, it was discovered that because of the ban on Bofors we had no ammunition for the gun, which later played a stellar role in the war, after its ammunition was acquired ~ at $10,000 per round ~ from Israel and South Africa. The total cost paid for the ammunition was enormous, as a Bofors gun fires three rounds every minute. An upgraded version of Bofors, ‘Dhanush’ has recently been inducted as the main field gun for the Indian Army.

The common thread in these instances is that after being ripped off by scamsters we damaged ourselves even more by our knee-jerk responses. Our investigative agencies also proved inadequate; the main accused appear to have slipped away in most cases and the defalcated money has never been recovered. On the other hand, the Economic Survey for 2016-17 identified fear of the so-called “4 Cs” i.e., Courts, CVC (Central Vigilance Commission), CBI (Central Bureau of Investigation) and CAG (Comptroller and Auditor General) as the greatest impediment to decision making. Many honest civil servants turn into statusquoists, only because they want to avoid coming in the crosshairs of these august bodies. We seem to be having the worst of both worlds; investigative agencies can neither prevent nor prove frauds but their fear stymies good administration.

A question arises: “Can we not have processes by which Government money is saved but decision making does not suffer?”

Self-restraint by the Government and investigating agencies holds the key. Yet, the diametrically opposite is the norm; once a newsworthy scandal breaks out, a plethora of investigative agencies rush in. The tragic suicide of actor Sushant Singh Rajput provided an opportunity to the Mumbai Police, CBI, ED and NCB to try out their investigative skills but to little avail ~ except boosting the TRP of sundry TV channels.

There could possibly be a rule of administrative convenience that only one agency can probe a particular offence. Parallel investigations by multiple agencies often lead to internecine conflicts, benefiting only the target of investigation. Then, investigative agencies should operate and be seen as operating without bias. The recent ouster of the automatic jurisdiction of CBI by eight opposition-ruled States points to a perception of bias in respect of central agencies, which does not augur well for investigation of serious crime. Judicial delays compound the problem. A substantial number of coal scam cases, 2-G scam cases, Commonwealth Games scam cases, are in the trial stage even after 10 years of the commission of the alleged offences. In this substantial interregnum, investigating officers have retired, witnesses and accused have died and evidence has been lost sight of. It seems that no one ever thought of fasttracking cases of serious financial crimes.

The cost of government purchases is unbelievably high because only a certain type of person, who is prepared to undergo the long-drawn and opaque processes of the Government, dares to trade with the Government. This perception was validated at a Press Conference on 14 May 2020, wherein the Minister of Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSME) stated that the Central Government, State Governments, PSUs and large private players, owed MSMEs Rs 5 lakh crore in outstanding payments – a figure which was much larger than the stimulus of Rs 3 lakh crore announced by the Finance Minister. Many MSMEs faced financial stress in the aftermath of the pandemic because they were not able to realise payments from the Government.

At a time when almost everything is freely available everywhere, it is not understood as to why the Government believes in centralised purchases and the rigmarole of antiquated procedures when budgets can be allocated to smaller units to buy from the market at the market price. The cost of governance can be drastically reduced, if we have transparent decision-making processes along with better accountability for decision makers. Then, we follow inane policies that hurt rather than help stakeholders. Sample this: In the beginning of April 2020 when Coronavirus infections were rising, the Bureau of Indian Standards sat down to decide the specifications for PPE kits. After much deliberation certain guidelines were finalised, which were retracted within three days of notification, because of ‘administrative and inter-ministerial issues,’ that led to a shortage of protective equipment at a crucial time. After policy issues were sorted out, we became exporters of protective equipment.

Similarly, at the beginning of the Coronavirus pandemic, the Government banned the export of hydroxychloroquine thinking that our production of hydroxychloroquine would be sufficient only for our own requirements. But, after we had to supply hydroxychloroquine to the US under duress, production of hydroxychloroquine ballooned to cover requirements of both the domestic and international market. We are a country that has a surfeit of technical manpower and the demonstrated capability of sending multiple satellites in space but when it comes to producing a low technology item like a rifle for the army, we are found wanting. One can be sure that if there are proper guidelines for collaboration between the defence ministry and industry, we would be able to produce all the weapons that the armed forces want.

Often, the impediment to our progress is in our own thinking and Government policies and not in our capabilities. Like Lord Hanuman, we wait for Lord Rama to make us aware of our own strengths. So far as Government policies are concerned, the comedian P. J. O’Rourke had succinctly observed: “It is a popular delusion that the government wastes vast amounts of money through inefficiency and sloth. Enormous effort and elaborate planning are required to waste this much money.”

The writer is a retired Principal Chief Commissioner of Income-Tax