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When all isn’t well

Are chief ministers in the North-east — who have just taken office — ready to get into the act of bringing transparency and accountability?

Patricia Mukhim |

Governance is easy to spell but very difficult to implement. In a democracy, it envisages that the “people” are at the center of policy planning and implementation. But is that the case in India? No, it isn’t. And the further you travel from Delhi the more decrepit governance is.

One example of poor governance is the rise in corruption, which makes electoral politics very expensive and well-nigh impossible for those with delusions of grandeur that they will change the course of politics if they get elected.

We only have to take a look at the Comptroller and Auditor General reports from all the seven states of the region to know that large chunks of public funds reach private coffers. In fact, the CAG report is an exercise in futility.

Year after year it points at leakage of funds worth hundreds of crores of rupees but no one cares. Normally, those in the Opposition should be scouring the report and flagging the critical issues in their state assemblies. But no such thing happens.

One glaring example is that of Meghalaya where the state has been functioning for over 46 years without a policy on education, health, industries, public health, water supply, tourism et al. Without policies to guide the departments, there is an ad-hocism that persists and makes it difficult for the public to hold the government accountable.

Also as repeatedly pointed out by the CAG reports, there is revenue leakage from all departments in all state governments and it is orchestrated by the politician-businessman-bureaucrat nexus. Nothing has changed despite threats of na khaunga, na khane doonga from the man at the Centre and no such directives have come to the BJP-ruled states either.

One example from the Meghalaya CAG report says it all. In the forest and environment sector, CAG performance review on wildlife and forest management in Meghalaya, covering the period 2012-13 to 2016-17 reveals glaring deficiencies in the functioning of the department.

Encroachment in the reserved forests continues unabated. As of March 2017, the total encroached forest area was 8,600.51 hectares. To save face and for top honchos of the forest department to justify their pay and perks, the department filed 1,223 court cases for encroachment. However, not a single case has resulted in a verdict.

Illegal felling of timber and extraction of minerals is widespread. There are 348 unlicensed/illegal saw mills operating in the state. The department, of course, makes a show of closing them down permanently but never succeeds because palms are regularly greased.

In 2014, the National Green Tribunal, which has the powers of a court, had banned coal mining, extraction of sand from river beds and felling of timber, but the department did not maintain data on minerals transported during the ban period; hence it was not in a position to verify if there was illegal transportation.

But we all know that sand continues to be mined; quarries continue to be worked without regulations and coal is still mined and transported because police facilitate this instead of halting it.

This article seeks to point out the loopholes in governance that are allowed to continue and why they are allowed to continue. Paul Light of the Brookings Institution lists five categories of causes for governance failure. They are policy, resources, structure, leadership and culture. These occur because of multiple causes coming together and compounding the situation.

Light details how each type of cause contributed to government failures. His findings paint the picture of a government at high risk for serious, repeated, and frequent failure in its attempt to deliver policy.

Light writes further, “the first step in preventing future failures is to find a reasonable set of past failures that might yield lessons for repair.” To meet this goal, Light asks four key questions about past government failures, where did government fail, why did government fail, who caused the failures; and what can be done to fix the underlying problems?

The contributors to failure fall into five categories, Light concludes,

Policy: Government might not have been given the policy, or any policy at all, needed to solve the problem at hand; or the policy might have been either too difficult to deliver or delegated to a vulnerable or historically unreliable organisation.

Resources: The government might not have had enough funding, staff, or the “collateral capacity” such as information technology, oversight systems, or technical experience to deliver consistent policy impact.

Structure: The government might have been unable to move information up and down its over-layered chain of command, select and supervise its contractors, or resolve the confusion associated with duplication and overlap.

Leadership: Government’s top appointees might have been unqualified to lead; could have made poor decisions before, during, and after the failures appeared; or might have taken their posts after long delays.

Culture: Government might have created confusing missions that could not be communicated and embraced, were easily undermined by rank corruption and unethical conduct, or were beyond careful monitoring through performance measurement and management.

Paul Light’s paper deserves serious reading by those in the government who, hopefully, do not want to repeat past mistakes. But the propensity to reshuffle the bureaucracy and police on the basis of what they can deliver to politicians personally is killing governance. It is common knowledge that some bureaucrats, known as the “Yes Minister”, variety have remained in the same department for decades.

They have, meanwhile, developed a vested interest in the department. Aren’t regular transfers an important rule of governance? More often these officials are the problem for they have violated every norm of good governance.

The power sector is a major problem in all seven states. Yet there have been no serious attempts to corporatise the sector and make it more swish to deliver in this age of digitisation. Of what use is technology if power continues to be a problem.

And I find it laughable that the Modi government should announce that hundred percent rural electrification has been accomplished! Do the power ministers travel to every nook and corner of the region or is he listening to false reports given by minions in the Rural Electrification Corporation?

The power sector cannot continue with the old style of functioning replete with “babu-dom” ruling the roost and running the show. The only thing that has changed in the power department is the regular raising of tariff but in terms of accountability, there is no authority to look into consumers’ complaints.

Sometimes, the Centre’s ambitious plans make us wonder if those who run the show in Delhi actually know what they are talking about. The North-eastern region is light years away from connecting with the world. They are not connected even by roads. Many villages are still out of reach and one must see how the sick are physically carried to reach a hospital.

And we are talking about bridging the digital divide. What is sickening is that the chief ministers of the seven states, who regularly make trips to Delhi, do not bring these points before the Prime Minister. Like sycophants they echo, “All is well,” when nothing is going right for the region.

Of course, not all the blame can be laid at the Centre’s door. Large-scale corruption has retarded growth and there is no attempt whatsoever to change the way we do things and bring in accountability. Some amount of change is visible in Assam when the Assam Public Service Commission was literally swept clean and its top honchos jailed, even while many of those who paid to get jobs have since lost their jobs and are even serving jail time.

Such clean-up exercises are needed in very state but in some more than others. Are the current CMs who have just taken office ready to get into the act of bringing transparency and accountability? Well, we can only wait and watch.

The writer is Editor of the Shillong Times and can be contacted at [email protected]