Alka Kamble and Amarjeet Sinha, I am sure, do not know each other. Yet they have a lot in common.

The former is a woman-sarpanch in the the still-backward Yavatmal district of Maharashtra, providing leadership for transformation through public service for the last 25 years with quiet efficiency in her remote Waghapur-Lasina village. The struggles and success of this outstanding grassroots leader were highlighted in businessline recently.

Amarjeet Sinha is India’s leading public policy exponent, a rare IAS officer with decades of continuous engagement with pro-poor public welfare schemes, who knows almost all the 700-odd districts of India like the palm of his hand. His latest book The Last Mile: Turning Public Policy Upside Down, a virtual tour-de-force on the design, architecture and execution of an edifice for an “India for All” has much to do with people like Ms Kamble, who are at the end of the queue, as it were.

In a sense, the Alka Kambles of the nation are the focus of Sinha’s book. He makes out a compelling case not merely for “including” women and men like her at the core of policy but for making them “own” the programmes from concept to execution. Then only will policy work at the ground level, he states based on innumerable examples from personal experience. There is of course, the danger of well-meant policies meandering into the routine.

Sample this: The WHO has recognised and rewarded the contributions of the Accredited Social Health Activists (ASHA) in reaching out to every household during the Covid epidemic and ensuring mass vaccination. Yet, the compensation for ASHAs remain low and the programme risks being boxed into “governmentalisation” instead of the original objective of “communitisation”, Sinha writes in the Chapter titled ‘Making quality health for all a reality’.

Deep domain knowledge

Neatly divided into 24 chapters of nearly 10 pages each, the book reflects the author’s domain knowledge, depth of experience, attention to detail and a demonstrated commitment to the uplift of the deprived. It can be read both as a primer to understanding India’s development agenda as also a thesis for a solution to the lingering issues of “multi-dimensional” poverty and development.

The key to approaching and understanding the author’s narrative would be to imbibe the multi-dimensionality of poverty which is actually a recent recognition in public policy. One may recall that the two assessments of poverty that we have had in India in the last three decades ( Suresh Tendulkar & Rangarajan committees) focused mainly on the monetary aspect of poverty, even though calorie intake was the basis.

Sinha lays great store by genuine decentralisation and lays out convincing reasons for it being a central tool for achieving the objectives of inclusive growth. Also repeated is the theme of “looking carefully at the evidence”. Data is a recurring motif in all the chapters but unlike in an academic publication, it has been dealt with in a way by which it does not impede understanding for even lay readers.

Often, the conceptual disconnect between formulators of policy and the targeted beneficiaries has been the bane of many welfare schemes. Resources are often wasted because communities have not been central to the implementation process.

“Public policy has often taken calls without looking carefully at the evidence. If (i) community connect, (ii) evidence-based approach,(iii) application of technology, and (iv) a deeper understanding of the last-mile challenges went into the making of public policies, the outcomes would be different. A large nation like India with its diversities, needs a deeper understanding of the local context,” he writes, referring to how even infrastructure projects would demand these imperatives.

Freebies debate

The author also looks at contemporary issues like the freebies debate. He breaks down the question into a set of questions which is the test that the financing of development should pass. Sinha quoted the famous case of Tamil Nadu’s chief minister, K Kamaraj asking his chief secretary whether he had gone to sleep without food when told by him that the Midday Meal scheme would make the exchequer bankrupt. As it ran into such bureaucratic objections, the scheme had a limited edition start but was later universalised by filmstar-turned-CM MGR. It proved to be a major factor in improving school enrolment in Tamil Nadu with resultant socio-economic benefits.

Women, work and well-being and women’s well-being and livelihoods are two important chapters in the book which are centred around the Self-Help Group movement in the country under the Deendayal Antyodaya Yojana (DAY). Sinha played a pivotal role in expanding the scope and coverage of this project. Today 9 crore women across the country are incorporated into development initiatives, most of them with credit linkages and the transformation in India’s rural areas on account of the SHGs is worth many doctoral theses.

The major achievement of DAY is that without even a naya paisa of subsidy it has been able to achieve higher income for women, their greater participation in all development initiatives and faster poverty alleviation.

Sinha is now a member of the Public Enterprises Selection Board, India after having been an advisor to the Prime Minister till July 2021, post his retirement as Secretary to the GoI. The Last Mile (available as a downloadable Open Access pdf at is essential reading for everyone connected with public policy in India.

(The reviewer is a commentator on banking and finance)

Check out the book on Amazon.

About the book
Title: The Last Mile Turning Public Policy Upside Down
Publisher: Routledge
Price: ₹1,089
Pages: 110