Ashima Goyal

Restructuring Government

ASHIMA GOYAL | Updated on January 10, 2013

The multiplicity of agencies involved in every decision leads to inordinate delays. — P.V. Sivakumar

Departmental structures must be revamped to make the administration accountable to the taxpayer and the larger public.

The past couple of years have brought out stark failures in governance — and the general public’s increasing impatience with these failures. The time is ripe for the Government to respond. It has, after all, not even one-and-a-half years remaining of its current term. So, it has little to lose from firm action and, indeed, much to gain in terms of electoral prospects.

RESPONSE TIME

The problems in our police and criminal justice system, which the recent brutal gang-rape of a young girl in a Delhi bus highlighted, are endemic to government administration in general.

It is largely delays in obtaining statutory clearances that were responsible for dampening of the investment cycle, especially in large infrastructure projects. And that happened even before the series of corruption scandals broke out with the Commonwealth Games in 2010, which further reinforced the country’s image of not being a place to do business by following rules that are predictable and transparent.

A major reason for delays is overlapping responsibilities, with the large number of ministries, departments and agencies expected to weigh in on every decision and the absence of firm deadlines for taking decisions. The slow moving process for even appointing judges and police officers has resulted in a quarter to a third of posts remaining vacant.

The first required reform for the Government to take up, then, is to impose deadlines on decision-making. Given new technologies that make it possible to track every signature on a file, one could accordingly design penalties for delays.

The second issue it needs to address is the multiplicity of agencies involved in every decision. The huge backlog in court cases is no less due to inter-agency conflicts that often end up in courts for resolution. Reducing overlaps would alone remove the source of many such conflicts.

All that the Government has to do here is implement the recommendations of the various expenditure reform commission reports, currently put in cold storage, but which lay out a proper roadmap for restructuring. Apart from reducing delays, acting on these will aid effective fiscal consolidation.

Right now, many government departments are redundant, whereas those responsible for delivering important public services are understaffed and under-equipped. Even if all vacant posts are filled, the ratio of judges and police force to the country’s population will be far below that in most countries (judges are approximately 15 per million in India, compared with 50 in the US).

There is large room, thus, for expanding some government activities and contracting others.

ACCOUNTABILITY

Reducing multiplicity would also establish clearer accountability and remove a major administrative lacuna persisting from the colonial era. The British had set in place a hierarchical administrative structure based on supervision and control, wherein the district collector was the focal point of top-down governance. The India Administrative Services has retained that legacy and ethos of superiority, maintaining the distance of the ruling elite from the larger public.

The federal structure adopted in the Constitution, drawn from the 1935 Government of India Act, was oriented towards excessive centralisation. These features were strengthened initially because of a strong single party ruling at the Centre, the policy emphasis on central planning, and concerns of national integration for a newly independent country. The peak of central power came with Indira Gandhi’s declaration of Emergency in the mid-seventies.

But as central planning failed and the economy stagnated, the need for more decentralisation became obvious. The reversal of excessive centralisation represented by the Emergency was a major success story of Indian democracy. The basic structure of checks and balances got restored, even as amendments to the Constitution such as the 73rd and the 74th sought to strengthen institutions of direct democracy and local governance.

But State Governments were able to frustrate the objectives of these amendments, by taking recourse to clauses preventing effective devolution of power. Bureaucrats, likewise, resisted reporting to local leaders.

Therefore, further initiatives such as restructuring of departmental structures are necessary to complete the unfinished task of making the administration accountable to the taxpayer and the larger public.

SPECIAL INTERESTS TO PUBLIC GOODS

Even with universal suffrage, ruling parties have often succeeded in getting re-elected despite poor provision of public services. This has largely been made possible by the heterogeneous electorate that lends itself to creation of identity-based vote banks and designing populist policies to pander to specific groups.

The recent protests, by contrast, are not identity based. Rather, their focus is on demanding legal rights based on the Constitution. It is a sign of Indian democracy maturing, with rising aspirations and growing awareness.

Successful electoral strategies today would be, then, those that aim at addressing these demands.

At the same time, mere declaration of intent without implementation will not suffice. When young girls aren’t able to even commute freely to advance their career prospects, not only they, but even the economy, suffers major losses.

A powerful argument advanced against decentralisation during the framing of the Constitution was that it would lead to feudal local elites dominating governance. But this is no longer inevitable, given the gradual strengthening of our Gram Sabhas, besides more balanced representation across caste and gender in Panchayats and urban local bodies.

A police force and regulatory bodies not accountable to citizens eventually lead to poor implementation of standards, so much so that criminals without qualifications can drive buses. Since the police report to politicians, their accountability is now only to the latter. No wonder, a large chunk of a depleted police force, as it is, is engaged in VIP security duty!

The many reports on professionalising the police and rescuing them from their colonial thrall need to be immediately implemented.

Simultaneously, a monetary penalty should be imposed on employers flouting standards and employing those without the necessary certification.

Even a quarter of the fearlessness that a young girl exhibited in most traumatic circumstances would be enough to push our leaders to implement the vital changes to help a Young India build a confident future.

That brave-heart captured the imagination of the nation, and showed it is ready for change.

But is the Government?

(The author is Professor of Economics, Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research, Mumbai. >blfeedback@thehindu.co.in)

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Published on January 10, 2013
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