Not all schemes and announcements of the government get moving on the ground. In fact, this is one of the biggest criticisms faced by most governments. Ironically, there hasn’t been an in-depth analyses of why some schemes work and others don’t. If the government can make an attempt to learn from the schemes at the ground-level, others can benefit from it.

I had the chance to visit certain interior areas of Jharkhand, during my brief stint in the State after retirement. While visiting a remote district, Simdega, I discovered that two of its blocks, Bansjor and Kersai, did not have a single bank branch. It was extremely difficult to explain why. One could, perhaps, attribute it to the disconnect that exists between Delhi and the field.

A number of us come up with ideas and schemes, without even considering the ground realities. For example, how do we expect a recipient of the old-age pension scheme to go down to a branch far from his residence, to collect a small amount that he gets as pension from the government? Earlier, the postman did this job for him. However, someone in Delhi suggested the idea of Direct Benefit Transfer (DBT), and made having a bank account mandatory. The idea of DBT is extremely laudable, but without a bank branch close by, it makes no sense. The officers either did not have the courage to inform the decision-makers about the limitation of such a drive, or were themselves not aware of the ground reality. More often than not, the ideas suggested are pretty great; but unless they are ‘doable’, there is little chance of effective implementation.

It is, perhaps, a political necessity to make grandiose announcements regarding schemes. Almost every government makes such announcements. Let us try and understand why and how some schemes succeed, and some others don’t, so as to derive some lessons on how to make such ideas work.

Scheme comparison

For any idea to fructify and sustain in the government, it has to be politically acceptable, socially desirable, technologically feasible, financially viable and administratively doable. It is said that comparisons are odious; but sometimes, in order to illustrate or drive home a point, they become necessary.

Let’s look at two schemes — the Smart Cities Mission and the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. These two schemes were dissimilar in content and objectives. However, they can be compared in the context of the approach adopted for implementation, and their reach in terms of benefit accrued to the masses.

Both the Swachh Bharat and the Smart Cities schemes were huge government projects. However, there was a key difference between them. Right from the beginning, there was clarity of thought regarding Swachh Bharat, while not many knew how ‘smart cities’ were to be defined. It was just a thought with no concrete action plan or defined targets, except perhaps the number of the cities that were to be made “smart”.

Both were also totally dissimilar from the technology point of view. However, technology was to play a critical role in both the schemes. Ironically, despite being technologically-driven, in the evolution of smart cities, the nature and extent of the use of technology was neither known nor defined. The disconnect between what was being designed in Delhi and the ground reality was clearly in evidence, and became one of the foremost causes of the scheme not taking off at the ground-level. In sheer contrast, Swachh Bharat used rudimentary innovations to improve upon the technology for toilets and pits.

The States jumped on to the idea of smart cities, with a number of them vying to corner as many as they could. This was more in the hope of getting something out of this nebulous concept. But what they actually got is a different matter altogether.

Swachh Bharat, recognising the issue of social acceptability, launched a massive communication campaign to bring about a change in the attitude. In fact, reaching out to the masses effectively was one of the foremost foundations on which the scheme itself was built. For those that were implementing Swachh Bharat, this connect was considered critical.

Funds were not a problem for either of the schemes, though Swachh Bharat did face some initial hiccups, unlike the Smart City Mission that was flush with funds. Thus, it was not the availibility of funds but their utilisation that was the problem.

Need for clarity

One of the major differences between the schemes was the extent to which the ideas were ‘practicable’, and the manner in which these schemes were actually implemented. There was also a lack of clarity in role definition, in the absence of clear articulation of the concept of ‘smart’ cities.

For any scheme to be successfully implemented and sustained, there is a need for clarity about what needs to be done, how it would be done, who would do it and by when would it be done?

The Swachh Bharat Abhiyan had clarity on all these fronts. Not only were the national targets clearly defined, the action plan was clearly outlined the tasks and roles at each level of operation. The State governments were taken into confidence. The Central team travelled the length and breadth of the country. It was on a mission to engage with the stakeholders and convey a value proposition to them. Going down to the villages enabled them to assess ground realities that constituted very useful input in formulating policies.

This was a game-changer. The intensity of engagement and the passion that went with it helped ‘buy-in’ from various stake holders. A ‘connect’ was established with each stakeholder.

What ultimately got, or didn’t get, achieved under the schemes is a commentary on how government schemes should actually be implemented. Until 2014, approximately 60 per cent of the world’s open defecators (600 million people) were practising open defecation across in India.

This changed significantly. Within a few years of the scheme, the number of open-defecation cases came down significantly, and now rural India has actually become open-defecation free.

In comparison, the stated progress under the Smart Cities Mission is less than 10 per cent of the target to be achieved by 2020-21. The 25th Report of the Standing Committee on Urban Development (2017-18) mentions that only 2 per cent of the funds were released since 2015. Perhaps, it is the connect with the ground realities that made Swachh Bharat happen.

The writer is a former Union Coal and Education Secretary