During the last week, I had written about “Where did it all go wrong?” The idea was to highlight how and why did the government that had such a huge majority and enormous amount of goodwill, slip. Without understanding the ‘why’ of a problem, it would have been difficult to suggest the way forward. Being a die-hard optimist, I do feel that the situation can still be corrected. However, to do that it is imperative to first acknowledge the existence of problems. If we continue to believe that “all-is-well” and push all the problems under the carpet, we will never find solutions to the problems that beset the country.
Here is a list of some suggestions regarding what can possibly be considered:
1. Revive the spirit of 2014. One of the basic attributes that I personally observed (outlined in my previous article) is the openness with which conversations took place with the civil servants during the first two years of the NDA government. Everyone benefitted from it. It worked beautifully then. It will work now as well. The quarterly tea hosted by the PM was a very useful institution that needs to be revived. Similarly, informal groups of Secretaries have also to be reconstituted. This helped break silos in the past. It would do so now. In fact, a step forward can be taken to constitute informal groups of Secretaries for Social Sector, Energy Sector, Infrastructure Sector, Financial Sector, Agriculture and Allied Sectors to enable Secretaries to engage with each other in a structured but informal manner. Learning from what the PM had done, when I was Secretary, School Education, and Literacy, I had set up an informal Group of Secretaries in the social sector and it helped.
2. Criticizing, pillorying, and condemning officers in public demoralizes them. A demoralized team cannot be expected to deliver. The principle is simple: appreciate in public, reprimand in private
3. The focus has also to shift from pure allegiance and pliability to what was so evident in 2014 for selecting officers to critical posts. These officers may be a trifle inconvenient on account of having a mind of their own but they will deliver as they did during 2014-16. If they aren’t “independent”, they will never have a mind of their own. And, if they don’t have a mind of their own, they obviously cannot speak their mind out. They will keep endorsing what comes from the top.
4. Keeping top posts in Central Public Sector Undertakings is criminal. Not many Secretaries ‘fight’ for the CPSUs. Hence, the CPSUs continue to suffer. The problems of CPSUs hardly get highlighted. They are treated just as milking cows for dividends and buy-backs for balancing the central budget and for ‘free’ publicity of the government. Frequent announcements of privatization don’t help. Why not do something (including privatization) instead of periodic announcements? It is extremely demoralizing for those working in the CPSU.
5. Analyze and learn from the success of programmes like Swachh Bharat and the auction of coal blocks. Try and understand why these ‘happened’. Their success was primarily on account of taking all the stakeholders, including states, into confidence. Also, examine why legislations for farmers that were so beneficial to them faced enormous resistance. Such analyses will help evolve future strategies.
6. Manipulated data may look good in the short run and many civil servants are too willing to play ball but it is extremely harmful in the long run. If we can’t face facts, how can we correct them? This should not only be avoided but it should be consciously discouraged. The government has done so much that it need not fudge data to claim additional credit. In doing so, it raises doubts about what is being correctly claimed.
7. Roadshows have a role to play in projecting what is likely to happen and, in some cases, what has happened so far. However, such shows have serious limitations as has now become evident in the context of Make-in-India. The lion did roar a lot but travelled little distance. The focus has to be more on action and substance. An enormous amount of time and effort was spent on climbing World Bank’s ease-of-doing-business ladder. Effort should now be towards making business really easy for an entrepreneur by streamlining the processes and by reviving the Project Monitoring Group in letter and spirit. The real determinant of ease-of-doing-business cannot be the World Bank. It has to be the investor.
8. Investment in Health and Education may not deliver immediate results but have a long-term impact. COVID has already highlighted the need for healthcare. It will hopefully get the desired attention. The National Education Policy is one of the finest documents that touches upon almost all the aspects of education. It now needs to be implemented in letter and spirit.
9. Technology can and should be used for improving governance. PM has time and again emphasized the need for use of technology. However, as they say, the charity has to begin at home. The PMO should digitize its functioning and receive only digital files from the ministries. This will ensure that no one sits on any paper or file beyond the stipulated time. This will also usher in transparency. Moreover, an attempt is being made in Haryana to dispense with the physical interface between the government and the common man for various services. This needs to be understood and replicated in other states.
10. It is also imperative to redefine and clearly outline the role and responsibilities of organizations like NITI that seem to have a finger in every pie without associated responsibility. They seem to be doing a fine job in the context of aspirational Districts but should they be doing this job or should the respective Ministries/Departments be doing it?
11. Turning a blind eye towards those propagating “goli maro saalo ko” and those that are promoting hatred may be beneficial politically but are causing long-term social damage. These scars will be difficult to heal. Some serious thought needs to be given to this aspect.
12. Institutions take a long-time building. Misusing them for personal or political gain damages such institutions. Once their credibility is lost, it is difficult to regain it.
Finally, there is no harm in having a few “nindak” (critics) around. They help you keep your feet on the ground. This connection with the ground reality is essential.
It can be done. It should be done in the interest of our country and its people.
(In a series of articles following this one, some of the points mentioned here will be elaborated)
— Anil Swarup is former Secretary, Government of India and author of the book 'Not Just A Civil Servant'. The views expressed are personal