governance, political economy, institutional development and economic regulation

India’s 50-50 reforms

half reforms

Unlike politicians, who can choose their targets, business leaders have to dance to the tune of  shareholders, who buy or sell, based on the existing or the future bottom line. In politics. it is relatively easy to change the goal posts or indeed, shift the goal itself.

Changing goals

In India, the current metric for political performance, is jobs. Self -selected by the Bharatiya Janata Party, this may become a self-goal because even globally, there are few, near-term solutions.Prior to jobs, in the noughties, it was all about boosting economic growth — where again headwinds have built up. Before growth, it was about ending poverty in the 1990s. Earlier, in the late 1960s and till the mid-1970s, it was about boosting agriculture, becoming self-sufficient in food and avoiding famines. Even further back in the 1950s, heavy industrialisation and infrastructure were the mantra. Of course all these are part of development. But sequencing matters. Also, pancaking more reform targets on the existing ones, confuses even the reformers.

Partial success abounds, but excellence less visible

Seventy years on, we are only narrowly competitive in manufacturing; our infrastructure is vast but shoddy; agriculture has low productivity levels; 40 per cent of us are either poor or are vulnerable to poverty; we are still stretching for sustained real growth in high single digits; unemployment is rife and the participation rate in the workforce is a low 44 to 48 per cent, with women faring worse than men.

This is not to trash what we have achieved. But it is useful to look beyond the efforts made by the successive governments, at the outcomes and ask the question, why are the results always worse than expected?

Elusive transformative change

Tribal protest

Transformative change is disruptive. We have been slow in embedding credible instruments to mitigate the cost of disruption. This increases the risk perception of change, leading to a public push-back on reforms. Consider how poorly we acquire land in public interest. The instruments for identifying, determining and managing the acquisition are loosely supervised, at the cost of ensuing inequity and poor transparency.  Massive amounts of mineral resources continue to lie buried in tribal areas, whilst tribes prefer to eke out a subsistence level traditional life, rather than participate in the process of development. The overriding fear of every property owner, or occupier, is of being gypped in the process of acquisition, by forces beyond their control. In a democracy we cannot ignore insulating people, especially the poor, from the cost of disruption.

Public trust and credibility in short supply

Managing change successfully, requires a governance system good at modern parenting rather than a patriarchal approach to directing and controlling people and events. Our governance systems still follow the colonial legacy of collaborating with entrenched elites to get things done, somehow. Those affected at the bottom become a hindrance rather than participants. There is very limited institutional appetite or capacity to deal directly, as a change agent, with those who are most affected by change. Even when specific processes, like consultation are provided for, the approach degenerates to ticking the box, rather than using the opportunity to gather feedback on the process, test assumptions and obtain buy-in for the way forward.

“Accountable discretion” is not an oxymoron

It does not help that there is a near ubiquitous ban on the transparent use of executive discretion — prompted by misuse of the privilege in the past and a judicial preference for impossibly rigid rules, regardless of their negative impact on implementation.Consider, for example, the burgeoning non-performing loans of banks. The rule bound approach to bank lending insures the lender- manager, if sufficient security against the loan existed, on paper, when the loan is approved. The focus is on achieving secured lending targets rather than adding economic value. This makes gold plating of projects, to increase the notional value of an asset, a mutually convenient tactic between the lender and the borrower, especially at times when the real lending rate is low. Never mind that it can adversely affect the project’s viability and thereby the repayment capacity of the borrower. The public sector no longer trusts its employees. But ending supervised, executive discretion has significant efficiency costs.

Chasing impossible scale 

We succumb easily, to the insidious temptation to effect instant change at sub-continental levels, rather than build change, bottom upwards, block by block. India is heterogenous without parallel. For us, the political model should be Europe, rather than China. Multi party politics in India requires sufficient elbow room for diverse political agendas. The political architecture may prescribe the objectives and principles of public management. But being flexible in program implementation is a must.

The Constitution fixed past challenges, but under-provides for the future

Our constitution reflects the challenges faced at the time of independence rather than today’s priorities. Integration fears at the time led to a centrist constitution. This is what enabled the Union government in 1959 to dismiss the first elected E M S Namboodiripad government of Kerala. The governor of a state, appointed by the President, acting on the advice of the Union government, is another centrist feature as are the emergency powers of the Union government.

Overlapping mandates

The capacity constraints existing at independence shaped the lop-sided division of mandates between the Union and the state governments, with the former unduly burdened. The sub-state or local government came into existence only through a 1993 constitutional amendment.Delhi is a good example of poor inter-governmental allocation of mandate resulting in a governance logjam. Overlapping mandates confuse citizens. and reduce accountability. Consider that Members of Parliament get elected by getting drains made and Members of Legislative Assemblies by promising higher prices for agricultural products or by proposing a separate flag for their state — all areas outside their mandates.

Poor arrangements for resource management

The constitutional scheme for recruitment and management of the bureaucracy is unduly complex and diffuses accountability. Officials must be “owned” by the level of government they serve. Fiscal resources, at every level of the government, must be aligned with form, which should fit the functions executed at that level.

Avoid the Banyan Tree 

banyan tree

The top-down, centrist approach has the disadvantage of an overblown apex crushing the little people below. Remember, nothing grows under the Banyan tree.Change, sensitive to mitigating the costs thereof, flexible implementation of norms driven from below, with primacy for real value addition can deliver 100 per cent results in reforms.

 

Adapted from the author’s opinion piece in the Business Standard, March 27, 2018 http://www.business-standard.com/article/opinion/india-s-half-baked-reforms-why-are-the-results-always-worse-than-expected-118032601102_1.html#

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