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Looking ahead: Building Bharat Better

With an eye on the past, and a lens to the future, a veteran administrator chalks out a roadmap for gearing up India for the next wave of growth

Words by Anil Swarup

In the 38 years of my career as a civil servant, I can safely say that apart from the period spent with Kalyan Singh when he was the Chief Minister in UP during 1991-92, 2014-16 was the golden period in terms of governance. This was also the toughest one for me because of the assignment as Secretary, Coal. 

What helped was the clarity of purpose at the highest level. I distinctly remember the first meeting that I attended at the residence of the Prime Minister. A presentation was made by the Power Secretary in the presence of a few Cabinet Ministers and Secretaries. In the presentation, most of the problems in the energy sector were attributed to coal. Not very surprisingly, the PM turned toward me and said, “Anil, you set the coal sector right, the economy will boom”.

Despite having taken over as Coal Secretary recently, I had some idea about both the sectors in my capacity as Chairman of the Project Monitoring Group (PMG) in the Cabinet Secretariat. I responded by saying, “Sir, I agree with you that there are problems with the coal sector, but to hold the coal sector responsible for all the problems of the energy sector may not be appropriate. We may consider looking at the energy sector in a comprehensive manner, as there are factors beyond coal that afflict it”. 

The PM heard me out, nodded his head in agreement and turned towards Piyush Goyal who held the charge of both Power and Coal and told him that a comprehensive view may be taken. The approach of the PM and the PMO enabled the coal sector to come out of the mess that it was in. Incidentally, as the coal sector recovered, the power sector continued to be in trouble, as did the economy.

Positive beginnings

Narendra Modi did something that had never been done before. He got the Secretaries to come together in informal settings to discuss a variety of issues. He had correctly diagnosed that the Ministries existed in silos and these needed to be broken. It worked. Secretaries got together and found solutions to many vexing issues that confronted the government. These informal Groups of Secretaries made presentations before the PM in the presence of all Cabinet colleagues. There was positive energy all around. 

The quarterly interaction initiated by Narendra Modi with the Secretaries over a cup of tea (and much more) was unique. It was an occasion to present our ideas freely and frankly.

The Ministers were on their toes as Departmental programmes were reviewed with an intensity as never before. However, there was a lot of freedom to air one’s views. I distinctly remember one Cabinet Minister bluntly saying that the files were pending at the PMO that left the Principal Secretary squirming. No one mistook such comments, or so it appeared.

I was once asked about the feedback about the PMO by the Principal Secretary. He, like the PM, wanted genuine feedback, was willing to listen and make amends. It was a period when honesty and efficiency, and not pliability and allegiance, were the prime criterion for selection to senior positions in the government.

The government got moving and delivered in the aforementioned environment. But then, what went wrong?

The winds of change

In my understanding, the 8 pm announcement on the 8th of November, 2016 changed it. The objective behind demonetisation was laudable. I have written in my book, “Ethical Dilemmas of a Civil Servant” about the rumours about one of the state Chief Ministers piling up a lot of cash and transporting it in trunks to a safe house in Delhi. I was personally very happy that such people would be the biggest losers. However, the manner in which it got implemented left everyone aghast. It was believed that BJP may have to pay a price in the forthcoming crucial election in UP. However, contrary to the projections by “pundits”, BJP swept the polls. It was, so to say, a vindication of demonetisation, a move that had impacted the economy adversely. 

Implementation of GST was long overdue. It was an eminently desirable move. Thanks to the accomplished strategist, Arun Jaitley, States were being taken on board. However, the technology infrastructure to roll it out wasn’t ready when a decision to implement it was taken. This led to much more exaggerated teething troubles than originally envisaged. All this did not make any difference in the ensuing elections. NDA continued to sweep polls, even though there was a mild setback in some states. 

The environment had undergone a change. The last “tea” session of the Secretaries with the PM that I attended epitomized the mood. As per the drill, it was the Cabinet Secretary who made the opening remarks. This was followed by an open session wherein the Secretaries gave their suggestion. Finally, the PM made the concluding speech. As mentioned earlier, this was a unique way of ascertaining opinions and suggestions. It had worked very well so far. 

However, on this day, after the Cabinet Secretary spoke, there were no comments/observations from Secretaries for a couple of minutes after the Cabinet Secretary had concluded. There was an unusual silence, reflecting a change in the environment. The PM had to himself stand up and ask the Secretaries to speak. Thereafter, some Secretaries did speak, but the cat was out of the bag. The “free” communication channel appeared to have been frozen.

Of milestones and millstones

The Government was still doing extremely well on many fronts like rural housing, rural electrification, cooking gas and Swachhata Abhiyan. This was paying political dividends. The Government was deservedly taking credit for all that was happening. Unfortunately, it was also taking credit for what it hadn’t really done. I remember the Independence Day speech where amongst the many not-so-correct claims by the PM was the claim related to setting up of Project Monitoring Group (PMG) by the NDA government. 

As I had set up the PMG during the tenure of the previous government, I wondered whether there was a need to make such and many other “incorrect” claims when the government could legitimately claim to have done so very well on many fronts. The focus now was on road-shows to show and bedazzle the audience with glitter. 

The economy was not growing at the rate it should have. In fact, from 2016 onwards, the rate of increase in the growth GDP started coming down and kept that way till COVID struck and the GDP nose-dived. The unemployment rate also took an alarming down-turn. The political victories enabled the ruling dispensation to push economic issues under the carpet.  

It is natural for human beings and institutions to make mistakes. However, inability to recognize and accept ground reality can have devastating consequences. When everyone is busy only praising and there is no “nindak” (critic) around, trouble is round the corner. The havoc caused by the second COVID wave is a consequence of this mind-set. 

It is difficult to imagine that even when the writing was on the wall, political leaders were busy in election rallies that were inadvisable. What was worse were the advertisements relating to religious congregations, inviting people to such congregations when it should have been exactly the other way around. Credit was being cornered for handling the COVID crisis and appearing as a saviour of the world when the second wave was lurking around the corner. Hubris didn’t matter in political battles. Perhaps it helped. However, it has proved devastating in the context of the present crisis. The country is now paying a heavy price.

A formula for growth

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.

👉 Revive the spirit of 2014. One of the basic attributes that I personally observed is the openness with which conversations took place with the civil servants during the first two years of NDA government. Everyone benefitted out of 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 also have 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.

👉 Criticising, pillorying, and condemning officers in public demoralises them.  Condemning them “babus” and calling them “thieves” does not help. A demoralised team cannot be expected to deliver. The principle is simple: appreciate in public, reprimand in private.

👉 The focus also has 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. 

👉 Keeping top posts vacant 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 privatisation don’t help. Why not do something (including privatisation) instead of periodic announcements? It is extremely demoralising for those working in the CPSU.

👉 Analyse and learn from the success of programmes like Swachh Bharat and 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.

👉 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.

👉 Road shows 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. Focus has to be more on action and substance. An enormous amount of time and effort was spent on climbing the 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.  

👉 Investment in Health and Education may not deliver immediate results, but have a long-term impact. COVID has already highlighted the need for health care. 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.

👉 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, charity has to begin at home. The PMO should digitise 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.

👉 It is also imperative to redefine and clearly outline the role and responsibilities of organizations like NITI that seems 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?

👉 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.

👉 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 “nindaks” around. They help you keep your feet on the ground. This connect with the ground reality is essential.

It can be done. It should be done in the interest of our country and its people.

Anil Swarup
Anil Swarup

Anil Swarup is an Indian author and retired Indian Administrative Service officer of Uttar Pradesh cadre and 1981 batch. In his 38 year-long career, Mr. Swarup has served in various capacities and later went on to become the Secretary to the Government of India.

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