Thursday, November 27, 2014

Key to Building New Temples of Modern, Progressive India

Dr M N Buch, 
Dean, Centre for Governance and Political Studies, VIF

When India became independent, the government led by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru took a deliberate decision to launch a massive programme of building infrastructure in India and for this purpose opted for a planned economy. The state of the then infrastructure can be best illustrated by the fact that of the more than five and a half lakh rural settlements and about 4000 urban settlements in India, only 5000 had any electricity and this included our very large cities such as Bombay, Madras and Calcutta. Today the whole of India is electrified. Apart from Tata Steel, there was virtually no capital goods industry in India. We manufactured no aircraft, no ships, no motor vehicles, we did not produce aluminium or copper, our roads system was rudimentary and there was very little telecommunication connectivity. In 1960, I was Sub Divisional Officer in Kannod Sub Division of Dewas District (Madhya Pradesh), covering an area of approximately 1500 square miles, or 3750 square kilometres. The sub-division consisted of three tehsils and there was no telephone in the whole subdivision. Today, India has the fastest growing mobile telephony market in the world.

When one looks at what was achieved in the first fifteen years of independence, one is really amazed at the scale, the width and the speed of our achievements. Great hydroelectric cum irrigation projects like Bhakra-Nangal, Hirakud and Tungabhadra were built, huge thermal power stations such as at Sarni in Madhya Pradesh and Bokaro in Bihar (now Jharkhand) were constructed, copper and bauxite mines were brought under production, mining for iron ore and coal was brought to a new height and huge steel plants such as those at Bhilai, Rourkela and Durgapur were constructed in record time. Chandigarh was built from scratch as the new capital of the Indian part of Punjab as a replacement for Lahore. In all this frenzy of creation, there was no delay, no complaint of corruption, no lack of trust in the persons entrusted with the job and absolutely no complaints about quality. Le Corbusier was selected as the architect of Chandigarh by P.N. Thapar of the ICS, Harvey Slocum, the great dam builder of the United States was brought in to design and build the Bhakra Dam, S.N. Mehta of the ICS was given charge of Bhilai and whether it was the Locomotive Works at Chittaranjan or the fertilizer plant at Sindri, officers were chosen with care and given full freedom to deliver. The very Indians who are today being accused of being inefficient and corrupt were the people who built the temples of new India, which stand proud even today and continue to produce as efficiently as on the day they were inaugurated. The Nehruvian era also saw a massive upsurge in education, especially in the field of technology, medicine and agriculture. The Indian Institutes of Technology and Indian Institutes of Management, the Indian School of Mines at Dhanbad, the School of Planning and Architecture at Delhi the All India Institute of Medical Sciences at Delhi and the Postgraduate Institute of Medical Education and Research at Chandigarh and Pondicherry, the magnificent Agriculture Universities at Ludhiana and Pant Nagar are some examples of world class educational institutions which were created either during this era or immediately after it as a part of the continuing legacy in which India sought excellence. In the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore we had an institution which gave the world a Nobel laureate like C.V. Raman. It is in the year 1957 that I joined the Indian Administrative Service and it personally gave pride to all of us to be participants in this magnificent race for development on which India had embarked.

From 1967 onwards, that is, twenty years after independence and in the immediate post Nehru era, this country seemed to lose the head of steam built up in the previous twenty years. This was the period of political uncertainty, of intrigue for power in which members of the legislature were suborned, subdued or purchased and governments were changed not on the basis of the ballot but through the means of the market, that is, buying and selling in a system which for twenty years had enjoyed an enviable reputation of political and civil service rectitude and professional competence of its technical personnel. Suddenly there crept in an element of political corruption which, in turn, corrupted the Civil Service, whose professional competence was eroded because of lack of political will and decision making and the increasing preponderance of political manipulators, corrupt businessmen, abandonment of planning and its substitution by populism, inordinate delays and cost overruns in project implementation, accompanied by shoddy workmanship. What is more, audit and vigilance functions suddenly became more important than project planning, technical design, systematic financing, adherence to schedule, maintenance of quality and delivery of the finished product. Together with this grew a lack of trust between ministers and officers, between political parties, between officers themselves, between civil servants and technology professionals and between project authorities, businessmen and contractors. Now everything was for sale, even human character. Whereas the real accountability of the past in which one trusted people who, in turn, justified that trust by doing their job faithfully, honestly and efficiently was replaced by a formalised but proforma accountability, no one was prepared to take any decisions without, in the case of the corrupt, a price being extracted and by the honest because they know that a decision could create trouble for them on petty account and, therefore, it was better to play safe. Is it surprising that the implementation of major projects or, for that matter even minor projects, has slowed down, complaints of corruption have reached their zenith and whereas we have not become honest as a result of that, we have certainly become a nation of prevaricators, we have become inefficient, we shirk responsibility and we try and hide behind a rampart of files to protect ourselves from the consequences of wrongdoing?

The whole aim of governance is to take decisions. Decision making is at various levels and in its own domain every decision is vitally important. At the level of national government, there has to be a long term perspective about where the country should be heading, there should be a clear-cut vision of our priorities and selection of priorities taking into account financial and human resources available to us. There has also to be a vision and model of how plans prepared in accordance with these priorities will be implemented. The personnel to implement them have to be carefully selected, they have to be suitably empowered and then given a freehand to deliver results. There has to be a system of monitoring, evaluation and superintendence, but within given parameters audit and vigilance functions have to be rational, aimed at correcting the errors, but certainly not designed to keep officials on tenterhooks, thus hamstringing them in decision making and implementation. Had S.N. Mehta who built the Bhilai steel project been subjected to the kind of harassment which officers have to put up with now, the Bhilai Steel Plant would never have been built. He would have protected his back rather than take the momentous decisions he did in the full knowledge and confidence that every bona fide act of his will be supported.

An essay like this should not be an excuse for personal anecdotes but I think the above point needs elaboration. In March 1964, the government suddenly told me that 25,000 refugees from East Pakistan would reach my district, Betul, of which I was D.C, in exactly one week. I was required to receive them, accommodate them in camps, look after them, feed them, put them to gainful employment and arrange for their permanent rehabilitation. The orders of the Chief Secretary were brief, concise and accompanied by a threat that even if one refugee deserted I would answer with my head. The rest was left to my discretion. It is to the great credit of my officers, my revenue staff, engineers, Electricity Board officials, forest officials, the medical staff and the police that we built three camps within a week, electrified them, arranged drinking water, rations, etc., so that when the first train load of refugees arrived they went straight into designated quarters, with officials to guide them. After an initial period of settling down, the refugees were put to work to clear 30,000 acres of poor quality forest and we built thirty-two villages where the refugees were settled and put to work on agriculture. I had no time to call for tenders or to follow any formal procedures. When I told the Chief Secretary this he made me write on one page a summary of what I had done and he obtained the Chief Minister’s orders ratifying all my actions. No one asked me any questions, no one upbraided me for not following the rules and instead the Chief Minister praised my performance during a debate in the Vidhan Sabha. Today I would have had to face audit objections as long as my arm, would have been harassed by the CBI, would probably have been suspended and sent to jail. That is why in today’s age, I would have permitted the refugees to run away or die. I would have prepared beautiful files but I would certainly not have taken the decisions I did which ensured that the Bengali refugees are thriving today in these newly established villages.

One makes this point because the question arises whether Indians were more honest in the past and are now suddenly dishonest collectively. There was some difference in that Nehru and his compatriots had come through the fire of the freedom movement, they were deeply nationalistic, they were sure of themselves and they enjoyed the complete trust of the Indian people, who were confident that whatever was decided by the leaders would be for the greater good of India. Because of these leaders, there was stability in government, there was no hesitation to take even unpleasant decisions and the leaders trusted the civil servants, engineers, doctors, etc., because there was a commonality of purpose between them. P.N. Thapar, M.S, Randhawa and P.L. Verma built Chandigarh. Kunwar Sen and A.N. Khosla built Hirakud and Slocum built Bhakra-Nangal. There was no hesitation to engage foreign experts or to assign steel plants such as Durgapur to a British consortium, Rourkela to the Germans and Bhilai to the Russians. We did not feel slighted because we borrowed talent from abroad because the objective was to build these new temples and not to sit on petty issues of prestige. All this was possible only because we had a climate of political certainty. When the first uneasy coalitions were formed in the States by breaking political parties through purchase, uncertainty crept in at political levels and corruption became a political imperative because money was needed to buy political power. Unfortunately even the single party governments of Indira Gandhi, Narasimha Rao and Rajiv Gandhi were unable to stem the rot and in the new climate of political uncertainty, indecisiveness and corruption became necessary concomitants of government. This has been followed by thirty years of coalition rule at the Centre and this has further vitiated the environment. Manmohan Singh is personally pea green incorruptible and one had expected of him that he would be able to bring rectitude back into government. The political realities of his coalition made it almost impossible for him to bring about any improvement and almost all the wrongdoing of his period was the result of the manner in which the coalition functioned. One could even go the extent of saying that when there is a coalition of opportunism, then it is almost axiomatic that each coalition partner will push its own agenda, the objective of which is personal enrichment and self advancement. Such a coalition cannot frame policy, it can only seek opportunities for promoting its own benefits. This automatically creates a miasmic atmosphere in which there is deep suspicion about the motives of everyone and there is a complete lack of trust.

The present government is not a coalition because it enjoys an absolute majority of a single party in the Lok Sabha. Whereas any democratic government is required to carry all parties, especially those which are politically opposed to the ruling party, along with government in all matters of national interest, it is not required to pander to the baser instincts and demands of a coalition partner who is opportunistic. Such a government is free to take decisions, including those which may be temporarily unpopular, and give clear-cut directives to its officials and to create an environment of trust in which officials feel personally accountable for completion of given tasks. In such an environment, the policy is well defined and their directions for the implementation are also specific and unambiguous. An official can now proceed with implementation in the full confidence that provided he follows policy directions, he will be fully protected. One does not know whether the climate in which people implicitly trusted each other in the fifties and sixties of the last century will ever return, but the present government can certainly ensure the following:
  1. Clarity in policy and firmness in the political will to implement it.
  2. The careful choosing of implementation teams
  3. Unambiguous policy directions on how a particular policy is to be translated into reality
  4. A clear statement to the team leaders and officers that government will support them to the hilt in their work.
  5. Interlocking accountability in which superintendence, supervision and monitoring are paramount, but in which the superior officer is held accountable for the deeds of his subordinates.
  6. Suitable empowerment of the official machinery so that it can perform its task.
  7. Sensible audit whose function is not only to find fault but to help the implementing authorities to perform the task better and maintain their accounts in a rational manner.
  8. Answerability for one’s actions only to one’s administrative superior and not to an outside agency like a vigilance organisation, CBI, etc., unless there is an allegation of criminality and an FIR is duly registered in this behalf. In other words, an officer implementing a policy decision will acknowledge only one superior, his administrative head and will not be answerable to other persons or authority.
Let us not underestimate our government machinery because it is still capable of doing amazing work. What it needs is clarity in policy, directions which are unambiguous and full support for all bona fide actions. Having served in India’s premier Civil Service, one can state with confidence that our government machinery, despite years of abuse, can still deliver the moon on a platter. If government governs, there will be real governance and we shall build hundreds of new temples of a modern, progressive India.

Published Date: 19th November 2014, Image source:

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