The writing is on the wall

The red flags raised by the GHI report regarding malnutrition in India are indeed concerning, and deserve acknowledgement rather than denial

The latest global hunger index report has been released, and India has been ranked 107th out of 121 countries. This has once again stirred a controversy, with the Indian government protesting and responding by summarily rejecting the report and claiming that this is a part of a consistent effort to taint India’s image. The global hunger index gives the impression that it is about shortage of food and a large number of people going hungry. This is definitely not the state of affairs in India where we have achieved food security, and there is no one who is remaining hungry for want of food. However, the GHI is a multidimensional index of hunger, which makes it much more complex. Its four measures are child mortality under five years, child wasting, child stunting and under nourishment. These measures have been used ever since the inception of this index in 2006. It is not as if some new measures have been used to obtain the current ranking.

The Indian side argues that this analysis is based on inadequate data. Proper data regarding these measures is often not properly computed or presented by various states of the country and, as such, the GHI relies upon some kind of an approximation or projection of incomplete data. It has also been argued that in order to calculate the index, the GHI has been selective and discretionary in terms of using the data. Essentially, the issue is about unreliable data being used. In a similar vein, India reacted to its low score in the human development index (HDI) as well. It alleged that data regarding the deaths during the pandemic, where excess death figures were used to calculate life expectancy, were incorrect. However, GHI or HDI are not India-specific surveys. The GHI website has clearly stated that its findings are based on data officially reported by the member countries, including India.

The GHI report should come as a shock to us when we realise the extent of malnourishment prevailing among children in our country. Reacting to similar findings in 2012, the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had acknowledged that such a high level of malnutrition was a matter of national shame. The GHI index considers child mortality as the percentage of children who die before reaching the age of five, due to inadequate nutrition or disease. Data show that India has 3.3 per cent under-five mortality rate, which is higher than Bangladesh at 2.9 per cent, Indonesia at 2.3 per cent and China at 0.7 per cent. Of course, we are better than Pakistan which is at 6.5 per cent.

The second indicator considered by the GHI is the proportion of people who are undernourished in the population. India fares quite poorly at 16.3 per cent, which is much higher than Bangladesh at 11.4 whereas China is less than 2.5 per cent. Similarly, India performs badly along the indicators of stunting and wasting of children of less than five years age. As many as 35.5 per cent of children in India are suffering from stunting (children under five who have low height for their age, resulting from undernourishment), which is extremely high. This indicator accounts for 1/6th of the GHI score. Similarly, 19.3 per cent of under-five Indian children suffer from wasting, which is much higher than the figure of 9.8 per cent for Bangladesh and 1.9 per cent for China. Even Pakistan scores better at 6.5 per cent. The weightage assigned to wasting is 1/6th of GHI score. The overall score is 100, and the lower a country scores the better its performance.

The Government of India has rightly pointed out that three out of these four variables relate to children and, hence, cannot be taken as an indicator of the entire population. There is merit in this argument but it is also true that India is facing a crisis of undernourishment, particularly among children, which is indeed a matter of great concern for policymakers. The government has started a Poshan (nourishment) Abhiyan but a lot of work still needs to be done. States like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar are particularly vulnerable. We have to take urgent steps to eradicate malnutrition among children, which would need maintaining real-time data of the weight and height of children and targeting government schemes to take them out of this sorry state of affairs. Rather than spending time on finding ways of being critical of the GHI, the Central and state governments must accord the highest priority to this issue. Lately, another international report has come, which shows that between 2004-05 and 2019-20, India was able to take 41 crore people out of poverty, which is a major achievement, and shows that with the right kind of leadership and political will, it is possible to free the children of our country from the scourge of stunting and wasting.

The infant mortality figures indicate that a lot needs to be done to improve healthcare facilities, especially in the rural areas. We are spending only 1.2 per cent of our GDP on healthcare, which has to be raised to 2.5 per cent at the earliest. Moreover, healthcare has to be attended to in a holistic manner by synergizing between the schemes related to health, nutrition, water, sanitation and education.

We may concede that the term GHI does give rise to an erroneous perception about hunger. It would be better if this indicator could be called the global nutrition index. But then, as it is said, what’s in a name? The stark reality is before us and denial is not the right response. The problem of under-nourishment has to be understood, accepted and a frontal attack needs to be launched to free the country of this menace.

The writer is an ex-Chief Secretary, Govt of Uttar Pradesh. Views expressed are personal

In formative phase

It may be too early to compare the efficacy of still-evolving NITI Aayog vis-à-vis Planning Commission; the new body has the potential to emerge better

The think tank, NITI (National Institution for Transforming India) Aayog, was formed as a successor to the Planning Commission of India on Jan 1, 2015 through a resolution of the Union Cabinet. Recently, I read that the UP government has also passed a cabinet resolution to do away with the state planning commission and replace it with state NITI Aayog. Some states, particularly those governed by the BJP, have set up their own state NITI Aayogs. Among the opposition-ruled states, while Odisha and Andhra Pradesh have been working closely with the think tank, others like West Bengal are not on board. As more than seven years have passed, it would be interesting to evaluate the performance of NITI Aayog vis-à-vis Planning Commission.

Unlike the Planning Commission, NITI Aayog has no powers to allocate funds to Union Ministries or state governments, or to craft schemes for states. It is for this reason that many state governments hold a lukewarm attitude towards NITI Aayog as they feel that they have nothing to gain financially from this body. I recall the time before 2015, when there used to be an annual exercise in which states would make a detailed presentation regarding resources, schemes, projects, targeted growth rate etc. and put up the picture of various departments presenting the work that had been done, and which needed to be done. After a daylong deliberation between the secretaries of various departments and advisors and expert members of the Planning Commission, the chief minister of the state used to attend the final discussion where the deputy chairman of the Planning Commission would be present. The members then gave their assessment of the work done by the state government and presented their views on the projected resource requirements. I do recall that we took the exercise very seriously and every department was represented in the meeting by its secretary and head of department. For at least 15 days in advance, preparatory meetings at the level of the chief secretary of the state used to take place. At the end of the presentation, the deputy chairman of the Planning Commission would approve the plan size of the state and also allocate specific funds. It used to be a great media event, with the chief minister and the deputy chairman jointly briefing the press. The chief ministers of the states, being aware of the political implications, took a lot of interest in the proceedings. Some of us used to be critical of the exercise as it involved spending a lot of time, and more often than not, we were aware of the plan size that was likely to be approved. However, there was no denying the fact that the entire preparation was itself a great learning experience and the state could project its vision and probable growth rate. In addition, the comments and observations of the expert members were of great value.

Despite the above advantages, many states felt that this was an unnecessary exercise. It was with this in mind that the Planning Commission was disbanded and replaced by the NITI Aayog. It is true that the interaction of NITI Aayog with the states has been limited. However, the current thinking is that there will be a closer engagement with the states. The new vice chairman Suman Bery has observed that the challenge is to work with states. The new CEO Parameswaran Iyer is also a great believer of coordination with states. The fact is that the states will look towards NITI Aayog if they feel that they will get some benefit from doing so, and this is what the NITI Aayog has to demonstrate in the coming years if it has to showcase its relevance to them.

There is no doubt that the NITI Aayog, in its short life, has contributed significantly to policymaking at the Central level. This has largely been due to the dynamic personality of its former CEO Amitabh Kant who, by his sheer force of personality and erudition, put the stamp of NITI Aayog on public policy. Some of the areas where NITI Aayog has contributed is regarding the policy related to electric vehicles and semiconductors. It has handled issues like asset monetization which normally would be tackled by the concerned departments. The mandate of the NITI Aayog is policy and programme framework, cooperative federalism, monitoring and evaluation, and acting as a think tank and knowledge and innovation hub. This mandate is quite wide and would often put NITI Aayog in conflict with the concerned departments. However, once again, the personality of the CEO could determine the success of NITI Aayog, and in Parameswaran Iyer — the new CEO — it has another very capable person holding the reins.

The NITI Aayog has recruited a large number of young professionals as domain experts and, currently, it has a manpower strength of over 700. These lateral entrants have come from private sector or other areas and have provided the relevant knowledge base to NITI Aayog to function as a think tank. It has come to light that several private sector executives have joined NITI Aayog, sacrificing their salary in order to contribute to the development of society and gain expertise which would be of great help to them in the future. NITI Aayog has been ranking the states on various parameters like sanitation, health and education. This does lead to a competitive environment in which states want to outshine each other. However, the states would gain more if NITI Aayog could mentor the low-performing states on how to improve their performance.

It is still a little early to pass a final judgment on the efficacy of NITI Aayog vis-à-vis the Planning Commission but one can say that the organization has justified itself to a large extent. However, it is felt that there is a need for greater coordination with the states. Also, NITI Aayog should not depend merely on the competence of their CEOs but on an institutional arrangement which would equip it with resources. These resources can be used to assist the laggard states in their development journey. It is time that the Union Government gave serious thought to this issue and if it does so then the NITI Aayog would certainly be a major improvement on the earlier Planning Commission.

The writer is an ex-Chief Secretary, Govt of Uttar Pradesh. Views expressed are personal

A prospective extension

Exorbitant level of inequality in Indian cities makes urban employment guarantee scheme — on the lines of MGNREGA but with distinct features — an imperative

The latest CMIE data on unemployment rate show that unemployment in India continued to be high at 7.80 per cent in June 2022, with the urban employment rate being 7.30 per cent. At the same time, for May 2022, the urban employment rate at 8.21 per cent was higher than the overall unemployment rate of 7.12 per cent. Unemployment is definitely a matter of concern for policy makers and MGNREGA has proved to be a savior in rural areas but there is no corresponding safety net for the urban poor who also include the migrants from rural areas. The pandemic further brought into sharp focus the plight of the migrant labourers. Clearly, there needs to be a specific policy intervention for the urban poor to enable them to get gainfully employed.

There have been attempts at coming up with urban employment schemes in the past. In 1997, there was the SGSRY (Swarna Jayanti Shahri Rozgar Yojna) which consisted of both self-employment and wage employment features. In 2013, NULM (National urban livelihood mission) replaced SGSRY. However, none of these has been an employment guarantee scheme. Many states have come to realise the growing stress on the urban poor plagued by high unemployment rates and impact of high inflation as well as the phenomena of low wage rates and poor quality of informal work. Accordingly, states like Kerala, Odisha, Himachal Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand and Rajasthan have formulated their urban employment guarantee schemes. This is partly the result of the fact that over the last two decades the Indian economy has been characterised by growth without employment. The level of inequalities in urban areas is much higher than rural areas and this is sufficient justification for a national level urban employment guarantee act.

While the need is clear, the scheme will have to be designed with a lot of thought. It cannot just be an extension of MGNREGA, as unemployment in rural areas is of seasonal nature and the kind of public works that are taken up in rural areas are very different from those which can be viable in urban areas. Besides, the Panchayat at the village level is able to implement the MGNREGA scheme but the current capacity of urban local bodies may not be adequate to handle this kind of scheme. It has been suggested by some experts that at the national level it is possible to fund the scheme from the budget where about 20 million urban workers can get employment for 100 days at Rs 300 per day. The Prime Minister advisory committee has also recommended such a scheme to reduce the level of inequality in the urban sector.

Nature of works to be taken up under urban employment programmes would need to be wider and should focus on improving and maintaining the basic urban infrastructure services. Azim Premji University has suggested a model in which apart from building local infrastructure like roads, lanes or drainage they have added monitoring of environmental quality, strengthening municipal capacity through apprenticeships and providing care for children and elderly. These kinds of works can be taken up by the educated youth for whom the Azim Premji University has suggested that the scheme should guarantee 150 days of employment at a monthly stipend of Rs 13,000. Green jobs like construction and maintenance of public green bodies such as parks, lakes, ponds and other water bodies can also be considered. Monitoring and surveying jobs along with providing administrative assistance to local bodies can be useful for the educated unemployed. Universal slum upgrading is an important activity in urban areas where labor can be provided under this scheme. Some experts have also talked about building infrastructure for the informal economy which could include activities like designing vending zones for street vendors or construction of multipurpose livelihood centers for home-based workers.

Jean Dreze’ has suggested a DUET (decentralised urban employment and training) model where the state could provide financial resources and infrastructure for conducting formal training and skill development programmes to develop the capacity of workers and eventually that of the urban local body. Jean Dreze’ was very much aware of the fact that there was corruption in MGNREGA, particularly in the form of the existence of ghost employees, and to overcome this, he suggested the issuing of job stamps to employers. In urban areas there was a lot of scope for keeping public spaces clean and this could enable jobs for women also. In fact, he advocated that in the urban employment scheme, one-third of the jobs should be reserved for women. He also put forward the concept of worker cooperatives where only those enrolled would be eligible for jobs.

Currently, there is a lot of debate on ‘freebies’ being promised by political parties to attract voters and several economists and leaders have criticised this populism as it leads to draining of the resources of the nation. However, MGNREGA cannot be viewed as a freebie as it is a very important safety net scheme in the interest of the poor. In a similar vein, the urban employment guarantee scheme would help in taking a lot of urban poor out of poverty. Besides, there are tangible economic benefits like boosting local demand, improving quality of urban infrastructure and services, skilling urban youth and increasing the capacity of the urban local body. The urban scheme has to take the urban local bodies into confidence while designing the structure, as they are the implementing agency and success or failure of the scheme would be dependent upon their performance. One could also think of having wages of workers in the urban guarantee scheme decided in a decentralized manner at the level of the urban local body. As regards the availability of resources, it has been estimated that to provide employment to 50 million people, an expenditure of only 1.7 to 2.7 per cent of GDP would be required per year, which can certainly be made available with proper financial planning and expenditure management.

The example of MGNREGA has demonstrated the usefulness of such an employment guarantee scheme. Though there are some allegations of misuse of funds, and often, land owners complain of this scheme leading to a hike in rural wages, the scheme has by and large delivered results. I have personally used MGNREGA in Bundelkhand area of Uttar Pradesh when this region suffered a drought for three consecutive years. The employment provided by the scheme proved to be of immense value to the rural workers. Then again, the pandemic clearly illustrated the value of this scheme as it provided a huge safety net for the migrant labor which returned in large numbers to the villages.

The recent pandemic has highlighted the reality of the urban poor. Eighty-five per cent of the workforce in the urban areas is employed in the unorganised sector where they get least social benefits. There is, thus, an urgent need to design and implement a comprehensive urban employment guarantee scheme at the urban level on the analogy of MGNREGA but with its own distinctive features.

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A structural malaise

Role reversal and inconsistencies in deciding transfers of class-I and class-II officers has created a lucrative transfer industry which derails the process of governance

The corridors of power in UP are all agog with the recent controversy regarding the transfer of officers in various departments. It has snowballed into a politician versus civil servant standoff, and letters have been written which have found their way into the media. There is intense debate all over. The news is that the Chief Minister has set up high-level committees to enquire into the allegations regarding transfers in certain departments. In a democracy, the minister and the secretary have to work in an atmosphere of trust and mutual cooperation to facilitate smooth governance. Whenever there is a conflict between the two, it becomes detrimental to the interests of the government and the citizens whom the departments have been set up to serve. Such controversies are best avoided and it is left to the maturity and experience of both parties to ensure that disagreement, if any, should not find its way into the public forum. It is not as if differences of opinion do not arise but they are best resolved through mutual discussion in the spirit of give and take. In a democracy, the elected minister is the final decision-making authority and the Secretary/Principal Secretary has the freedom to voice his opinion and give advice before the minister ultimately makes his decision. If both the minister and the civil servant have a good understanding with each other then the system works beautifully to the benefit of all, as both carry different perspectives with them, which enrich the functioning of the government. The civil servant has to ensure that work proceeds as per the rule of law and in an impartial and transparent manner. A civil servant brings with him the knowledge about the subject matter under consideration whereas the minister understands the pulse of the people and has better knowledge of the realities at the ground level. A combination of the strengths of both leads to better public service delivery. If both move on the collision course then it is a sure recipe for disaster.

The issue of transfers is perhaps the most contentious one — leading to conflicts and misgivings. Uttar Pradesh, like other state governments, comes out with a transfer policy every year generally during April-May and seeks to transfer officers by the end of June. The policy lays down various parameters on which transfers would take place. For instance, the UP’s transfer policy stated that anybody who has been posted in a particular district for three years or in a division for seven years will need to be posted out. It provided for certain exemptions like giving consideration if the spouse of the officer was also working in government in the same city. UP is a huge state and has a large number of officers and employees. If all those who are eligible under this criterion are transferred then it would lead to a major overhaul which is not good for the administration and will also create a large financial liability for the government. Keeping this in mind, the policy puts a ceiling at 10 or 20 per cent of the total officers in the eligibility zone to be transferred. The problem arises because no criterion is prescribed for selecting these 20 per cent; though common sense would dictate that those who have been serving for a longer period of time should be transferred first. This creates the atmosphere where the transfer industry comes into full play as all officers enjoying good postings use every source or stratagem to remain at their posts — giving rise to allegations of corruption, nepotism and favouritism. Let us take the case of doctors as an example. Doctors, by the very nature of their job, get close to senior officers or politicians and manipulate them to continue staying in cities like Lucknow. Those who have no godfather languish in remote districts and never manage to get posted to big cities. This does not serve the objective of good governance but then this is an unfortunate reality.
It is also a laid down policy that the head of department is authorised to carry out transfers of officers and employees up to the class-II level. He has full powers for the same. Regarding the class-I officers, their transfers are done by the government, which means proposed by the Principal Secretary and approved by the Minister. This system ensures the authority of the head of the department (HOD) and also clearly demarcates the power between the government and him. The HOD has to take work from his team and therefore must be perceived as having this authority. Unfortunately, in reality it does not work in this manner. The transfer lists of all officers and employees are generally prepared at the level of the Minister, and the HOD merely carries out the paper formality of issuing orders. Same is true in the case of class-I officers where the minister indicates to the Principal Secretary his preferences and the file is prepared accordingly for his signature. This creates a situation where the transfers lead to a lot of heart-burning and dissatisfaction and derail the very process of governance. It is a time-honored principle of leadership and management that if you want outcomes and results then you must have the right man for the right job. However, the manner in which the transfer industry operates, this principle is totally sidelined to the detriment of the functioning of the department and the ability of the government to deliver quality public services to the citizens.

I have seen that many Principal Secretaries decide to adopt the path of least resistance and look the other way. They are aware that the HOD is sitting with the Minister and taking orders regarding transfers but choose to accept the reality and not interfere in the matter — fearing that it would lead to unnecessary conflict which would be a huge drain on their time and they would not be able to focus on more important policy issues. Some Principal Secretaries make the mistake of interfering in this process and soon a controversy erupts. Even the higher civil service like the IAS is not immune to the threat of transfers being used as an instrument of making them compliant and ever ready to toe the line. Very often, there is also the issue of proper data not being available which can easily be handled by computerization, and a system of taking preferences from the offices in the eligibility zone can certainly help. Also, the first-in-first-out principle could be made a part of the transfer policy to eliminate discretion. However, the transfer industry will continue as long as it is viewed as being a lucrative one. Good governance needs an institutional mechanism to handle this malaise and there are ways in which this can certainly be done. The important thing for the Ministers is to realize that their job is to frame policies while transfer is a part of policy implementation which should be left to the HOD and Secretary — except in particular cases where their approval is specifically required. The tragedy is that the roles have been reversed, leading to a colorful Principal Secretary making the statement, “I keep on making policies but the Minister does not implement them properly!”

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