Leading the change

Through their creativity, innovative skills, and problem-solving approach, District Officers can transform the lives of people by facilitating good governance

Citizens in any nation expect good governance from the government. This requires the formulation of policies which will solve the grievances of the people and also bring about the economic development of the state and the country. However, it is often said that policies are good but implementation is the problem. Execution of government policies and implementing projects and schemes and giving good administration to the citizens is the responsibility of the civil service. Civil servants advise the political executive in policy formulation and once a decision has been taken, it is their job to see that it is implemented in letter and spirit. The IAS along with officers of the state services has a very crucial role to play in getting things done at the ground level. The most important institution which performs this task is that of the District Magistrate who across various states are known as District Collectors, Deputy Commissioners or District Officers. The term Collector is a legacy of the colonial regime when the collection of revenue was the primary duty at the district level. This is no longer true and the term Collector does sound like an anachronism. The district officer today coordinates all activities at the district level and, therefore, we will use the term District Officer in this article as it best signifies the role that the officer performs at the district level.

The institution of the District Officer has faced scrutiny over the years but it has evolved and gained strength as it has the faith and confidence of the people and it is the single point at the district level to solve their problems. During the colonial regime, this post was vested with a lot of powers and had direct control over all the departments at the district level including the police. However, governance has become more complex and now every department has its own line functionaries at the district level who report to the departmental head at the state level. The role of the District Officer is now to coordinate the activities of all the departments at the district level and ensure that the government schemes are implemented effectively. Even though direct authority over the departmental officers is no longer there the role of the District Officer has become increasingly more important. Every department involves the District Officer in the implementation of its schemes and it is his leadership quality which makes the difference at the district level. The leadership quality required involves the capacity to build a team at the district level, align them with the goals of the government, develop a work culture which is responsive and accountable to the citizens, ensure transparency in government work, motivate the employees to give the best and deliver results and outcomes.

The job of the District Officers today is not merely maintaining the status quo but he is an agent of change. He has to use his creativity, innovative skills and problem-solving approach to bring about a quality change in the lives of the people of the district and bring about overall development. It is one post in the IAS which gives you a great opportunity to transform the quality of the lives of the people and make a difference to every person living in the district. There is a huge responsibility on the shoulders of the District Officers and also a great opportunity to make a difference in society. No wonder this is one of the most sought-after postings in the IAS. This job is so enriching and can give so much satisfaction that after retirement if you talk to an IAS officer he will remember his days as a District Officer and the initiatives he took to influence the lives of the people. People join the IAS to become District Officers. The institution has evolved and various Prime Ministers have hailed the contribution made by the District officers to the process of development.

My experience has shown that young District Officers have come out with innovative ideas which they have implemented at the district level which has brought about quality governance. Unfortunately, there is very little documentation about these achievements and the general public is not aware of the kind of work many young officers are putting into the service of the nation. It is in this light that I must appreciate the governance awards given recently by The Indian Express to outstanding works done by young District Officers and celebrating them as agents of change. It was heartening to see that the Union Home Minister was himself present to give away the awards and many important people attended the function. The awards appreciated the innovative solutions to governance challenges at the district level across the country. The Union Home Minister said that development envisaged by the Constitution is only possible through good governance at the district level through the institution of the District Officer. The award-winning District Officers did innovative governance in areas like providing telemedicine to villages, quality education, disaster management, micro irrigation in terrorist-infested districts and others. There is another organization called ‘Nexus for Good’ founded by ex-IAS officer Anil Swarup which has done a great job in documenting the outstanding works done by the young IAS officers in various capacities in the government. Yet, much more documentation and recognition of the work done by young District Officers is required to inspire other officers and make the people aware of the excellent work being done by them.

The pandemic was one challenge where many District Officers responded using all their leadership qualities, as under the pandemic act it was the District Officer who was responsible for all aspects related to the handling of Covid. There are many success stories in this regard. The vaccination programme was such a success because of the exemplary leadership of the District Officers. There have been officers who eliminated manual scavenging and there have been others who created online grievance redressal systems to solve the problems of the citizens. I recall implementing a literacy project in Agra where 5.50 lakh adult non-literates in the age group of 15 to 45 were made literate through purely voluntary efforts using the young boys and girls of the District. I also recall starting the computerization of land records in the districts where I was posted which later on became a template for other districts to follow. The mettle of the District Officers is genuinely tested when he conducts free and fair elections and also handles natural calamities like floods, droughts and earthquakes.

The young District Officers must realise that this post affords them a tremendous opportunity to bring about a positive change in society. They should work with total honesty, integrity and dedication and should focus on the development of the underprivileged sections of society. The institutions need to be further strengthened and a reasonable tenure given to the District Officers so that they can make a mark. The work done by them and the best practices must be documented to make people aware of their work and serve as an inspiration to young officers. The District Officers must utilize their time in the districts to touch the lives of the poorest of the poor and make a transformative contribution to society.

Micro-model of governance

Identification of aspirational blocks under local area development plan holds promise for rural development, but only with the right leadership

It is no secret that the ‘balanced development’ of all regions is essential for the overall economic development of the country. There are some particularly backward areas. The reasons are either historical or remoteness or infertile land or being prone to natural calamities or having a majority of its population from the Scheduled Castes and Backward castes. These areas pull down the rate of economic growth and if left unattended can be the cause of numerous economic and social problems. It is in light of this that a welcome initiative was taken by the Government of India to identify 112 Districts in the country as aspirational districts where the social and economic indicators are particularly poor. The idea was to give a comprehensive thrust to the development of these districts and bring them to the level of other better-developed districts. This was to be achieved through the convergence of the Central and State Government schemes, collaboration of officers of all departments under the leadership of the district Collector and competition among the district through the system of monthly ranking being done by the NITI Aayog.

The more backward states have a larger number of aspirational districts. This programme was launched in 2018 and it focuses on the strength of each district and goes about developing it in a time-bound manner. There are a set of 49 key performance indicators under five broad socio-economic themes and the incremental progress in these indicators is considered for the ranking. These five themes are health and nutrition, education, agriculture and water resources, skill development and infrastructure and financial inclusion. These districts have to catch up with the others and then aspire to be the best by learning by the experience of each other. This initiative is part of the strategy to achieve sustainable development goals in a time-bound manner. The state of Uttar Pradesh has eight aspirational districts. An evaluation of this programme in 2020 by UNDP found that it is a ‘clear and comprehensive framework’ that it provides to the districts, distinguishing it from other programmes. Initially, the programme did encounter several challenges but with the right kind of leadership, these issues can be sorted out. It is also found that for the long-term sustainability of this programme motivation of the implementing team and in-house capacity building are vital. So, it has been a successful local area development scheme. Taking this success story forward the Government of India and the NITI Aayog have now come out with an aspirational block development programme which will focus similarly on the comprehensive development of 500 aspirational blocks across the country. This is indeed an idea which will take the development process forward in a progressive manner.

Local area development always gives scope for understanding the problems which are specific to that area and accordingly a plan can be evolved to develop that area. The knowledge of people living in that area is of immense value in designing projects for their development as it not only creates awareness but enables the people of that area to identify with the development plan and also own it. Development can never be forced from the top because then it becomes like a dole and makes the people dependent upon the government for everything which is not the way it should be. Also, India is indeed a vast country and different areas have diverse problems which need to be resolved. In Uttar Pradesh, almost 25 years ago, the Ambedkar Village Scheme was introduced focusing on those villages which had a large concentration of scheduled caste population and were economically backward. The scheme paid rich dividends as the performance indicators in these villages improved considerably. Similarly, almost a decade ago, when I was Agriculture Production Commissioner, Government of UP, we introduced the Lohia Village Scheme where 2000 villages which were backward and had a large share of the OBC population were chosen to be developed in an integrated manner. I remember that about 37 parameters of development were identified and a benchmark survey was done. These indicators include development schemes like connecting the village with a ‘pucca’ road, bringing electricity to the village, providing adequate drinking water sources, building houses for the poor and also schemes like providing education, health care and skill development. There was an initial political issue about the selection of these villages but once it was decided that 10 per cent of the villages would be selected on the recommendation of the political representatives and the remaining 90 per cent would be on rational criteria, the scheme took off and the results were very satisfying. People from various villages began to approach the government for including their village in the scheme. No extra funds were given but the whole concept was that of convergence and the District Collector was made responsible for the implementation.

It can be a matter of discussion whether a district, block or village should be taken as a unit of development. The village-level schemes succeeded but I feel that aspirational blocks schemes by focusing on the blocks have taken the right approach. Blocks have been historically units of development and there is an established organizational structure working under the Block Development Officer (BDO) looking after all aspects of agriculture and rural development. It is my view that rural development can be speeded up if we can develop rural growth centers and these aspirational blocks can fulfil this purpose. At the block level schools, colleges and hospitals can be made fully operational and also based on local raw material availability and skill sets of the local people, rural industrial hubs can be created particularly in the agro-processing sector. This will not only add value to the agricultural produce of that area but also enable the youth to move from farm to non-farm occupations leading to an increase in their income and also to the development of the state and the nation. Something along this line was visualized in the scheme introduced by the late President Abdul Kalam which was called PURA (Providing Urban Amenities to Rural areas). India needs to develop in a manner that people living in rural areas find jobs near their place of stay and all basic amenities are available to them.

However, such administrative innovations cannot succeed without competent and participative leadership. This role has to be provided by the District Collector /DM. Even when I was Chief Secretary, I tried to make sure that the most energetic and creative young IAS officers were posted as District Magistrates of the backward districts. This not only provided them with an opportunity to learn about development at the grassroots level but also to provide momentum to the growth process in these districts. The same has been the norm for the aspirational districts. I feel that the aspirational blocks scheme would succeed only if the most innovative young IAS officers are posted in the districts where these blocks are located. Similarly, some of the best officers of State Civil Service need to be posted as BDOs in these aspirational blocks. The authority of the BDOs has lost ground over the years because of departmentalism and it needs to be restored. Convergence and collaboration are not possible without effective leadership and this is where you need the right man at the right place.

The local Block Panchayat functionaries would also need to be sensitized about this initiative and their full involvement ensured in the planning and execution of the various development schemes. Without using local leadership the best results would never be attained. It should become a people’s programme rather than just yet another government scheme.

The local area development plan is the right way forward but its success depends upon effective leadership provided at the district and block level and also the involvement of all the local level elected representatives.

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

Opportunity with challenges

The decision to allow the branches of foreign universities in India is a step in the right direction but certain issues need to be resolved beforehand

The 21st century will belong to that country or society which moves ahead of others in terms of the acquisition and application of knowledge. Education is the foundation on which this knowledge society will be built. India has a great opportunity in terms of its youth population which can be harnessed as a demographic dividend if the right kind of education and skilling is provided to the youth from the primary to the higher level. We need not only expansion in the avenues of education but also in terms of the quality of education. The quality of education imparted in rural primary schools is of an abysmal quality which has been further pushed back by the pandemic, and this has become a matter of serious concern. It is the school system which acts as a feeder to the higher education system, and if the input to higher education is of a poor standard, then it shall certainly impact the output. There is no denying that higher education needs a lot of attention. We have commendable institutions like the IITs and the IIMs but there are a large number of below-average institutions as well. The gross enrolment ratio (GER) is only about 26 per cent, and the new education policy has set for itself an ambitious goal of raising this to 50 per cent by 2035. This would require a huge amount of expenditure in higher education, with new colleges being opened and a big increase in the number of children joining the higher education system. This has obvious implications regarding the logistics and management of such a vast education system.

At the moment, a lot of students are indeed attracted to foreign countries for higher education for various reasons. One of them is to be able to access a higher quality of education in foreign universities of repute. However, the issue of the cost of such education becomes a barrier for many aspiring students. It is in this light, and in a bid to internationalise Indian higher education in consonance with NEP 2020, that the UGC has come out with draft regulations on setting up of campuses of foreign higher educational institutions in India. These draft regulations have dealt with many issues raised earlier when the governments made an effort to open higher education in India to foreign universities. One cannot disagree with the intent behind this policy, and the students will benefit from such a step. These rules are in response to long-standing needs. The students of this country have aspirations; almost five lakh students are studying abroad. If universities of repute set up their campuses in India, then this would certainly open a window to higher-quality education for our students.

There are some issues in these regulations which need to be considered. In the NEP 2020, it was provided that only the top 100 QS-ranking universities would be allowed to establish their branch campuses in India. However, the UGC regulations have talked about the top 500 foreign universities, which appears to be a dilution of quality. It also says that, in addition, higher education institutions of merit would be considered but it is not clear how this merit will be decided upon by the UGC. Some recent articles on this subject indicate that top universities like Harvard or Stanford or similar ones of repute may not be interested in opening campuses in India. Abundant care would have to be exercised in this matter otherwise we would be saddled with campuses of mediocre universities.

One of the main issues raised by foreign institutions, that they should be allowed to repatriate the profits that they earn from campuses in India, has been conceded in these draft regulations subject to the rules and regulations of the Foreign Exchange Management Act, 1999. In India, we have so far been of the view that education is a public good and the profits earned should be ploughed back into the institutions. Allowing repatriation of profits is a major concession, which is a topic for debate but this step would encourage many foreign universities to come to India. It is a decision in the larger interest of education. Further, the regulations allow foreign institutions to decide their fee structure provided it is transparent and reasonable. This could lead to a situation where better institutions or courses with higher market value may prescribe a fee structure which is out of the reach of many students. No doubt there is a provision for need-based scholarships but this is a challenging issue as the country has to provide these better educational opportunities to all disadvantaged groups that include women, SCs, STs, OBCs, EWS, differently-abled and geographically disadvantaged groups.

These institutions have been given the freedom to decide on the qualifications, salary structure and other conditions of services for appointing faculty and staff. This could lead to an opaque system and there could be a big gap between the UGC-mandated conditions for higher education institutions in India and the foreign branch campuses. Moreover, these institutions are expected to arrange for their physical infrastructure, which involves substantial investment and may be another challenge. These institutions will be given the freedom to frame their curriculum which is how it should be. Of course, there is a restrictive clause that nothing would be a part of their programme of study which jeopardises the national interest of India or the standards of higher education in India. The last clause is open to interpretation and could raise issues regarding the curriculum in subjects like history or other disciplines of humanities. The draft regulations also waive off equivalence requirements for the degrees imparted by the foreign campuses. It will be up to the employers to take a view on these degrees at the time of giving employment.

There are definite issues in the draft regulation but it is a step in the right direction. It would allow the students in India to get good quality higher education. The important thing is to see that we get institutions of a certain quality. Also, the implementation would be a vital aspect to ensure that there is the right environment to attract the best institutions and allow them to succeed. It is also important to align the regulations with the professed objective of NEP 2020 to provide high-quality education to all sections of society.

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

Grandeur with quality

The overall investment scenario can be improved only when gala investment meets are complemented with an on-ground systematic and consistent focus on quality

These days investment meets are in vogue. Every state seems to be having a gala investment meet of its own. One can see large advertisements in newspapers and television regarding some state or the other having investment meets almost every month. Recently, Odisha had a very successful investment meet in which it is claimed that intentions to invest more than Rs 10 lakh crores, generating employment of almost similar amount, have been received. I think it all started with the highly successful model created by Gujarat through its very well-organized vibrant Gujarat investment meets. The Uttar Pradesh government over the last several years has also been holding its investment meets and the succession of conferences is to culminate in a final big bash global investment summit scheduled for February. To make this summit a success the Chief Minister, Senior Ministers and senior officers of the UP government are visiting several countries to showcase the investment potential of Uttar Pradesh and solicit investment proposals.

A huge target of Rs 10.5 lakh crores has been kept for this summit. Almost five years ago, the UP government had signed MOUs worth Rs 4.26 lakh crores of investment but less than 50 per cent of this has materialized on the ground. It is nice to have high targets as they have the potential of motivating the officers to work towards a goal. However, targets also have a negative side. My experience in government has been that whatever targets are set, get achieved at least on paper. The reality often is very different and can be misleading. The achievement of the targets under various development programmes is an illustration of this malaise. I would rather go for realistic targets and also focus on the quality of investments that come to the states.

I am not against investment meets. I feel this serves a very useful purpose in having a direct dialogue between the government and members of the industry in which the concerns of business are addressed and a suitable investment climate is created to incentivize actual investments. As Chief Secretary of UP, after formulating a very progressive industrial policy along with sector-specific policies, we went for investment meets in Mumbai and Delhi which were highly successful and many of those who attended said that but for this exchange of views, they would not have been aware of many initiatives taken by the State Government. However, I found that getting MOUs signed was one thing and executing them was a different ball game altogether. In the summits, the focus is on presenting the enabling policy framework, the existence of land banks, a facilitating security environment and other strengths of the State like the availability of raw materials, the status of infrastructure and the availability of human capital. Those who had a good experience investing in a state share their views and this is one of the most important factors in promoting investment in the state. However, I found that translating these MOUs into actual investment required a lot of effort in coordinating the views of various departments and also in trying to negotiate the long list of exemptions and benefits that the proposed investor was demanding.

In UP, our industrial policy had a very forward-looking clause which stated that any investment above Rs 500 crores would be treated as a mega project and the terms and conditions would be finalized after mutual consultation across the table. This proved to be a thorny issue as the investor would ask for the moon and the government finance department and rules and procedures would not allow things to be so open-ended. The only point I want to make is that converting these MOUs into actual investment requires a very proactive and liberal decision-making framework which is often not the strength of the civil service which tends to cover its tracks and secure itself against any future allegations or inquiries.

Similar is the reality of ease of doing business (EODB) or single window. Despite instructions from the top and an effort to get all clearances from one nodal point in reality departmentalism often comes to the fore to make a genuine single window difficult to achieve. In the case of EODB, where all possible instructions have been issued to see that clearances are given without the entrepreneur having to run from one office to another, the actual reality at the cutting edge of administration is often very different. Any prospective investor can be asked what he has to go through on getting clearances from the pollution control department or power connections. I would say that more than any policy, it is the mindset of the officers dealing with investors that creates the culture of investment in the state. This possibly explains that despite a high ranking in EODB the amount of investment coming into the state of UP is not a matching amount. UP, unfortunately, has a semi-feudal structure of administration which is often not very welcoming to the entrepreneur.

It is also a fact that currently all over the world there is inflation and also fears of recession being around the corner. In such an environment, investors may be wary of investing their funds. This may not be the best time to solicit investments. Further, I have a feeling that the same prospective investors are signing MOUs with various states and will finally invest in the state where they get the best deal which is another reason why the quantum of MOUs is not a very accurate indicator of the actual investments that is likely to flow into the state. Moreover, one thing that many states ignore is that the experience of the existing industries with the government is a very important determinant of the investment climate in the State. Very often, the existing industry has a long list of grievances with the state government which, if they are not getting resolved then they do not speak well about the investment scenario in the state. I feel, the focus along with the investment meets to attract new investment there should also be a focus on having dialogues regularly with existing industries and a very proactive and positive approach in resolving their problems. If the existing industries are happy then they will act as brand ambassadors of the states.

It is also important to focus on the quality of the investment that is likely to come. Along with the target of investments, there should be a specific target for employment also, especially in light of the recent experience of growth without employment. In UP, it is important to see that the proposed investment is not concentrated in Noida or West UP but dispersed throughout the state to correct the regional imbalance of growth. I also feel that along with investments in manufacturing there should be a policy framework to incentivize investment in the services sector which has a huge potential for growth in the coming years.

Investment meets, by themselves, are not sufficient to bring investment to a state or create an environment of high growth rate. Focus has to move from organizing gala events attended by celebrities to meticulous and systematic focused hard work at the ground level to genuinely give a welcoming signal to the prospective investors. Merely focusing on a large target of investments can often give a very incorrect picture.

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

A necessary rejig

Revamping the process of selection of CECs and ECs and formulating a law for the same would further strengthen the sanctity of the Election Commission

A constitution bench of the Supreme Court is hearing a bunch of pleas on the issue of the process involved in the appointment of CEC (Chief Election Commissioner) and EC (Election Commissioner). Articles 324 to 329 of the Constitution deal with the election commission and Article 324(2) of the Constitution states that the election commission shall consist of the Chief Election Commissioner and several other election commissioners, as the President may from time to time fix and the appointment of the Chief Election Commissioner and other election commissioners shall, subject to the provision of any law made in that behalf by Parliament, be made by the President. The Supreme Court has questioned the process of an appointment of CEC and EC and also queried why a law in this connection has not been framed despite being provided for in the Constitution. During the pendency of the matter before the Supreme Court, Arun Goel has been appointed as the second election commissioner. It may be noted that the Government now has made a provision to have a CEC as well as two ECs. The capability and competence of Goel is not under question. Even the Supreme Court has observed that Arun Goel has an exemplary record as an officer and has been a gold medalist during his academic days. The court is raising the issue that on what basis a panel of four eligible candidates has been prepared by the law ministry and how one out of this four has been selected so promptly. The haste in the appointment has got the Supreme Court Concerned particularly as the post was lying vacant since May.

It is clear that ever since the Election Commission came into existence, no political party has taken the step to formulate a law regarding the appointment of the post of CEC and EC. The appointment to the post is done by the President of India based on the advice given by the council of ministers. It is not as if the current government is responsible for this but also all the governments that have been in power since the very beginning. So far the appointments have been made from retired civil servants and in particular from the IAS. We have to try and assess whether the Election Commission has performed its role as desired by the Constitution of strengthening democracy despite the CEC and EC being appointed by the executive. There is no doubt that right from the first CEC, Sukumar Sen, who conducted the first election in 1952 very efficiently, there have been election commissioners who have conducted elections in this vast and complex country with a lot of fairness and impartiality. In particular, TN Seshan is taken as a person, who by the virtue of his personality used the powers given to him under the people representation act and stamped his authority on the entire election process and has made it fair and transparent and no political party can today claim that it can influence the process of elections. Seshan was a trailblazer and even the Supreme Court has acknowledged his contribution.

I recall that I was posted as District Magistrate when Seshan was CEC. As DM Banda, I conducted the elections to the parliament and assembly in 1991 and again in 1994 conducted the election to the UP assembly as DM Allahabad. Seshan had a very aggressive personality and never minced his words. I remember that all political parties were in awe of him and all the officers used to quake in his presence. I recollect that he had come to Lucknow to review the election preparations and took a meeting with the Chief Secretary and other senior officers and was unhappy with the quality of the agenda note prepared. He threw the agenda note and angrily stormed out of the meeting with the Chief Secretary and other officers running after him to apologise and placate him. In another meeting, which I attended as DM in the Election Commission, he came out strongly about the measures he had taken to reform the election process and then asked if any one of us wanted to raise any issue. Such was his terror that not a single person spoke a word. Seshan said that he would hold the officer personally responsible for any non-implementation and even when to the extent to say that he would not spare any Chief Minister or political person if they interfered with the process in any way. The elections before Seshan and after him were two different things. Before Seshan, I remember political people would approach the District election officer with some request and also move around in convoys in their constituencies. The entire city used to be plastered with election material. After Seshan, all this became a thing of the past. As District Magistrate I found that there was no interference from any political party and we conducted elections smoothly and effectively. Seshan utilised the power available to him in the election laws and implemented them with the sheer force of his personality. Since Seshan, all those reforms have been further strengthened and the election process is conducted without any fear by the officers concerned. The point to note is that Seshan was an executive appointment and so also have been so many other luminaries appointed to the post of CEC/EC. The question then arises whether the current process of appointment by the executive has in any way affected the fairness and competence in conducting the elections by the commission.

The issue of the tenure of CEC has also been raised by the Supreme Court. Six-year tenure has been prescribed but no CEC in the recent past has come anywhere near doing six years as CEC. An officer is appointed to the commission as EC at the time of his retirement and he can continue till the age of 65. The senior most amongst the ECs become the CEC and normally gets a two to a three-year term. I see no reason why there should be any quarrel with this as a person appointed to the commission gets a five-year term as EC/CEC. If six-year tenure is to be given then the retirement age of CEC and EC could be extended to 66 years. In any case, I do not see how this impacts the competence and fairness of the commission.

The Supreme Court has suggested that there could be a broad-based selection committee consisting of the Prime Minister, the leader of the opposition and the CJI. I agree that such a committee can give a better signal about the fairness of the selection process. However, at present, the appointment to the post of CBI Director is being done by such a committee and it would be worthwhile evaluating whether the process of selection of CBI Director is being perceived as being fair and above board. I think even in such a committee the voice of the executive would generally influence the process of selection.

However, it must be noted that over the last few years there is a growing perception that the election commission is influenced by the political party in power. This may or may not be true but in the recent past, it cannot be denied that questions have been raised about the working of the commission. The Election Commission is the bedrock of our democratic structure and should be above board in reality as well as perception. Keeping this in mind, I feel that there is no harm if the parliament debates the process of selection of CEC and EC and frames a law in this regard. This would help in further strengthening the sanctity of the institution which is essential for our democracy. Not only must the Election Commission be fair but it should appear to be so also.

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

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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Solution through decentralisation

Urban local bodies need to be equipped with adequate funds, functions and functionaries to ensure robust urban governance and solve regional administrative problems

Most of us must have been shocked to see the images of the flooded Bangalore city, which is the IT capital of India, and houses the officers of all the top multinational corporations — the CEOs of which live in tasteful villas in various posh localities. It is astonishing to see that a city which we normally associate with efficiency and glamour is facing such a situation. The problem of the stormwater drainage system not working properly is like a chronic disease afflicting most cities of India. It reflects poorly on the creation and maintenance of essential infrastructure in cities. Urbanisation is on an increase with 50 per cent of India likely to live in urban areas by 2050. The cities will have to act like engines of growth to make India a developed nation by 2047. On the contrary, even the best cities are facing issues of poor sanitation, lacking water supply, faulty sewerage system, traffic mismanagement, unauthorised slums, poor drainage, and degradation of the environment. We see Mumbai getting submerged each year. As Principal Secretary, Urban Development, I witnessed these problems plaguing most of the cities of Uttar Pradesh as well.

The development story of India has been one where there has always been a focus on schemes related to rural India, as agriculture has been the main sector, and majority of the population still lives in rural areas. In UP, for instance, only 22 per cent of the population lives in urban areas and 65 per cent of the people still subsist on agriculture. However, lately, a realisation has dawned upon policymakers that there is an urgent need to talk about the development of the urban sector. In 2007, the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) was started to provide funds for development of essential infrastructure in cities. This was followed by the Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AMRUT) and the smart city mission. There is no doubt that a reasonable amount of funds has been made available by the Central and state governments to selected cities under these missions but, still, there is a wide gap between the requirement and the availability of resources. More than the resources, it is the important reforms that are required in urban governance to enable Indian cities to absorb the funds given to them, and utilise them in the desired manner. The main concern of urban areas has been the generation of urban finance and effective urban governance.

Cities contribute the most to income tax, GST and other state tax collections, but all of this goes to the Central and state governments. Seventy per cent of the GDP of the country comes from urban areas, reflecting their crucial role in the growth of the economy. A major reform has been the setting up of state Finance Commissions that decide on what percentage of state taxes should be devolved to urban local bodies. In UP, this commission has been in operation but only seven per cent of the state taxes are transferred to urban local bodies. There is a demand from urban local bodies for a greater devolution of funds but the state governments have their own priorities, and are not able to transfer sufficient resources to them. A large part of the resources of urban local bodies is utilised in payment of salaries, leaving very little for developmental works. There is a definite case for a larger transfer of resources accruing from state taxes to these urban local bodies. However, it is imperative that urban local bodies should also generate their own revenue. The property tax has an immense unexplored potential but, due to political reasons, elected corporators are not willing to rationalise the assessment of the properties and, as such, this source of revenue remains grossly underutilised. Moreover, there is a lot of potential for leveraging the land with the municipal bodies for raising resources, and also for issuance of municipal bonds, which has been successfully attempted by better-managed local bodies. The stark reality is that the majority of urban local bodies face a serious shortage of funds and, resultantly, even basic urban infrastructure facilities are not created or maintained.

Funds apart, a very important but ignored issue has been that of urban governance. For example, the flooding of the streets that has happened in Bangalore, and is a regular feature of most cities, is often the result of the existing drains being clogged with waste materials and silt. The annual cleaning of drains is done in an inefficient manner and a lot of corruption is involved in this. Sanitation in urban local bodies in many states is looked after, for some strange reasons, by health department doctors. This is not their area of specialisation. Every urban local body requires a special cadre of people trained in solid and liquid waste management. Then, the level of engineers associated with these bodies is not of high quality. Better recruitment and in-service training are required to equip them to construct quality infrastructure. As Municipal Commissioner of Allahabad (now Prayagraj), I was shocked when I found that the gradient of an under-construction drain was being constructed wrongly — leading to a situation where water would accumulate rather than flow. Going further, I feel that every city should have a cadre of city managers, specially recruited and trained for this purpose. For larger urban local bodies, a senior IAS officer should be posted as municipal commissioner.

Funds, functions and functionaries need to be transferred to urban local bodies by the state governments if genuine decentralisation is to take place. The 74th amendment to the constitution has not been implemented in letter and spirit by most state governments, as neither the officers nor the political representatives are willing to share power with local bodies. The mayors of municipal corporations from across the country have this grievance that their posts are merely ceremonial, with the real executive powers vested with the officers. This is exactly the opposite of what prevails in most of the countries, and is not a happy state of affairs. Local issues are best solved by local governments. If the issues of urban governance are resolved on a priority basis, then better generation and management of resources will also be possible, and cities will get the kind of urban infrastructure they deserve. The writer is an ex-Chief Secretary, Govt of Uttar Pradesh. Views expressed are personal