Modi plans major governance reforms (Sunday Guardian)
The PM believes technology to be the key towards the empowerment of the citizen vis-à-vis the state.
Now that he has completed two years in office as Prime Minister, those with regular access to Narendra Modi say that he has “mastered the processes of government at the all-India level”, in the manner accomplished at the state level during the same period in his 2001-14 term as Chief Minister of Gujarat. “The next two years will see an acceleration in the transformation of the governance mechanism” into a model suited to the 21st century rather than to the 19th, as is the present construct. During Election Year 2019, the expectation is that the (by then fully deployed) “All-India Modi Model of Governance” will have the same pulling power over voters as the state-level model demonstrated in the course of three successive Assembly elections in Gujarat. These sources say that the Prime Minister’s objective is to ensure that “the entire population tastes the benefits of growth” through raising the quarter of the population now below the poverty line. This is possible “only in a climate of intellectual freedom and liberal values”, contrary to what his detractors claim, which is that Modi is a “centraliser”, who seeks to ensure governmental control rather than allow freedom to the citizen. “The PM is emphatic that the duty of the government is to enable and not block”, a key source claimed, adding that “empowering each citizen is the only way in which the full potential of the nation can be reached”. This is in contrast to some within the BJP, who have grown comfortable with the colonial model of government preserved from pre-Independence days by Jawaharlal Nehru and his successors thus far. During the next two years, “the Prime Minister will ensure that his citizen-empowering approach towards governance becomes the norm in administration”, rather than the fetish for control over the citizen that has been a feature of governance in India since the Mughal period.
Narendra Modi believes technology to be the key towards such an empowerment of the citizen vis-à-vis the state. In particular, the spread of the internet and an acceleration in its speeds will be a priority during the coming years. “Slow internet speeds, insufficient coverage and even such problems as call drops are having a negative effect on progress”, a senior official warned, promising that “such deficiencies will soon be as much a thing of the past as the rarity and delays in telephone services in India two decades back”. Another asked why, in this age of technological advancement, was it still necessary for a citizen to search for housing on foot rather than online? Why was it still needed to go office to office in a hunt for jobs rather than access the data on vacancies at home on a computer screen? Why was there still so much dependence on staff in India as compared to countries such as the US? Team Modi’s expectation is that by around 2020 (or what will be the first year of a second Modi term), internet speeds and coverage would have reached the high levels judged necessary for each citizen by Prime Minister Modi.
According to a key official, “another plan that is under consideration is how to ensure that housing units big enough to accommodate families get built close to places of work”, so that the time and effort spent on commutes get sharply reduced from the present high average levels. In this, Singapore (with its public housing schemes) is regarded as a model to be studied. Because of the attention paid to the utilisation of technology by the average citizen and the provision of housing and transport in convenient grids, productivity in the city state per citizen is very high. In Prime Minister Modi’s view, it is the job of government to provide the policy and infrastructure matrix needed for the citizen to be enabled to do his or her best, exactly the way the global Indian community is functioning in locations across the globe that have had far more success than India in providing an enabling rather than a restricting environment for each citizen. Health services, in particular, would in the thinking of Prime Minister Modi be enhanced were “every village to get access through the internet to the best medical brains in the country”. A top official pointed out that “at present, in several small towns and rural areas, only symptoms get treated and not the disease”, as the facilities for comprehensive diagnosis are absent. Under the “All-India Modi Model of Governance”, hospitals would become centres for consultation rather than merely treatment, while the area of operation of the first (consultation by patients) would be expanded far beyond geographic boundaries through communications technology. “The best of our brains in each field of medicine would be made accessible to any citizen in need, rather than only to urban dwellers or those with a high level of income.
Similarly, the use of technology in education would be encouraged, such that classrooms across the country gain access to the same level of information as their most fortunate cousins in the metropolitan areas. Systems would get created to ensure that undiscovered talent throughout the country becomes known and utilised. Platforms for the spread of knowledge will be encouraged.
In his plans for conversion of 19th century governance standards and performance to 21st century levels, the Prime Minister is concentrating significant dollops of attention on the bureaucracy. “For the PM, Swachh Bharat is at the top of his priorities, but for the country to become what he seeks it to be, the same priorities as the PM’s have to be adopted and implemented down the line to the level of the municipal council and the village panchayat”, a source with frequent access to the Prime Minister said, adding that “state governments in particular need to be on the same page” as Prime Minister Modi, with “Chief Ministers, district collectors, municipal chairpersons and panchayat heads working to fulfil set goals”. Administrative reform needs to be a key element in such a plan.
It was pointed out by a source that the 5th Pay Commission in 1997 made some valuable suggestions for reform, but the government at the time accepted only the financial portions of the report, ignoring most of the reform agenda barring a few inconsequential measures. The last Pay Commission “has been generous but with increase in salary and benefits must come increase in efficiency and accountability”, a top official said, pointing out that “the reality of so many scams in previous governments indicated that the bureaucracy was not fulfilling its public mandate”. Since 1947, a virtual caste system has been created in the administrative services, with the IAS stepping into the shoes of the “White Sahibs” of the British era and the IPS morphing into the role of “Brown Sahibs”, ie Indian members of the Indian Civil Service. Although the constitutional scheme has placed IAS, IPS and Indian Forest Service cadres on par, in practice the IAS has leaped ahead of the rest, with practically each of its members certain to reach the topmost brackets, as compared to much smaller numbers in the IPS and other Central (in-country) services, and even smaller percentages within the armed forces.
A facet of administrative practice that has come to the attention of those having regular access to Prime Minister Modi is the de facto reservation of several posts for those past regular retirement age, thereby converting such key posts (including that of the CVC, CAG and other such elevated positions) into post-retirement sinecures. “Why not younger people be brought into such jobs? Why only those above 60?”, a senior policymaker asked. Another suggested innovation is to reserve around a third of higher posts to those from outside government, but having domain expertise in the field. In fields such as commerce, telecom, health, education, home and defence, the absence of domain expertise within the small number of individuals framing policies and taking decisions “has led to several less than optimal courses of action getting adopted”. In international negotiations, “dealing with expert counterparts in matters such as commerce or defence, our generalist administrators are at a handicap and often this becomes obvious to both sides”, a source claimed. The source said that “even in the armed forces, it is the calendar that decides who will head a wing of the services rather than suitability for winning wars”, and added that “the fetish of seniority has bred complacency and frustration” within the services among those younger but forced to wait their turn for years upon years.
Experts can be brought into the government from outside on fixed time contracts, such as for five years. At the same time, “the age 50-55 reviews for officers has become a formality, with no action being taken even in obvious cases of incompetence or lack of ethics”. A suggestion is to replace the present system of recruitment with another, which hinges on a fixed tenure of 15 years or 20 years. Also, the present system of seniority being set in stone by the marks secured at a single examination is regarded as being less than effective in ensuring that the best be selected. “Aptitude counts more than marks”, a top official pointed out, adding that “selection methods are still based on conditions prevailing in the distant past”. Another option would be to unify all services once an officer reaches a particular level of responsibility, so that the monopoly of a single service on top jobs gets eliminated. However, these sources do not underestimate the resistance that will take place within the groups favoured since colonial times to such 21st century innovations.
However, despite such roadblocks, Prime Minister Modi is “determined to ensure that the administrative structure be brought to a level such that it can cope with the challenges of the present”. Those working closely with him are “quietly confident” that the Prime Minister will succeed in his “transformative mission”, with “results becoming obvious even to the sceptics” before two more years are passed of the present five-year term of the Lok Sabha.