Tackling Red Tape

By R S Tolia • Random Thoughts • 9 Mar 2010

 

The two key ‘sutras’ which constitute the ‘mantra’ invoking the country’s collective resolve and resources to achieve an ambitious  GDP growth rate of 9 per cent during the terminal year of the Eleventh Five Year Plan ( 2006-11) are ‘faster’ and ‘inclusive’, respectively. The month of March is the conventional ‘budget-month’, both for the Centre and the States. Naturally, these days much of the current ‘news and views’ cover various aspects related to the economy of the country, as also the States, and the general directions in which it is headed.  

Commenting on the poor growth numbers for the third fiscal quarter, which have put serious doubts over the bullish GDP growth projections for the coming years, the Chief Economic Advisor to the Finance Ministry, Kaushik Basu, has reiterated the Finance Minister’s concerns about governance ( Tackling red tape key to faster growth, says Kaushik Basu, The Economic Times, 8 March 2010,  p 11 ).

The Inclusive Agenda

The Union Budget, presently under discussion in the Parliament, has a dominant feature which could be safely placed under the generic rubric of ‘Inclusive’, the latter ‘sutra’ of the ‘mantra’. ‘Agriculture’ downturn while continues to worry the policy-planners the tardy efforts of the States and the Centre, inefficiencies inherent in the utilization of the outlays earmarked for the Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Programme ( RKVY), flag-ship of the much touted ‘Mission Four’, brings no solace to the debt-ridden and suicide-prone hapless farmers. While Uttarakhand is no exception to the shocking state of under-utilization of the budget earmarked for RKVY during the first three years the downturn of this neglected sector stands doubly compounded in the sense that the State seems nearly clueless about its overall direction and admittedly without a policy for the mountain-agriculture Basu pins his hopes of a better performance in the last quarter of the fiscal, firstly, because in any case the current downturn was expected to be the deepest in that quarter, and secondly, the fourth quarter was the worst quarter in the previous year ! So, it is essentially  statistically only that one could look forward to a better prospects in agriculture sector ( hoping to cross 8.5%).

On the possibility of breaching the 10% growth mark, Basu makes it conditional on achieving a savings rate of over 36 % ( current being 32.5%), better targeting of subsidy and welfare interventions, spending large sums of money on poor, managing the current sector-specific inflation ( high food prices ) from becoming more widespread, freeing up food prices and use of food-coupons to subsidise the poor and , of course, petroleum deregulation. Only time will tell to what extent all these efforts, and policy interventions being kept in reserve as Plan B, prove really effective. On the ‘inclusive’ agenda apparently Uttarakhand’s efforts of getting an extension of the ‘Industrial Tax Concession Package’, exemption of excise and income tax on newly established units, has evoked no sympathetic or responsive chords, so far. Special Category States’ financial conditions, especially those which are the latest entrants, ought not to have been de-coupled from those States, which receive various additional ‘stimuluses’ on grounds which are best avoided from being replicated elsewhere, all along our sensitive international borders. The application of the so-called ‘sun-set clause’ ought to have been adjudged on the ground of  addressing the phenomenon of ‘regional disparities’, which the Union Planning Commission itself had illustrated in its Approach Paper, in a stand-alone chapter. It is certainly a matter of deep concern that a similar concession period for J&K and the North Eastern States had been extended prior to presentation f the Union Budget.

   

Red Tape, the real Road block

In this piece it is not intended to discuss the various facets of the first ‘sutra’ i.e. the Faster growth, except of course, the concerns expressed on the poor attention paid to the issue of governance. The Finance Minister has pointed out that the Indian decision-making is slower than in most fast growing nations, when some one wants to set up a new business enterprise, it takes longer to get the paper work done in India than many other countries. India takes 10 times as much time as does Singapore; similarly, if a firm is going bankrupt and wants to close down, it takes longer to do so in India than in virtually in any other country. The knowledge that it will take the business longer to close down, says Basu, will prove to be a deterrent for new business thinking of setting up shop. Basu concludes that if we could tidy up these ‘governance issues’ even a little bit, India could easily break into the double-digit growth zone. He feels sure that this is possible within three or four years. Does this wish really describes the real-time ground condition ? I have my serious doubts, going by what gets revealed through various anecdotal examples, courtesy RTI applications, during the past four years or so.

RTI : A  360 O  Mirror     

The Right to Information Act, 2005 has been instrumental in reflecting the real state in which find our governance, both at the Centre and in the States. Now almost on a daily basis we are informed about the state of administration of various on going programmes and schemes which are meant both for the poorest as well as meant for accelerating the economic growth of the State. The state of governance, as it exists within any state authority or department, is easily a factor of ready availability of its decision-making processes, its policy, management practices and access to the documents purporting to facilitate implementation of its programmes, projects and schemes.

If we take the ‘Inclusive’ sutra of the development-mantra first, the pathetic condition of the records of beneficiaries who are supposed to be benefited through its various social reform schemes is such that it took the Information Commission to direct the Social Welfare department to set the present condition right and ensure that such list are not only updated but also digitized and made transparent. One appeal revealed serious malfunctioning and mis-use of the much touted ‘Jan-Shree’ Bima Yojana meant for the poorest in Champawat district. Yet another appeal revealed that scores of families were in possession of ration cards which showed the same families in possession of BPL, APL and Antyodaya ration-card holders simultaneously ! The Commission has put the Civil Supplies department on its ‘Monitoring Radar’ in so far as cancellation operations of a huge number of bogus ration –card holders is concerned. The Commission had to direct the Civil Supplies department to take appropriate administrative and criminal proceedings even against their own employees without whose active connivance such a large number of bogus ration-cards could not have come into existence ! Bogus Caste Certificates, yet another dispensation meant for assistance of the downtrodden, were found to exist on a scale which is unimaginable ( which again is impossible to be perpetuated without an active connivance of revenue officials ) and this forced the Commission to order ‘re-construction’ of thousands of  ‘lost original papers related to issuance of Caste Certificates’ in a large number of tahsils of the State. The scandal of bogus and wrong Caste Certificate deserves a full-fledged and sustained enquiry at the highest level, as a single wrong Caste Certificate has the potential of perpetuating a mis-placed constitutional benefit for generations. Such gross cases of ‘mis or mal-governance’ hit the targeted beneficiaries the most. Indeed it is an on-going tale of woes which shows our public services in an extremely poor light and makes an open mockery of the so-called ‘inclusive’ agenda. The cases highlighted through the use of the RTI makes it a true mirror which truthfully reflects the existing state of our ‘governance’, or  mal-governance.   

A  Sense  of  Time  and  Shame

Nothing illustrates the story of ‘faster’ growth better that the daily narration of ‘delays and delays’ in furnishing information under the RTI Act, and the Act has not endeared itself to the bureaucracy, of the various hues, as the RTI Act happens to be the only statute which compels the public servant to keep an account of a thing known as ‘Time’. Red-tape essentially manifests a mind-set which does not believe in a discipline of being ‘time-conscious’, besides being transparent and accountable. Besides being transparent and accountable the RTI has taught us all of being ‘time-conscious’, or more precisely, of being conscious that a citizen’s time is at least as important and valuable as that of any public servant, if not more.

Now, during the initial years of the operationalization of the RTI the public authorities which were most disorganized  and amiss in their record keeping, opaque in their decision-making process and weakest when and where it came to fixing responsibility and accountability of a delinquent public servant, they suffered the maximum pain, both in terms of pecuniary fines and other punitive actions ordered by the Information Commission. A separate publication is being brought out by Uttarakhand Information Commission shortly providing summary of many a landmark decisions which have contributed to the over-all improvement in governance of Uttarakhand.

Of a whole range of administrative reforms which have been ushered in courtesy the implementation of the RTI Act in Uttarakhand perhaps the most important one relates to making every public servant conscious of a phenomenon called ‘Time’, a factum which indeed was once synonymous to several laudable features of the presently much maligned bureaucracy. The modern bureaucracy arguably was a vast improvement over the archaic feudal-system of governance, which it supposedly replaced. ‘Efficiency’, ‘effectiveness’, ‘predictability’, ‘openness’ and ‘accountability’, all these have something to do with this factum of ‘Time’, one way or the other.  

This element of ‘time’ has thus come to occupy centre-stage in our ‘governance’-dialogue, rather ‘good-governance’ debate; and all other parameters stand either comprehensively dwarfed or rendered relatively irrelevant. Red-tape is the very antithesis of ‘time consciousness’ and if anything is indeed being targeted by the RTI Act, it is this sick and senile mind-set which persistently refuses to respect time, especially of others ( read citizens, read entrepreneurs). No effort is going to be too much which could be invested by the Government, and the State, in improving the various mechanisms which result in facilitating delivery of various public services to the citizens ‘as expeditiously as possible’. The day the State starts taking some really serious measures to reform this aspect of governance ( these abominable and interminable delays on one ground or the other), and address the issue of habitual procrastination, India starts on its ‘over-delayed’ journey to reach the destination of the 10 % growth mark, we have talked about. Isn’t it the only factor which contrasts the Chinese growth story with that of India ? As some one has aptly quipped – the Argumentative Indian has to learn the skill of concluding the arguments quickly and arrive at some consensus, and get on with the job. To make up for the lost time we must also learn the skill of completing  tomorrow’s  job  yesterday !   

I do share Kaushik Basu’s sense of optimism but with a bucket-full of RTI salt and, of course, serious governance-concerns.

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