Monday, June 12, 2017

Civil Service Reforms: Few 'Innovations' By NITI Aayog, If One Can Call Them So

As civil service reforms go, the Niti Aayog’s Three Year Action Agenda: 2017-18 to 2019-2020, released recently, contains little that is new or innovative. The idea that policy making is a specialized activity and needs lateral entrant of specialists on fixed-term contracts to bring in competition into established career bureaucracy has been talked about for years and is a tautology today. The same goes for making the goals and progress available publicly to incentivize delivery and measure performance objectively, with high performance rewarded and poor performance reprimanded. Likewise, E-governance is no new beer, as is outsourcing of services; they’re old wine in new bottles.

The only innovation, if one can call it so, seems the plea for longer tenure of Secretaries. It creates two important inefficiencies. One, with a time horizon shorter than two years, the officer is hesitant to take any major initiatives. Two, and more importantly, to the extent that any misstep may become the cause for charges of favouritism or corruption post retirement, the officer hesitates to take decisions on any major project. This causes an inordinate amount of delay in decision-making. The inefficiencies are two-fold: (a) hesitation to take any major initiative; and (b) fear of misstep to take decisions on any major project.

It’s bemusing how these two inefficiencies can be overcome with longer tenures. For one, empirically, officers with tenures of more than 2 and going up to 3/4 years haven’t fared any better than the ones with shorter tenures. Lack of foresight and initiative aside, to be fair, they have been moved around to more than 2-3 departments/ministries, thereby not granting them the time needed to settle down and make salutary contributions. But it’s not fair to blame the system entirely for there are departments/ministries that are low/high in the mandarin’s perception/weight indices and with the long window available to them, there is the human urge for upward pecking mobility. Lobbying, jostling, networking (see the work-hours wasted here!), nepotism, and favouring the powers-that-be through subtle sleight of hand are rife. One has with growing frustration seen how people with no little knowledge/experience, but with the right “connect” and “networking”, go up and up the proverbial totem pole only because the new post figures high in the perception-cum-weighty index and is a better springboard for post-retirement sinecures.  This is the nub.

Like statistics, the Niti Aayog’s eggheads conceal more than what they reveal; its platitudinous recipe is less relevant than what it shrouds: post-retirement sinecures. The heart of the problem is that no bureaucrat (apart from one-odd outliers) ever wants to retire. In a feudal mindset, retirement sucks: identity-loss after a lifetime of humongous ego-trips and condescension, vanishing into the woodwork is the hardest ask; retirement is sudden cold-blooded cremation. Hence exists the the intense urge to stay on somehow. It is also the reason why senior officers close to R-Days take calculated and “desperate” gambles to “oblige” political masters at the cost of their much vaunted “professional ethics”. In effect, the two “inefficiencies” stay. One wishes the Niti Aayog had provided answer to this endemic nettlesome syndrome that defeats every sanguine public motivation.

One wonders how practical and efficacious Niti Aayog’s suggestion for specialization and induction of lateral recruits for a fixed tenure is. No questions are asked on the need for specialists and domain experts in public policy, but the issue is: Given the bureaucratic construct, will this behemoth of bureaucracy easily admit and acknowledge the role and contribution of the newbie, especially when their own unimaginative low-performance and lassitude hitherto unquestioned will (inevitably) be shown in poor light in comparison. Though a fixed tenure might help shielding the laterals from being junked midway, will frustration not creep into their day-to-day efficiency, thereby nullifying the cross-pollination and cross-fertilization of their ideas? Will they be accorded their due for the contribution made to improve public policy and the same acted upon without bureaucratic machinations and legerdemain? Or will the ear of political masters earned by mandarins negate any such noble impulses making it a zero-sum game?

Rather than shooting the breeze, I wish the Niti Aayog had drawn an earthy roadmap. A host of issues glibly prescribed will amount to nothing if they are not implementable. To be fair, E-office, long overdue, is the way to go; when I was holding additional charge as Additional Secretary & Financial Advisor of the Ministry of Civil Aviation more than 2 years ago, it had gained currency. It was liberating to retrieve data in a jiffy; it granted flexibility. I could work in my parent Ministry of Environment and Forests in Indira Paryavaran Bhavan rather than getting the files over or going over to the civil aviation ministry located in the Rajiv Gandhi Bhavan. Not to forget that electronic transactions don’t lie on such (seemingly) small matters as date/time of disposal. The embedded system and escalation facilities can show stark delays, apart from alerting the higher ups of such delays. E-governance needs implementation within a tight timeframe.

The larger issue is of efficiency: will e-office for all its good, engage the citizen through the electronic medium and make governance effective? Only early last year several directions of finance ministry to upload fairly innocuous information in the website went unheeded lest it attract public ire.

Public policy issues are roiled – apart from the much-maligned and putative red-tape-worm – in time-worn vested interest, personal advancement, colonial baggage and mindset. Holistically, the answer is in tightening governance’s value system. Financial malfeasance is bad, but worse is intellectual dishonesty, subtly crafted under the guise of amnesic mnemonics, poor data analysis and obfuscating interstitial interpretation kept under wraps in grimy official records. Financial misgivings no matter how convoluted they are, still palpate; intellectual dishonesty covertly hemorrhages.

For a feudal society with a bespoke traditional mindset of grand reparative gestures to espouse and promote the biradiri cause and where the state is seen as omnipotent and where few realize power is but abuse of power, it is imperative to have an arm’s-length system.

But is that enough? Maybe not. There could be a need to actualize implication of Robert Klitgaard’s formula on dishonesty: Corruption = Monopoly + Discretion – Accountability (C=M+D-A). Even that too may not be enough. Proactive disclosure provided under Section 4 of the RTI Act 2005 will need to be sculpted into the e-governance platform. In this our Indian Gilded Age, the atmosphere is agog with ideas and impulses despite the consistent stonewalling of the established order. Citizen rants against diminishing public value are getting louder by the day.

True, in today’s battle of dialectics opacity wins, but then for how long? Over time and amid battling dialectics, society’s voice will inexorably tilt in transparency’s favour. The USA too went through the Gilded Age and the trauma of the robber barons. They came out of it triumphant through laws crafted in the teeth of opposition. For us the battle may be long and hard too but it’s time we had better see the future. I wish the Niti Aayog had the vision to sense a Eureka moment here and suggested measures to move in that direction.

(Reproduced from

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Tightening Governance’s Value System

Citizen as Ombudsman

As a former bureaucrat, who, for years was a part of India’s policy making and overseeing implementation, I sensed, as did many others, serious governance deficit in Indian public policy. Lack of transparency, age-old Indian tradition of promoting family/clan/sub-national loyalty, culture of materialism that’s gotten more pronounced with economic liberalization in a globalized world, and the urge to get-rich-fast, have distorted priorities.
Ethics, in the broadest sense, is at the heart of these problems. Looking at the psychology and compulsions of the early man, it would seem that the raison d'être of the social compact has been defeated; in the schematic social contract versus individualist aspirations construct, individual aspirations have triumphed. Human aspirations and ingenuity have, from time to time, trumped regulations/contracts/rules; regulations have failed to smother this primordial human urge to self-aggrandize. Are there lessons to learn here? I still can’t get over the shock when, in my bureaucratic diapers in 1982, I saw a file how white ants had eaten away road rollers! Same too where cyclones had been “manufactured” in the trans-Himalayan belt to score off inventories. It seemed something was egregiously and unacceptably wrong.
Corruption though is not mere financial. As damaging as financial malfeasance is intellectual dishonesty, manifested in policy-making kept under wraps in official records. While financial misgivings are palpable, intellectual dishonesty – covert and subterranean – hemorrhages soundlessly till fixed; it skews and wrinkles public morality.  The damage is incalculable. The clutch of scams and mega-scams that struck India circa 2008-12 extinguished citizen’s monk-like patience. Apart from the financial loss of taxpayers’ money, it showed how corruption had squeezed money out of the system creating a skewed developmental agenda.
Propriety – financial and intellectual – is a key determinant of citizen’s quality of life. It encompasses legislation, governance, healthcare, education, commerce, business, justice system etc. Yet, the architecture of rule of law designed to hold the order, often fails to squelch wrong human impulses. Human nature – possessive, hedonistic, self-interested – trumped regulations. With the dishonest networked across professions, the countervailing institutions have often failed, swaying to interest groups’ agenda. The people’s movement against corruption in 2011 for creation of Lokpal turned out a false dawn. Was it because the four pillars of democracy – executive, legislature, judiciary, media – supposed to checkmate one another didn’t wish to disturb the applecart? How does such mindset affect governance?
Even 26 years post-liberalization, the Indian rural population still looks up to government intervention for poverty alleviation. Governments hold the fund and welfare entities for the poor. For a feudal society with traditional bespoke mindset, state patronage remains the Holy Grail for majority aspirations. Nor are most men in the four organs of governance immune to quid pro qua: bought-out press and paid news; post-retirement sinecures for most who have been in government employ; rewards and gratifications, are just a few examples. Socio-financial iniquity has burgeoned; unrest – born off a growing educated young middle class finding it hard to navigate opaque archaic government procedures and a corrupt officialdom in day to day living – leveraging technology and social media bristles asking moral questions: Does it not diminish human beings? Does it not impugn basic human dignity?
The malaise is all-pervasive. In a way it’s natural, for regardless of profession, men are cut from the same societal cloth with symptoms of the same ecosystem. Look at the role of legislature and judiciary: Haven’t they been hubristic and for the highbrow as is often alleged, granting preferential treatment to the “well-networked” and the “connected”? How’s the Supreme Court played its part in dispensing justice? Have judges transcended the society’s feudal mindset? A host of recent cases come to mind: highway liquor ban, contempt of a former Supreme Court judge, national anthem case, judges seeking post-retirement employ, the delayed hearing in the Aadhaar case (still on-going) just to cite a few. Restraint, rather self-restraint, is the authentic signifier of a mature institution. Absence of restraint even in the face of palpable injustice or manifest illegalities can only corrode public confidence. The judiciary will do well to realize this. The rippling effect it creates in terms of revenue loss or employment as in the highway liquor ban case is simply beyond their ken to evaluate. The fact is it is not their remit; hubris of power to grant complete justice isn’t in order.
Else, the very fabric of separate of power, one of the basic tenets of the Constitution, will be cast aside. Coming from the protector of the Constitution, it amounts to the fence eating the crop! “The judge’s role”, as one columnist wrote, “in any version of constitutional democracy, is to be a gatekeeper of constitutional boundaries, an ever-vigilant defender of rights, not to author more restrictions on civil liberties... If this is the role judges seek for themselves, then they must make themselves accountable under judicial review. The immunity from judicial review under Article 13 is to preserve the interpretive authority of the court, given the inevitability of disagreement emerging over its interpretations, not to shield episodes of absurd judicial law-making.” Have they then been the Caesar’s wife? How does the judiciary morally explain its dueling with the executive on appointment of judges through an opaque “collegiate system” when the Constitution consciously divvies responsibility between the two to avoid monopoly of either and grant fairness to selection? How fair is it? Does it pass muster of disinterested observers and provide oxygen to public faith?
In an interesting piece in The New Yorker, Evan Osnos refers to an article “on the intersection of health and politics” published in Brain, the British medical journal in February, 2009, titled Hubris Syndrome: An Acquired Personality Disorder? One of the authors was David Owen, former British Foreign Secretary, also a physician-neuroscientist where the authors propose creation of a psychiatric disorder for leaders who exhibited “impetuosity, a refusal to listen to or take advice and a particular form of incompetence when impulsivity, recklessness and frequent inattention to detail predominate.”  This seems to hold good across professions for people in high perches.
The deterrence to such potential recklessness lies in tightening governance’s value system. Maybe, an arm’s-length system and an Ombudsman to oversee operations are necessary. Yet, given extant obfuscation and opacity, will it be enough to stymie unholy impulses? Will leveraging contemporary technology to bring citizens face to face with governance help? Will such interface, an ex post ‘oversight’ governance, aid stakeholders see for themselves – proactive disclosure is already available under Section 4 of the RTI Act 2005, never mind the Delhi High Court’s ruling keeping the Attorney General out of the RTI’s purview – the processes and rationale of decision-making? More, especially when the Supreme Court is implacably opposed to render itself transparent on personal details of public interest, as evidenced in smothering CIC’s order to part with information under the RTI Act, 2005. Is transparency, then, the answer? Will it help to offer on a platter official document in public domain post-decisions for citizen ombudsman? Will the fear of exposé – disciplinary action and social disapproval for “wrongful acts” – deter unsavory impulses? Possibly, yes; no one likes proceeded against; we live on self-respect and dignity amid a 24/7 media. We’ve the technology and we’ve the besetting issue of dishonesty that refuses to die. Sunlight, it seems, is the best and maybe the only disinfectant for public acts.
At the cost of sounding presumptuous, I would say en passant that when I took over as the Controller General of Defence Accounts to helm the Department looking after the financial management of the entire Government of India defense budget outlay of approx US$ 50 Billion, I invoked transparency. All relevant official documents, all pesky issues of officers’ placement and spends from taxpayers’ money were uploaded. It was bloodless; but it had a magical effect. Disaffection with placements was eliminated, with the networkers exposed and running for cover; unnecessary, wasteful expenditure were arrested, with everyone privy to ways of the corrupt and the nepotistic; and with each checkmating the other. Alas, once I moved over to the Ministry of Defence, transparency was given a royal heave-ho and opacity granted its pride of honor!
Leveraging technology to invoke openness and transparency is an option; a culture of transparency seems the viable answer to curb corruption in public life. But it’s nuanced, multilayered. It’ll need tempering through accountability, an effective check and balance mechanism, an arm’s length system not open to tweaking by any public functionary, not to forget public discussions to rework and re-engineer the entire architecture of governance processes to introduce the moral vocabulary sorely missing in public governance. It will take time but a beginning must be made. Political will is the key. 

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Drugging India to Pay More on Healthcare

The recent Niti Aayog’s Three Year Action Agenda, 2017-18 to 2019-20 on Access to Medicines (pages 144-145) is rather disturbing. “A balanced approach towards regulation is needed for achieving the twin objectives of access to effective medicines and a strong pharmaceutical industry,” so says the Agenda document. “There is a trade-off between lower prices on the one hand and quality medicine and discovery of breakthrough drugs on the other. It is therefore recommended that the Drug Price Control Order may be delinked from the National List of Essential Medicines.”

Is this is one among the many instances of the government’s double-and-multi-speak? The Prime Minister and his Minister of Health and Family Welfare speaking in one voice and the Niti Aayog in another! Was the PM trigger-happy in his muscular tweets (as given below), thrice inside 5 minutes, conveying his concern for the poor, the wretched of the earth? Or was he being plain naïve and didn’t (and still doesn’t) know the issues behind it?

The poor must have access to quality and affordable healthcare: PM @narendramodi in Surat
10:45 AM – 17 Apr 2017

After assuming office, mechanisms were put to bring down prices of medicines even if that meant pharma companies are unhappy with us: PM 10:47 AM – 17 Apr 2017

There are powerful people who are unhappy with me. But, my commitment is to provide affordable healthcare for poor and the middle class: PM 10:50 AM – 17 Apr 2017

The PM seems to have jumped the gun to carry out this – to use one of today’s plenty “Modi-ism” – “surgical operation” on branded medicines. Discerning citizens even with a nodding acquaintance with politicians’ utterances take such loud protestations with a pinch of salt; in every welfare activity, we are wont not to be taken in by the government's pro-people motivations. Peel off the epidermis and the hypodermis will reveal the true intent! Mostly people's welfare is shambolic, it makes for good sloganeering, loud and majestic in its decibel, and to win brownie points at the hustings where voters unthinkingly swallow whatever is dished out. Frankly, no government (least the present one) can afford to ignore the big business houses in our emerging economy's electoral processes. Political pragmatism tells them that their acts must be craftily done with the sheen to help the poor. In the cacophony the common man suffers – or lives in a fool’s paradise till he loses the visions of this “paradise” – while the big pharma companies, druggists and hospitals remain as unfazed and unflustered as ever.

That said, it might sound paradoxical to say that while generic drugs should be the order of the day, in today’s India few generic drugs pass the quality test. The 1980s and 1990s was a time of the generic drug “robber barons” thanks to poor laws and populist aspirations of the then governments bent on low drug prices sans quality of drugs. Little wonder India though placed 4th in global generic drug market, has earned the ignominy of manufacturing 75% of world’s counterfeit generic drugs, soaring high above Egypt with 7% and China with 6%.

To be fair to the government, it has in April 2017 made changes to the Drug and Cosmetics Act (1940) making it mandatory for genetic drug manufacturers to submit Bioequivalence (BE)/Bioavailability (BA) study reports for approval as against the earlier practice of submitting the BE/BA reports for genetics of patented drugs in the first 4 years of introduction. Nothing more is asked of them, thus making it a field day for genetic drugs to flood the market. Once in an indigo moon the finished drug was submitted for testing at the Central Drugs Standard Control Organization (CDSCO). No wonder barely 0.01% of the genetic drugs in the Indian market are tested for its potency and efficacy. In effect, the amendment to the Drugs and Cosmetics Act (1940) is a welcome development. But the issue now is one of regulation and implementation. Anyone who has worked in the government knows its innards. The system is so apathetic and opaque and convoluted that a complaint of poor/inadequate potency will keep meandering about in the corridors of government Bhavans; the callousness of our Brother Babus is phenomenal!  

There doubtless is the need to increase the number of test labs all over the country in government medical colleges, increase the number of pharmacists/pharmacologists, put a strict testing process in place, and go fully transparent with test results by uploading them in public domain. Any complaint from a consumer must be attended with a sense of immediacy and the same too put out on the website. But will the government bite such “dangerous” transparency that will jeopardize big pharma companies’ interest? I doubt if this will ever happen, given this government’s poor track record in refusing to appoint a Lokpal three years after coming to power! And to expect the government to seed a billion Lokpals to oversee is a pipedream! We are then back to square one despite the recent amendment to the Drug and Cosmetics Act (1940). 

Large pharmaceutical companies invest huge money in developing a new drug; the amount could be more than US$ 2-3 billion. Naturally they will like to get return on investment – through patent and royalty. India too seeks big bang R&D in drugs and Indian firms are interested. This explains why the government is speaking with a forked tongue: while the PM and his Ministers speak about mandating generics, the Niti Aayog suggests “a trade-off between lower prices on the one hand and quality medicine and discovery of breakthrough drugs on the other”. And recommends that “the Drug Price Control Order may be delinked from the National List of Essential Medicines”

Essential medicines, says the World Health Organization (WHO) are “those drugs that satisfy the health care needs of the majority of the population; they should therefore be available at all times in adequate amounts and in appropriate dosage forms, at a price the community can afford”. While National List of Essential Medicines (NLEM) is a list of essential medicines in India prepared by the Ministry of Health & Family Welfare,the Drug Price Control Orders (DPCO) are issued by the Government under section 3 of the Essential Commodities Act, 1955, to enable the Government to put a ceiling price for such essential and life saving medicines and ensure that these medicines are available at a reasonable price to the general public.

What’s puzzling is the furtive effort of Niti Aayog to defeat the PM’s noble intentions by equating (in effect) lower prices of drugs under NLEM (and hence under DPCO) with poor quality. The digital magazine The Wire in a well-researched piece has shown how there has been an effort on the part of the PMO with Niti Aayog, Ministry of Health & Family Welfare, Department of Industrial Policy & Promotion, and Department of Pharmaceuticals on board to scupper efforts at popularizing generic drugs and instead hold a brief for multinational pharma firms. Their move to “trade-off” is to delink DPCO from the NLEM will result in soaring of prices of essential drugs. It also runs counter to the government’s affidavit in the Supreme Court and the Minister of Health and Family Welfare’s reply in the Rajya Sabha. The move is blasphemous and highly condemnable. But such are the ways how intellectual dishonesty is sown in Indian system!

Monday, March 20, 2017

Manohar Parrikar Could Have Been a Great Defence Minister

The BJP’s gain in the recent electoral battle has, in a way, been the nation’s loss. Arun Jaitley has been given the additional charge of the defence ministry but it isn’t the same as having a regular raksha mantri and, in particular, with a Manohar Parrikar at its helm. I’m not aware of the games that are played on the political chessboard – in this case, the BJP’s – but looking from the confines of the defence ministry, sadly I can’t think of anyone in the ruling party who can remotely match Parrikar’s intellectual brilliance and penetrating insight into the vastly complex issues that confront the ministry.
Parrikar was new to the national scenario when he, much against his wishes, was made the defence minister in November, 2014. He was new to the Union government, to the murky world of Delhi’s politics and to the even murkier world of defence deals. The defence ministry is vast and humongous. The issues at stake are complex and roiled in tangles of rules and procedures. Decision-making is layered and at the same time labyrinthine. Each of the services has its very own shibboleth and reading a few sentences on a file will make clear the so-called minefield of lingo that one is likely to trample upon.
But Parrikar acquitted himself well – and rather quickly. About six months into his term when, as the controller general of defence accounts, I met him for the first time to discuss the pesky and complex issue of OROP, I discerned his clear understanding of the subject. All the three services chiefs were present at the meeting, as were senior bureaucrats of the ministry. Parrikar seemed to have all the facts of the case, intricate as they are, at his fingertips. He gave everyone a patient hearing, probing the issue deeper, thinking along as he hammered out the necessary calculations almost concurrently.
Soon after, when I moved over to the defence ministry, I saw more of the same on any issues I discussed with him in his chamber or in the many meetings he chaired. He was a hands-on minister like no other. He was quick, but behind his quick decision-making lay a mind that had reflected long and hard on crucial aspects of the issue. He was a brainiac who would dissect procurement cases, and expatiate at length on the pros and cons in the Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) meetings as if he was slowly peeling off layers of an onion. But he granted every official their right of say, no matter how much he disagreed with them. He knew his every move was under media scanner and the ubiquitous defence lobby, but he was firm and open in his conviction.
DPP planning
But more than anything that I saw during my tenure was when the new defence procurement procedure (DPP) was a work-in-progress. Of the many discussions we had in meetings, including in the DAC, the meeting of eight-ten senior officers of the ministry and services headquarters that Parrikar called for us to hammer out the DPP clauses is etched in my memory. The meeting went on for a good six hours. What to my mind still rings loud is the new concept of evaluation that he brought to play on the ‘essential and enhanced’ parameters in the services qualitative requirements granting nuances to the progressive, pragmatic way for single vendor situations in the DPP. “Essential Parameters – A and Essential Parameters – B (if applicable) are non-negotiable requirements to be met by the vendor, prior to commencement of equipment delivery. Essential Parameters – B to be used only when required, with DAC’s approval and not to be used when two or more vendors claim to possess the same at the RFI stage and not to be included in ab-initio single vendor cases. Essential Parameters – B may also be incorporated in the SoC, for provision of partial quantities of the items being procured, to meet different/higher specifications for specific operational requirements.”
This is no place to elaborate on other issues he wished to institutionalise in India’s protracted and scam-laden defence procurement procedure, like the concept of reverse LD to fast track cases in the ministry, but I can’t help alluding to his ability to see and weigh both sides of the coin and provide a transparent level-playing field to all. He certainly played a crucial role in pushing the government machinery to move faster than it has in decision-making.
Flip-flops and delays
Not that we didn’t have our share of disagreements on various issues and his dilly-dallying (the Indian Ministerial filibustering; I called it Parrikaring!) on many others. As a politician he flip-flopped at times; but given our societal value system and cohort pressures, and the times and ethos we live in, plus that he was a relative newbie in the arcane world of the government of India, graduating as he was from the corporation (coined from a friend) of Goa, I’m prepared to grant him the benefit of flip-flops. Cases that have haemorrhaged public funds for years and continue to do so, which he understood very well, readily come to my mind and with immense sadness. But notwithstanding that, I’ll always admire his cerebral sparkle and the hard yards he put in, his focus on Make-in-India that put LCA on centre-stage and the encouragement that he unstintingly provided to Aeronautical Development Agency and the DRDO.
Critics often complained that the Make-in-India project in the defence sector had failed to take-off. Sadly they fail to grasp, given our ecosystem, how tough it can get, how protracted the procurement of arms and weapons/platform are, and how long it takes to show results. The same goes with the recent criticism of the parliamentary standing committee on inadequate defence budgetary outlay. The expectations are immense but so are the imponderables, not to say anything on the need to appreciate the nation’s budgetary outlay in a holistic vein. Anyone who has dealt with issues knows the periodic pitfalls of achieving milestones and the payouts.
Commentators are also often wont to rile against the lower budgetary allocation towards the defence sector. To me though the reference to percentage of GDP is so misplaced that I find this betrays a complete lack of appreciation of the algorithm of a nation’s growth model. To cite a simple example: if a human body requires ‘x’ calories for an optimal life, must greater prosperity mean a greater/higher calorific intake? Common sense says no – it’ll be asking for trouble. The same too goes for the nation and its insurance mechanism. This is not even taking into account the available pool of resources that funds all areas of national development and sustenance. Frankly, I can see no correlation between the defence budgetary outlay and the GDP unless of course we wish to get carried away by the western world’s paradigm of comparative national defence outlays that SIPRI, among others, does. Incidentally, even SIPRI includes pensionary outlay as a part of defence outlay, which the learned commentators disavow and, instead, hammer out their insular architecture.
Parrikar learnt and inhered these issues rather well. He treaded cautiously, as a sensible man would, on issues of strategic partnership that carries in its womb plenitude of ramifications, both for the present and the future. This heaped infinite frustrations on the industry and the industry-driven media ever keen to swoop down on the slightest flaw. The only flaw I can discern here is Parrikar’s penchant to shoot his mouth off on such issues rather than holding back.
But how “correct” was it for Parrikar to leave the ministry and go back to his home turf? It is not for me to go into political calculations, but that he upped and left suddenly after doing the hardest part – understanding the DNA of the ministry that takes years to fructify and show results; the machinations and vacillations in its everyday functioning; the many flawed past trajectories; the many countervailing dynamics and interplay of personnel/middlemen/defence and civil bureaucracy et al – is unfortunate.
He left when he ought to have stayed put.
Columnists have opined that unlike other politicians he wasn’t fond of money, but he loved power in an architecture where he was the numero uno. Far from the general public perception of his ineffable ordinariness and beneath his plebeian visage, he was hubristic and won’t let go a chance to so adumbrate.
Also, coming to Delhi after years of helming the tiny city-state, the overwhelming world of Delhi may have underwhelmed his overweening psychology and worldview. He tried creating his own world almost wholly made up of people drawn from Goa but Lutyen’s Delhi had its own inexorable ways of breaching his citadel from time to time. His periodic, resuscitative visits to Goa didn’t exactly help his cause to carve out a niche in India’s capital.
He longed to get back to Goa. I sensed his heart was in Goa but his head was in Delhi – so well he had understood the defence ecosystem to lead from the front. Notwithstanding these foibles and his many gaffes, which likely would’ve ironed themselves out, he had it in him to be among India’s distinguished raksha mantris. While his party’s political calculations and internal dynamics are theirs, India doubtless needed him more than Goa did.
(Reproduced from The Wire)

Friday, February 3, 2017

A Citizen’s Wish: Decency, Self-restraint, Realism in Public Life

For a concerned citizen, three not-too-past events concerning the apex court in the last few months are troubling. The first relates to the former CJI Justice Thakur’s ranting against a senior advocate, Rajeev Dhavan, in the Sahara case. During the hearing, the CJI is said to have commented that Subrata Roy should go to jail and then the court will hear the counsel on merit. Irked by this, Roy’s counsel Dhavan replied that “It is the most unfair comment by the CJI.” This retort riled Justice Thakur, who reportedly shot back at Dhavan, “Don't tell us what we should say or do.” Further, the CJI allegedly seems to have made certain uncharitable remarks about Dhavan as a lawyer and his conduct in court behind his back. Does such behaviour dignify the high office of the CJI? I leave you with this thought.

The second issue concerns Justice Markandey Katju and the bench headed by Justice Ranjan Gogoi that slapped a contempt notice on the former. The manner in which a former judge of the apex court was invited, then humiliated in full public glare, with the security asking to escort Justice Katju out of the courtroom, not only breaches every strand of public decency/etiquette, but also diminishes the dignity of the apex court.

Worse is that the contempt of court law, is a relic of medieval past when judges exercised power delegated to them by the king and any offence to the court was deemed as offending divine kingly power. So misplaced it is today that even the hidebound Brits have given this law a heave-ho long ago. For not only is it antediluvian, it’s also anachronistic in a democracy where power lies with the people and where public servants are mere servants of this master.

“Justice is not a cloistered virtue,” Lord Atkin said, today a cliché in common parlance. “It must suffer the scrutiny and outspoken comments of ordinary men”. It must, much as in democratic India all organs of public service suffer from criticism and open discussion. More when the clamour for transparency has reached fever pitch and openness is the buzzword. No institution is absolute; the separation-of-power and check-and-balance architecture is a conscious design, done after much deliberation and premeditation in the Constituent Assembly to stop untrammelled power. This is what defines a mature democracy – to ensure a citizen’s freedom of expression is not stymied.

But rather than going into the merit of criticism, what’s agonising is the punitive manner in which contempt of law has been exercised to shush voices of dissent. Dissent is at the heart of democracy. It needs encouragement; unless the administration of justice is impaired, there is no contempt.

Recall the three decade-old Spycatcher case when an English newspaper called the judges “You Old Fools”. No contempt notice was served. Roll back two decades to 1968 when Lord Denning’s telling observations captured the spirit of times: “Let me say… that we will never use this jurisdiction to uphold our own dignity… Nor will we use it to suppress those who speak against us. We do not fear criticism, nor do we resent it. For there is something far more important at stake. It is no less than freedom of speech itself… We must rely on our conduct itself to be its own vindication”. If some 50 years ago the law was seen as obsolete and out of date, invoking such provisions today can only smack of arrogance on one hand and a willful winking at history and reality on the other.

In a democracy, even the head of the government – PM – isn’t spared; he’s often attacked mercilessly. Nor such privileges are accorded to other elected representatives. Recall President De Gaulle’s memorable words during 1968 Paris strike when Jean Paul Sartre was arrested: “You don’t arrest Voltaire!” To invoke such anachronism can only invite derision and detract from fair play, dissent, openness and transparency – a vivid antithesis for dispensation of justice!

The third issue is the Supreme Court’s order on national anthem, which inter alia says that in cinema halls “the citizens of the country must realise that they live in a nation and are duty bound to show respect to National Anthem, which is the symbol of the Constitutional Patriotism and inherent national quality.” What is Constitutional Patriotism and inherent national quality as symbol for citizens? Won’t duty binding citizens ‘to show respect to National Anthem’ encrypt a fuzzy notion in people’s consciousness?

Rousseau’s paradox of freedom in a layered social compact – for all its polemics on surrendering a fraction of individual’s right – doesn’t even envision anything remotely as this. Also issues of implementation: How? Who – to ensure compliance? What punitive measures? Related issues will follow: what about other entrepôts of entertainment – songs and plays in theatre, sports in stadia, horse-race in racecourses? Are they to be exempt? Why?

Confident nations need no such forcing. Respect is not enforced; when done it ceases to be respect, diminishing the very symbol of veneration; it morphs into coercion, verging on interference in citizens’ private space. Yes, it can be instilled, even inculcated; yet given its abstract nature it is best left to citizens to feel, inhere, and appropriate. No intellectual forcing can be foisted and made enforceable much as no abstraction can be mandated; it would hollow out, sounding oxymoronic in terms.

The Supreme Court is too precious an institution to suffer diminution in citizens’ perception. We look up to it as the bulwark of liberty and as our constitutional umpire. We respect it like no other institution. Hence, the need to firewall it from dross. Yet, given our feudal makeup, public offices can vest public servants with outsized sense of importance where individuals make institutions identify with their actions and breach turfs. Hence, the need for conscious self-restrain and emerging of individual and institutional prescriptions. Also, the humility to internalise that public functionaries are but mere instruments for discharging public duties within the bounds of propriety, courtesy and realism, both enjoined and expected.

(Reproduced from The Quint)

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Defence Budget’s Need of the Hour? Outcome-Oriented Quality Checks

While Budget 2017-18 is upon us, the defence budget – the largest – deserves a closer look. The defence outlay for financial year 2016-17 was a whopping Rs 3,40,922 crore: Rs 82,333 crore (24.15%) on pension, Rs 1,62,759 crore (47.4%) on revenue spends and Rs 86,332 crore (25.32%) on capital acquisition. The sheer size, magnitude and complexity of the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and its multiple organisations, make any changes in outlays a challenging ask. The Shekatkar Committee appointed by the MoD has already submitted its Report; hopefully its suggestions will help re-balance the defence budget – where revenue spends outstrip capital outlays by a long measure – while recommending measures to enhance the armed forces’ combat capabilities.

Reduce Replication of Assets

To begin with, reducing replication of capital assets without compromising on the three services’ individual roles is crucial not only for reducing cost, but also for true ‘jointness’. Scientific simulation methods to optimise common capital asset creation can help. Cost-centric analysis for each service, formation, and units will also help prioritise the mutually varying needs and facilitate decision-making – to add/retain or modify outlays.

A priority-based budget plan for cost-centres based on need for defence preparedness, threat perception and practicality, with needs categorised – (A) absolute; (B) medium to high; (C) medium to low – can be worked out with each dynamically reviewed on changing priorities and with percentages too varying across services. With huge capital expenditure incurred in past years, the financial burden of maintenance of systems acquired will, naturally, weigh heavy in the foreseeable future. A comprehensive policy for maintenance of inducted weapon systems – both Indian and foreign – keeping in view the Make in India policy, will therefore need articulation.

Similarly, there’s a need to streamline policy for maintenance through Indian-deemed OEMs or foreign OEMs/government-nominated Agencies, benchmarking costs of maintenance, escalation percentages with foreign vendors (especially Russian-origin in the wake of the depreciated rouble) etc in order to bring down the repair and maintenance costs of inducted systems incurred with foreign vendors who leverage monopolistic situations. What we need is an analysis exploring possibilities to breach this monopoly by Indian industry with an assured order to kick-start indigenous production of spares.

Utilise Vast Tracts of Defence Land

That said, the need for optimal resource utilisation can’t be overlooked. Nor can the many other issues that seem insignificant – for when aggregated, they tote up to sizeable numbers; they need drastic tinkering and fine-tuning. Expansion of alternate sources of non-conventional energy is one such; solar energy in vast tracts of available defence land will also help promote a response to climate change. MoD, incidentally, is India’s largest holder of land.

The colonialist has left, but the mindset hasn’t; the vast tracts still remain amid turf battles and mounting pressure to house India’s billowing population. Close scrutiny will help identify surplus defence land for non-defence use. Even the vast defence lands and buildings must be leveraged to gain revenue.

Sadly, the revenue generated through commercial utilisation of defence land is siphoned off to non-public/regimental funds with only a pittance credited to the government account. A ballpark figure will suggest diversion of Rs 5,000 to 6,000 crore in the last 40 years; in reality, it could be a lot more; maybe more still if indexed to the present value of money.

What’s galling is the ingenious way adopted to siphon off these funds; splitting the license fee into two components: Administrative Charges (Rebate) and License Fee – the bulk (rebate) going to the Non-Public Fund/Regimental Fund and a minuscule (License Fee) amount to the government account.

The Parliamentary Committees have scathingly criticised such haemorrhaging of government revenue. In 2013-14, the Public Accounts Committee had directed the ministry to formulate policy to realise government dues from commercial utilisation of defence land within six months.

Three years later, nothing has changed. A similar diversion of funds is endemic in the running of various Guest Houses/Transit Facilities, and commercial utilisation of land for golfing. It’s shocking that despite severe indictments by Parliamentary Committees, far from plugging such reprehensible and depraved motivations, they go on undeterred.

End Foreign Junkets

Such impulses, like numerous fun-filled, even frivolous and trumped-up visits abroad (Pre-Despatch Inspection [PDI]) involving spending huge government funds abroad rather than Joint Receipt Inspection (JRI) in India at sellers’ cost, to cite an example), lavish and conspicuous consumption, showing up India-Bharat as a veritable twin-nation, are sheer anachronisms in any modern democracy.

Very few inside the government, even in the MoD, know that the taxpayers pick up the tab (Business class airfare and per diem) for the Army/Air Force/Naval Chiefs’ spouses’ visits abroad. It sounds surreal but the truth is this relic of the Raj continues to this day – a good 70 years after independence! What seems a pittance in the huge defence outlay is citizens’ hard-earned money!

While no one can question the defence need, we can’t miss the woods for the trees: there’s a limit to government spending on insurance; unmistakably every rupee spent on defence is a rupee denied to development.

Sadly, the MoD’s vision on budget outlays isn’t inclusive; most fail to grasp the full picture – the taxpayers’ money sits lightly on their collective consciousness. Important social ministries get crumbs, just a few hundred or thousand crore, for the huge job they’re tasked with. They’re forever starved; denied additional funding on important programmes – not because their needs aren’t appreciated by the finance ministry, but because precious little is left in the kitty. Sadly, the parliamentary committee examining the detailed demands for grants too fails to take a holistic view, often swayed by the Services’ blinkered vision trotted out with patriotic vehemence and ebullience. While all Indians are equal, some sure are more equal than others!

Need for Greater Accountability

It’s time to fully exploit the DRDO’s potential by dovetailing the Services’ demands with theirs through joint accountability and creating a convivial ecosystem in quest for ‘Make in India’. Aeronautical Development Agency’s (ADA) LCA is a shining example; just that the faith has been reposed belatedly only now. Realistic project completion timelines and costing with strict monitoring and deterrence (financial and technical) are crucial; delays demand joint ownership, explanation, accountability and traceability. Apart from huge savings, it’ll be hugely gratifying.

In the spirit of propriety for spends from the public funds, accountability can be embedded by hugging FRBM principles to ensure inter-generational equity in fiscal management, long run macroeconomic stability, better coordination between fiscal and monetary policy, and transparency in fiscal operations of the MoD. With the risk of broken confidentiality and compromised secrecy looming large over national security, limited disclosure as deterrence can be considered, with nodes provided to relevant functionaries in the MoD, Services Headquarters, CGDA and other important functionaries who are already part of decision-making.

Yet the need for transparency in other areas – especially in Revenue non-salary, non-core procurements – ought be via e-procurement as per existing orders, by generating supply orders and contract agreements through the system in real-time with access granted to all stakeholders in line of activities, such as higher CFAs, financial advisers and internal audit. Thus enabled, internal audit can carry out concurrent audit and take care of sanction audit with a simultaneity that will facilitate quick transparent payment, which remains another bugbear and has immense scope for corruption.

Focus on Quality of Expenditure

There is yet more scope to delegate to cut delays, prompt every layer to value-add, and take responsibility. While the DFPDS-2016 has set the tone with more delegation, it has suggested greater accountability through transparency by leveraging technology, aided by concurrent audit that’ll throw up poor decision-making to deter malfeasance/misfeasance and mismanagement of public funds. Going forward, more innovative and non-intrusive ways of Internal Control Risk Management (ICRM) framework and oversight mechanism will have to be injected into the system.

Budgetary outlays are mere estimates of likely expenditure. It is likely spends are asymmetrical, often with residual funds available in the last fiscal quarter. The focus hence should be on quality of expenditure, not on full utilisation of budgetary outlays, and allaying the popular misconception that non-spending leading to lapse of funds is a sign of management failure.

It’s time we moved out of this past vestige by reposing faith in public officials who abhor invasion of market economy values to sculpt a virtual market society that has no place in a regimental order. Outcome-oriented qualitative transparent expenditure with clear deliverables – tangibles and non-tangibles – must take centre-stage rather than mere typecast quantitative utilisation of budgetary outlays.

(Reproduced from The Quint)

Saturday, January 21, 2017

The Inscrutability of Life in a Polarizing Marshland

I had just finished reading a well-researched narrative piece on Narendra Modi by Vinod K. Jose in the March 2012 issue of Caravan magazine. Sundry thoughts stirred in my head, uppermost, naturally, being demonetization. Was Ashish Nandy, the political psychologist, percipient in his 2002 assessment of Modi after meeting him in late-1980s when he wrote: “More than a decade ago, when Narendra Modi was a-nobody, a small-time RSS pracharak trying to make it as a small-time BJP functionary, I had the privilege of interviewing him. It was a long, rambling interview, but it left me in no doubt that here was a classic, clinical case of a fascist. I never use the word ‘fascist’ as a term of abuse; to me it is a diagnostic category comprising not only ideological posture but also the personality traits and motivational patterns contextualizing the ideology.
“Modi, it gives me no pleasure to tell the readers, met virtually all the criteria that psychiatrists, psycho-analysts and psychologists had set up after years of empirical work on the authoritarian personality. He had the same mix of puritanical rigidity, narrowing of emotional life, massive use of the ego defence of projection, denial and fear of his own passions combined with fantasies of violence - all set within the matrix of clear paranoid and obsessive personality traits. I still remember the cool, measured tone in which he elaborated a theory of cosmic conspiracy against India that painted every Muslim as a suspected traitor and a potential terrorist. I came out of the interview shaken that, for the first time, I had met a textbook case of a fascist and a potential killer, perhaps even a future mass murderer.”
The piece quotes a RSS leader: “Shivling mein bichhu baitha hai. Na usko haath see utaar sakte ho, na usko joota maar sakte ho.” A scorpion’s sitting on Shivling, Lord Shiva’s holy phallus. It can neither be removed by hand nor slapped with a shoe.
It didn’t feel like real, it felt surreal. Disturbed, I WhatsApped Ashish Nandy’s assessment and the “bichhu analogy” to friends. One friend asked for my take on demonetization. My answer was nuanced: India isn’t Gujarat, and it’s foolish to expect all Indians not to dissent. Fighting corruption is admirable, if it’s sincere. I support demonetization of 1000 bills, not the 500 tenders. 500 today is the 100 of 7-8 years ago. The queues refuse to die. It’ll be a year before notes demonetized are replenished per the printing SOP. Any planning post-monetization? No. Any expert advice sought? No. It’s instead been all bluster and grandstanding. But histrionics and theatrics don’t make for governance. It needs understanding and reflection on the roadmap consequent to the big step. Because, like medical science, economics (if a science) too is stochastic, not a physical science. None can predict how the future will pan out. This is where expert advice and reflection helps – to limit damage amid vicissitudes of change. See the flip-flop in policies – 100-odd times since November 8!
Yet, all that’s palpable is a fear to dissent. How much dissent is frowned upon today! Not all dissenters and contrarians are anti-national, Desh Drohis. In a democracy, dissent is the core, not the bought-out press’s spewing spiels or the abject yes-sir, three-bagful-sir applause of blind followers. Dissent is the heart of democracy. It needs encouragement even on judicial pronouncements. Recall the 1980s Spycatcher case when an English newspaper called the judges “You Old Fools”. No contempt notice was served. Cast back to 1968 when Lord Denning’s telling observations captured the spirit of those times: “Let me say… that we will never use this jurisdiction to uphold our own dignity… Nor will we use it to suppress those who speak against us. We do not fear criticism, nor do we resent it.” The manner in which Justice Markandey Katju, a former judge of the apex court was invited, then humiliated in full public glare with the security asked to escort him out of the courtroom, not only breached every strand of public decency and etiquette, it was a shocker: of judicial arrogance – the very institution the public reposes faith in drawing the lakshman rekha for executive and legislative’s impudence and overstepping their remit. “Justice is not a cloistered virtue,” Lord Atkin said, a cliché today. “It must suffer the scrutiny and outspoken comments of ordinary men”. Recall President De Gaulle’s memorable words during 1968 Paris strike when Jean Paul Sartre was arrested: “You don’t arrest Voltaire!”
No organ of governance is absolute; it’s the defining image of mature democracy – to ensure citizen’s freedom of expression is not stymied. The world’s changed, there’s ferment; technology has empowered the citizen courtesy social media. The days of hectoring are long gone. It can raise its ugly head and show up in dribs and drabs, but thankfully not for long. Democratic India must suffer criticism and open discussion, more when clamor for transparency has reached fever pitch and openness the buzzword.
The responses to my message, polarized, came thick and fast. One wrote in sarcastic fury: “I’m not aware of a textbook definition of the term ‘fascist’ but Ashish Nandi’s description would fit many persons, to some permanently and to a larger number during certain passing phase of their lives while driven by ideology, or goal or some purpose. Many a time we admire the quality of not yielding, not wavering, but we also consider bending to strong wind a useful attribute; it needs to be evaluated and even admired with reference to context. I personally am somewhat ambivalent on Modi, he is different and perhaps the difference will bring some good tidings but it’s just a PERHAPS. The nation had to live with a gang of suckers for long and didn’t complain, the so called intellectuals of left content with the crumbs thrown at them and making mostly politically correct noises. Things are a bit different now, a difference one couldn’t have experienced otherwise from the bandicoots of yore. Despite my cynicism I’m willing to wait and watch. I liked a joke on WhatsApp on demonetization: ‘Modi said let the nation have cashless economy... the ATMs went dry.’ Hardly a joke but it does show imperfections in planning, yet all said and done I’m willing to wait.”
Another wrote in ostensible anger: “Modi’s vision and intensity of commitment is tremendous. India perhaps requires a dictator for a brief spell, and then doused like a circuit breaker. In UPA time, the pendulum swung to one extreme. Now it will swing to the other before reaching equilibrium.  Sadly Modi isn’t an economics-appreciating politico…he’s like a bull in a China shop. His intention/goal is commendable. Whether this venture succeeds or fails, the end either way will be spectacular. The opposition is decimated; there should be some sane voice to set the trajectory at par. This’s missing with a castrated RBI.”
Yet another wrote: “Anyone who’s rational (and not a Bhakt) and thinks critically would agree. Just because someone wears a white outfit doesn’t make him blemish-free! Taking bold decisions is one thing, taking apparently illogical decision is another! This is akin to pushing people into deep water and asking them to learn swimming with a hope that only those are targeted would drown! Everyone knows and it’s no secret that corruption hasn’t vanished... it’s just become more centralized! So who’s being fooled? …I am told that this is already a Harvard case study of failed policy decisions and implementation! Policy with such large repercussions launched without any ex ante policy evaluation! No statistics by Govt on policy deliverables and how they’ve been achieved! So those who think with an open mind are bound to question the decision!”
I welcome dissent; I like my ideas critiqued on empirical facts and on cold calculus. This time around though it was different; it bristled with mounting passions: Hope versus Vitriol; Anger versus Chimera; Reasoned Analysis versus Bhakt’s Worship! How polarizing demonetization is? In each of the 3 metros (Mumbai, Bangalore, Delhi) and two provincial cities (Cuttack and Bhubaneswar) I’ve been to post-demonetization, I’ve spoken with varying people to gain insight. “We’re sunk; we’re doomed; we’re without work; we sell our farm produce at 95% discount” have been their responses. The pain-points stay – for the poor, the marginalized, the rural folks and the wretched of earth. Time lost is productivity lost for good, never to be made good. Sops as poultice won’t do. Timeline for printing notes too can’t be shrunk; if messed, it’ll lead to further delays haemorrhaging tax-payers’ money. The loss off flawed currency note printing post-demonetization is already a whopping Rs 10,000 crore! Stop-Work will reign. Surgical strike of the corrupt, over days, changed to Cashless society, then morphed to Less-cash society and now to Digital India. I know Digital India too won’t hold for long, given today’s infrastructure and literacy level; it’s a fanciful wish coined by thespians for effect and bites. My uncle, an octogenarian, a senior retired government officer tells me he has never used the ATM to withdraw money from the bank, let alone use net banking. “Can the government force me to go digital? he asked me. “I don’t use a mobile phone. My hands are not steady, my eyesight is getting weaker, my mind is often addled. Can I be forced to learn now and do as the government orders me to do at my age? And if I don’t, why should my age deprive me of digital incentives granted to others?”
The PM’s much awaited New Year eve message conveyed precious little. Some sop here, some sop there, amounting to naught. The pain stays: What’s the roadmap? When will things limp back to normality? Isn’t it, hence sardonic, as a WhatsApp message quipped, PM Modi has wished the nation a Merry Crisis and a Happy New Fear! Are we drowning? Is there light at the end-of-the-financial-year tunnel? This, the inscrutability of life as we begin 2017 Anno Domini!