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Policy Implementation and Political Expediency in Covid Times


Amita Singh

Governance in Covid-19 times has shown that implementation is the toughest task for any government. Those who violate laws with impunity, escalate both the costs and hazards of policy implementation?

State machinery in most situations is not robust enough to prevent it whether it’s Nizamuddin Markaz or the Kumbh Mela, election rallies in India or the compulsive Spring Breakers at Florida and Miami beaches in the US, or even the 17th March crowding around Irish pubs in the UK to raise a glass to the patron saint.

Sometimes politicians scramble to bond with defiance as the Chief Ministers of Uttarakhand and UP threw public invitations for the Kumbh fair, akin to Governor Ron DeSantis wholeheartedly welcoming cheering Spring Breakers with assurance that “there are no lockdowns in Florida… it’s not gonna happen”.

How would an implementer deal with such situations when even in the midst of a pandemic the ‘no mask & no helmet’ braveheart pass-by with flirtatious impunity. Violations such as those against pandemic-lockdowns are strengthened by beliefs of chivalry, protest or community ethics and become powerful weapons against virus control measures.

Yet, governments cannot escape implementing their policies. Implementation is not just getting it done but letting it happen. It involves a number of tangible and intangible inputs which are built over time and not created simply by invoking a law through a television announcement. Laws constitute the weakest stilt in the implementation process while for others one can look into our history of administrative reforms.

An expert panel in a recent Lancet paper has recommended eight “urgent’ steps for the Central and state governments to prepare against a more ferocious third wave of the virus. The Kappa (B.1.617.1), Delta (B.1.617.2) and increasing numbers of Delta Plus (AY.1) variants of coronavirus with the latter most likely to escape even the immune system of a person is burdening implementing agencies. So, what should the government do?

The suggested eight urgent steps for the implementation of pandemic control policies include decentralised decision making, need to cap cost of essential health services, dissemination of clear information, optimum utilisation of human and other resources, vaccine procurement by Central government, public participation, transparency in government data collection and lastly provision in cash transfers.

With a seven-year record of implementation of various flagship policies it would be interesting to assess if the government has a will, capacity and philosophy to implement these suggested eight steps.

That most policy slippages occur at an implementation level has been a traditional worry amongst senior officers heading the Department of Administrative Reforms and Personnel Grievances (DARPG). When the UPA government announced the Second Administrative Reforms Commission within one year of its taking over in 2005, it focused on compiling and evaluating innovations and best practices from the panchayat level to the district and the state levels.

The DARPG reached out to the Centre for the Study of Law and Governance at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) for conducting evaluation of a large number of best practices submitted as ‘success stories’ by district magistrates and secretaries at the states and Central ministries. This was the first such self-evaluation drive undertaken since Independence by the government for identifying both cogs and lubricants in the complicated implementation process.

The Fifth Pay Commission raised its head the same year with a placard of performance as a key criterion for promotions, voluntary retirement and also a golden handshake.

It triggered ample turbulence amongst younger district magistrates to show performance and with an institution like JNU known for its scathing analytical acumen being in a driver’s seat for evaluation, this nervousness became more intense in states like Haryana where almost every policy was rated as a best practice or like UP where they skeptically asked ‘best out of what?’.

Evaluation teams were most welcome in the Northeastern states where humble district administration and ward councillors found this as an opportunity to come under the watchful eyes of Delhi for the many cost-effective, innovative measures they have been undertaking for years without even being noticed.

Most of their so-called ‘good’ micro practices were never marketed the way Haryana, Tamil Nadu and MP could do. I recollected the Hawthorne experiments of the 1920s which brought out ‘supervision and being watched’ as an underlying push for women teams to have scored better than men. For the Northeastern states, evaluation teams became a medium before which they could showcase their innovative community participatory approaches in implementation.

This approach which engages with Community Based Organisations (CBOs), Self-help Groups (SHGs) and other forms of non-government organisations (NGOs) provided sustainability and cost-effectiveness to implementation in contrast to Haryana’s personality driven, capital intensive and short shelf-life policies.

Digvijaya Singh as Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh invoked Citizens’ Charters (CCs) within the e-governance frame. As our research team travelled during peak summer through the terrain of Jhansi from UP to Orchha town in MP, we encountered a world of difference.

The youngsters of around 3,000 Brahmin families on the right side of the town who were mostly educated but poor, had cement houses but no livelihood, found it feasible to cross over to the side of tribal communities having rich craftsmanship, art, theatre and music but no access to benefits of governance and therefore remained uneducated and marginalised.

Under many governance schemes the unemployed youngsters got an opportunity to educate and synchronise marketing of tribal forest usufruct and their art to the outside world. We saw caste and religious barriers waning fast in the process, love flourished and implementation strengthened.

The DMs office almost 100 km away from Orchha with a run-down road and almost an immobilising drive through a narrow five-feet broad shaky bridge over Betwa river, dying and dead animals on either side of the road due to lack of water was a story of another world. No-one ever heard them but an e-governance initiative of Taara-Haat mobilised CCs to support developmental work undertaken at some of the most interior places.

The Indian Institute of Public Administration (IIPA) had organised a discussion on Citizens Charters with the country›s senior administrators sometime in 2007-08 in which the Additional Secretary D.V. Singh representing DARPG had made an important but pathbreaking note to the government, that not much can be left in the hands of administrators as citizens should share some burden of implementation.

A prudent government would rather focus on creating platforms of government-citizen collaboration at various levels of policy implementation than treat policy declarations as self-programmed softwares to achieve ends.

This project of evaluation had been a wholesome experience when the unassuming Manmohan Singh kept directing Prithvi Raj Chavan, Minister of State for Personnel, Public Grievances and Pensions, on what to do next. He never stood on a dais to thunder as it appeared, he knew that implementation cannot be a whip on the horse as a good racing horse always needs a warmup.

Within the first two years of attaining power at the Centre, the NDA government announced its five flagship schemes and countrywide campaigns such as Digital India, Beti Bachao-Beti Padhao or Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan, Make in India, etc.

The first flagship programme ‘Pradhan Mantri Jan-Dhan Yojana’ to provide financial inclusiveness and support to the marginalised classes rushed with opening of basic savings bank deposit (BSBD) account with minimal paperwork, relaxed KYC, e-KYC, account opening in camp mode, zero balance and zero charges. The country’s banking systems which did not have a matching number of personnel and capital to address this new challenge soon started showing signs of collapse.

The result was the merger of banks. During the second UPA most merging banks failed to open new accounts as their problem of collating and merging extensive databases consumed their time and resources. Moreover, with new regulations the UPA switched from ‘no paper work’ to a ‘longer paperwork and more number of documents’ as a precondition to open a bank account. Centralisation in decision making once again lost the poor in public financial institutions.

Atal Pension Yojana (APY), the second flagship social security scheme of the Modi government, was made to deliver old age income security, particularly to the workers of the unorganised sector. The stringent policy decisions against NGOs and other community-based organisations combined with demonetisation and new FCRA rules almost crushed the unorganised sector.

Third flagship programme, Pradhan Mantri MUDRA Yojana (PMMY) stands for Micro Units Development & Refinance Agency Ltd; it is a financial institution being set-up by Government of India for development and refinancing micro unit enterprises. With stressed out banks, manpower shortages and unorganised sector annihilated there is little to talk about for micro units.

Fourth flagship programme, Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana (PMUY) with an aim to provide 8 crore deposit free LPG connections to poor households in the country could not continue the zeal beyond the first 2-3 years as purchasing power decreased and cylinder cost skyrocketed. Lastly, the Modi government’s fifth flagship programme of Gold Monetisation Scheme provided different options for people to monetize the gold lying waste in their houses.

Ironically, the government itself revealed that the scheme has led to only 6.4 tons of gold deposits till date which is even less than 2% of the annual imports of gold in those years. Temples and people had little trust in the government to hand over their gold to the scheme.

The NDA campaigns definitely stirred people with much energising Digital India and the progressive Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan. How could the implementation fatigue set in so fast in them? People’s engagement into collaborative partnerships to achieve any such campaign could not be picked up as most non-government platforms for achieving these ends stood demolished after demonetisation.

Implementation is an incremental activity and if a new government wrecks institutions raised by previous incumbents it also lays waste a huge amount of trust and faith from the past.

An instant call for defeating everything setup by the previous government with slogans such as the ‘Congress-mukt Bharat’ generated insecurity amongst a large majority, impelling violations, rebellion while not sparing the new regime with a lack of legitimacy tag. Mature and experienced governments avoid such situations as they try to or even pretend to walk with people.

A standard principle for implementing any policy is the implementer’s own demonstrable firm belief and apparent trust in its success. The second Covid wave policy derailment across the country is being seen and rightly so as a result of leaders who after storming the Markaz justify the Kumbh, after shedding Covid norms in election rallies return home to impose fines and talk of accountability when they demonstrate most opaque distributive policies towards state governments and talk of democracy at G7.

Implementation is a culture of ethics which does not come from laws alone but from a sense of belongingness that a government generates in people that they have a role to play. So, go ahead to create democratic platforms and not stay divided.

This article first appeared in The Daily Guardian | Policy Implementation and Political Expediency in Covid Times on June 24, 2021.

About the author:


Amita Singh is president, NDRG, and former Professor of Administrative Reforms and Emergency Governance at JNU. She is also a Guest Speaker with IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute.

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