Half truths and whole lies

A point-by-point expose of the government’s shifty economic logic

Written by Arun Shourie | Published:February 28, 2009 12:19 am

Power: A week does not pass without us being reminded by some governmental declaration or the other — as if “load-shedding” were not enough of a reminder — of how we are lagging behind in power generation. The government’s answer has been what Professor John Kenneth Galbraith had long ago identified as the forte of Indian planning: therapeutic targetry! There is a big gap? Announce an even bigger target! Accordingly,the 11th plan posits a target of adding 90,700 megawatts — to keep the target from looking too obviously unrealistic,the figure that is usually mentioned is 78,700 megawatts; this is done by excluding the 12,000 megawatts that are supposed to be generated as captive capacity by users. Seven quarters of the 11th plan have already gone. We have added 10,887 megawatts: again,you see the hand of the subterfugists: this figure is inflated to 13,687 megawatts by including 2,800 megawatts that were in fact completed in the last year of the 10th plan and were included in accounts of that year’s achievements! At this rate,experts forecast that we shall add only 40,000 megawatts by the end of the 11th plan: a study prepared for the planning commission itself has forecast that,the way things are going,the gap between demand and supply of power will be larger at the end of the 11th plan than it was at its commencement. On top of all this,the T&D losses — the theft and dacoity losses rather than the transmission and distribution losses they are called — continue at 40 per cent.   

Yet half-truths continue to be used to claim achievements. In its Common Minimum Programme,the UPA government had pledged that it would provide electricity to all by 2009. And,if you read the glowing accounts of achievement under the Rajiv Gandhi Gramin Vidyutikaran Yojana,you would think that the country is well on its way to providing electricity to every household. The facts are to the contrary,indeed they remind us how little we should believe governmental statements.

When this government assumed office,the planning commission had estimated that at least 7.8 crore households had no electricity at all. It had put the figure of “unelectrified or de-electrified” villages at 2,35,000.

And now see how targets are achieved! By a sleight of words,the Rajiv Gandhi Gramin Vidyutikaran Yojana rewrote the target down: the objective was not to be to provide “electricity to all” by 2009; it was to be to provide “access to electricity to all”. Second,7.8 crore households that were without electricity and were to be provided electricity were replaced in documents by 2.43 crore BPL households — in both electrified and unelectrified villages! Next,the number of villages that were unelectrified or which had lapsed to a “de-electrified” state — someone should really give our planners some recognition for their linguistic contributions — was now estimated to be only 1,17,000.

Even so,as against the rewritten targets of providing electricity to 1,25,000 unelectrified and de-electrified villages and 2.43 crore BPL households,the Implementation of Budget Announcements,2008-2009 document indicates that only 54,000 of those villages and only 43 lakh BPL households have been provided electricity connections. The panchayats have not certified these claims in full. And about what kind of power is actually being supplied,little need be said.

Drinking water: Another scheme named after Rajiv Gandhi,the Rajiv Gandhi Water Mission,presents the same sort of picture. The CAG has put out a performance audit report on it,in particular on the ARWSP,the Accelerated Rural Water Supply Programme. It talks of the “alarming level of slippage” — between April 2000 and April 2007,the CAG records,about 1.54 lakh “fully covered” habitations have slipped back into a “partially covered” or a “not covered” status. Even this data is unreliable. Projects have been commenced and even “completed” at places and in a manner that makes them “unsustainable”. While the programme requires that laboratories must be set up to test the quality of the water which is being supplied,the labs have not been set up. In instance after instance,where they have been set up,qualified persons have not been appointed. Where the persons have been appointed,the mandatory tests are not being carried out. Water being supplied is of such quality that,the CAG records,it “may pose a threat to public health.”

All this in the name of Rajiv Gandhi. I can’t understand why these sycophants are so determined to tarnish the names of their kul devtas.

Employment: The CAG’s performance audit report on NREGA,the programme to implement the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act illustrates another feature. One aspect,of course,is that of the 3.81 crore rural households that registered under the scheme and requested work,only 22 lakh households — that is,a mere six per cent — got the 100 days of legally guaranteed employment. But I am talking about another feature — the CAG drew the ministry’s attention to the flagrant violations of its own guidelines,the flagrant discrepancies in the data,the flagrant malpractices that came into view,the blatant shortfalls in fulfilling targets. The ministry’s response has been typical,and is,therefore,most instructive. Implementation is the responsibility of the states,the ministry told the CAG! We have nothing to say in regard to these deviations!

In a word,when credit is to be claimed,as in the Budget and annual reports of the rural development ministry,the rural employment programme is one of the great achievements of this government,one of its “flagship programmes”. When black holes come into view,why,that is the responsibility of the states!

“The NREGA is a central legislation,” the CAG is compelled to remind the government,“and the ministry,as the nodal agency for NREGA,bears ultimate overall responsibility for coordinating and monitoring the implementation and administration of NREGA and ensuring that funds provided by GoI are economically,efficiently and effectively utilised by the implementing agencies.”

And the guidelines that have been so casually disregarded are the guidelines that you have prescribed,the CAG told the ministry. Suddenly,the ministry had a new view about its guidelines,the very guidelines for formulating which the ministry has been claiming so much credit — “We have tightened them so much that misuse is just impossible,” I was told by a high-up in the ministry: the ministry told the CAG that its guidelines have been “merely suggestive”. The CAG pricks this evasion. The guidelines had been drawn up and prescribed,the CAG reminds the ministry,because the ministry itself had come to the conclusion that adhering to them was necessary to ensure effective and efficient implementation of and ensuring the fulfillment of NREGA. If the ministry has come to the opposite conclusion,namely that they are being disregarded for good reason,“It is the ministry’s responsibility to ensure that adequate and effective alternative controls have been put in place for the same purpose.”

Not a hair of the ministry has turned as a result of any of this. Each time the question comes up,the government points to the money it has spent,and flaunts the allocations as achievement. Contrast this with what Manmohan Singh and Chidambram had declared,“Outcomes not allocations… Accountability… A mechanism to measure the outcome of all major programmes.”

Telecom: Reform after reform that had been instituted both to ensure rapid growth as well as to clean up the sector has been reversed — from inviting and processing tenders of BSNL and MTNL,to the introduction of a universal license,to allocation of spectrum,to methods of auctioning. Steps that were solemnly promised have been buried out of sight.

There had been grave misgivings over the total incidence of taxes and levies on the sector. There were also problems of the opposite sort — the persistent reports about manipulations in booking revenue liabilities on activities. Accordingly,in the 2007/08,Chidambaram announced that a committee would be constituted to review the levies and related matters. Two Budgets have gone by. There is now not even the reference to that promised review and rationalisation.

The Universal Service Obligation fund was constituted in April 2002 to partially finance extension of telecom services to rural areas. Each operator was to pay 5 per cent of its adjusted gross revenue to this fund. The fund is non-lapsable — unused balances remain in the fund. Even by March 2008,Rs. 20,404 crore had accumulated in the fund — since then the fund has grown even larger. Out of it,mere Rs. 6,370 crore have been spent for bridging the “rural-urban divide” about which everyone is so voluble. The actual,physical progress is much worse than this expenditure figure indicates. In one instance,while the obligation was to set up 7,800 towers,less than 20 per cent have been installed. And not even a question is asked.

There has been severe criticism of this in Parliament. The government has adopted a creative remedy! It has just cooked the accounts and,in accounts presented to Parliament,no less,just shown the balance in the fund as “nil”!! The CAG points out that it asked the government to correct this mis-statement. As it records,in the new report,the government has done nothing.

The scandalous things that happened when licenses were being given and spectrum allocated for 2G services — the way cut-off dates were changed,and that too with retrospective effect; the scuffles that took place at Sanchar Bhavan — have made headlines in the media. The CVC has been compelled to seek explanations. TRAI has been compelled to record that its recommendations were not just disregarded,they were misrepresented in a sworn affidavit by government in court.

Almost the only concerns of government have been 3G and broadband wireless access services. TRAI was asked for recommendations in April 2006. It furnished them in September 2006. The government issued guidelines in November 2007. Since then,the government has been lurching from one foot to the other,issuing amendments to the guidelines,amendments to the 3G policy — its tilt coinciding with heavy persuasion by one side or its rival.

The same goes for a step that would intensify competition and trigger improvements in the quality of service — number portability. TRAI gave its recommendations on this in 2005. The government took two years to announce its acceptance. But that was that. Nothing has been done on the matter. Existing operators have an easy time,as the user remains locked-in to each of them.

Similarly,to unchain internet telephony,TRAI submitted its recommendations in August 2008. The technology is in use the world over. It will spur competition — existing operators will be pushed to improve service and match lower rates. The recommendations were widely hailed in India. The matter remains “under examination” by the government! And two sections continue to reap a windfall — those who operate the “grey market” as the black market in telecom services is known,and Internet companies that operate from abroad.

Is all this just innocent laziness?

(To be continued)

The writer is a BJP MP in the Rajya Sabha

Video of the day

For all the latest Opinion News, download Indian Express App

    Live Cricket Scores & Results