Narendra Modi coined two powerful slogans as Prime Minister aspirant. To the masses he promised “acche din”; to the classes he assured “minimum government, maximum governance”. Halfway into his term both remain empty promises. In fact, Nitin Gadkari, a Union minister, even described the slogan as a “millstone” around the Modi government’s neck. “No one ever feels the good days have arrived,” he added, implying that “good days” were an impossible dream.
He is wrong. Better days are not only badly required but imminently attainable. But for that Modi will have to launch a systemic overhaul.
The massive outbreak of mosquito-borne diseases in Delhi underscores the importance of systemic reforms promised by Modi. At the root of the malaise is an oversized, outdated and lethargic bureaucracy. Take for instance, the current health crisis in Delhi. Last year, the city reported 16,000 confirmed cases of dengue with around 60 fatalities. The actual number is suspected to be many times higher as a large amount of cases go unreported. The last time India had a chikungunya epidemic was in 2006 with more than 13 lakh cases being reported. So this current outbreak was long overdue. But when faced with the health crisis of mosquito-borne diseases this week, our agencies froze like a deer caught in the headlights.
In countries like China and Singapore, scientists and doctors head the vector control programmes. Technology companies like Google, Michigan and Sun Yat Sen Universities and agencies like International Atomic Energy Agency are partners of the Chinese government’s health programmes. In Singapore, the National Environment Agency is responsible for preventive surveillance and control, public awareness and community participation, enforcement and research for the control of dengue and chikungunya.
Compare that with the tangled mess in Delhi. The rules dictate that the Delhi government’s health secretary has to be an IAS officer. Every few years, the Centre, in consultation with the states, sets aside key posts that can only be occupied by the IAS. A brief survey across the country would reveal that all key posts in governments are occupied by the IAS.
The current Delhi health secretary, who was on a 12-day leave when the chikungunya epidemic broke, was Puducherry’s development commissioner three months ago. After being transferred to Delhi, he took over as secretary, environment and forests, before being given additional charge of the health department on August 30. This game of musical chairs in which a bureaucrat keeps moving from one department to another results in inconsistency. The absence of domain experts in the government makes it outworn and inept. Manmohan Singh, when he was PM, spoke about inducting private sector experts in government positions that require technical and specialised knowledge but the plan went nowhere.
In Delhi, there are seven major public healthcare providers — the government of Delhi, the Union government, three MCDs, the NDMC and the cantonment boards. The Delhi government controls 28 secondary and tertiary care hospitals with an approximate capacity of 10,000 beds and the Union government controls another 10,000 beds in hospitals run by it. MCDs govern hospitals with total capacity of 3,500 beds and approximately 260 dispensaries. Sanitation and mosquito control through measures like household inspection and fogging is the job of municipal corporations. Multiple authorities result in accountability getting diffused. The situation in other states is not different.
The system of rewards and punishments in governments does not exist, and promotions happen by seniority. Paperwork has become the raison d’etre, the very purpose of bureaucracy. Almost every activity in government is regulated by precisely-drawn rules. A simple task of installing air-conditioners in a hospital ward may take months.
Reason: Finance rules and regulations have to be complied. Any relaxation in rules is seen with suspicion. This slow-paced, inefficient behemoth wants to control every activity of common interest. From fixing potholes to running schools, giving permits for cabs to operating buses, regulating hawkers to luxury hotels, laying norms for lifts in residential buildings to private guards outside our gates, the government controls everything.
Even plying cycle rickshaws in the city is regulated The cycle rickshaw bylaws of 1960 stipulate a registration fee of Rs 400 (for five years), parking fee of Rs 300 (for life), driving licence fee of Rs 150 (for three years) and annual tax of Rs six for rickshaw pullers. Non-payment makes the rickshaw liable for getting impounded. If that seems absurd then sample this: Bylaw 5(A), among other things, requires a rickshaw puller to possess good health and physique.
More absurdity in law-making can be evidenced in the following. The owner of a big chain of pharmacies was at the receiving end when he first opened his pharmacy in Vasant Kunj. A drug inspector threatened to lock down his premises. Reason: Drugs and Cosmetics Act, 1940 prescribes a floor height for outfits such as his. The shop fell short by few inches. Now, since the roof could not be raised, he met the regulation by digging up the floor and lowering it by a few inches.
Delhi Municipal Corporation Act, 1957 regulates all kinds of trades and occupations by issuing licences. Any factory, workshop or trade which uses electricity or water— bakery, photo studio, laundry — requires a licence. This is in addition to compliances required under other acts like the Factories Act, Minimum Wages Act and Food Safety and Standards Act.
These are only some examples of a system that goes far but does little. That’s why Modi’s slogan seemed so seductive. He was expected to get the government out of our hair, do away with over-regulations and break the monopoly of civil servants by inducting technically qualified professionals. None of that has happened.
If a country of 1.2 billion is to be provided with good governance then process re-engineering, efficiency and economy in government is imperative. Time has come for a complete overhaul of the systems as well as mindsets. New skills and technologies need to be deployed and best talent needs to be inducted.
Minimum government, maximum governance will mean best health experts are tasked with public health management. Small yet smart and efficient government alone can bring the common man better days. Delhi can take the lead. The question is will the Centre back the Delhi government if it wants to implement Modi’s dictum of minimum government, maximum governance?
(This article first appeared in the print edition under the headline ‘The forgotten slogan’)