Every government is taken by surprise when a grave crisis explodes in its face. Someone is at fault, but nobody will take responsibility. Ultimately, the buck stops at the table of the head of the government — Chief Minister or Prime Minister. A deeper probe will, however, reveal that s/he is not the first person who should be held responsible, but the parliamentary system of government holds otherwise.
The encephalitis epidemic that has consumed 117 lives so far in Muzaffarpur district, Bihar, is a case in point. According to the Union Health Ministry’s Management Information System, all of the 103 primary health centres and the only community health centre in the district were rated 0 out of 5 because they did not meet the mandatory requirements for evaluation (medical officer, nurse/midwife). The paediatric unit of the Sri Krishna Medical College and Hospital in Muzaffarpur, where the affected children were treated, did not meet the criteria to qualify as a paediatric ICU. On these facts, who should take the blame? No one will, so we will blame a small, white-coloured (and delicious) fruit called litchi! Doctors said that eating lychees affected only children who did not eat a meal at night. And pray, why did they not eat a meal at night? Because they are poor and don’t get a meal. Can there be anything more devastating and painful? (Between 2008 and 2014, there were 6,000 deaths from encephalitis.)
A few days ago, seven sanitation workers died while emptying a septic tank in a hotel near Vadodara, Gujarat. It was not the first time such a tragedy happened and, sadly, it will not be the last. Cleaning a septic tank is not rocket science: there are machines and an Indian version (Bandicoot) has been developed by a start-up in Kerala. When men have to be unavoidably deployed for cleaning sewers and septic tanks, there are special clothing, masks and oxygen cylinders. None of the equipment is scarce or beyond the financial capacity of the district administration of Vadodara, a rich district of Gujarat, yet seven poor men were allowed to die. (Between 2011 and 2018, death of 114 sanitation workers was reported from all states of India.)
There is another unbelievably shocking statistic: on an average, four persons are killed in Delhi in road accidents every day. You can expect that four persons will be killed tomorrow, four the day after, and so on, on average four, every day in Delhi alone. Only a fraction of that number is killed in air accidents all over the world in a whole year! Why do we have strict rules for air travel and lax rules for road travel? (Between 2011 and 2017, 12,724 persons were killed in road accidents in Delhi.)
Have you traveled on the Barapulla flyover in Delhi which is the ‘pride’ of the PWD of the Delhi government and which took years to be built? The flyover is average, the design is average, the ride is average, but the quality of the construction is awful. Just look at the parapets on either side of the carriage way — chipped or broken, uneven height, disjointed slabs, terribly plastered and painted and, on the whole, ugly. Yet, it passed all quality tests, the contractor was paid (and presumably feted) and the flyover inaugurated in 2010. It won’t be long before it is closed for repairs.
Intention & implementation
In none of these cases — and you can think of others — was there a policy failure. Any government’s policy is to build, equip and staff health facilities and hospitals; to abolish manual scavenging; to enforce traffic rules and ensure safety; to build quality infrastructure and beautify cities and towns; and so on. The Legislature or the Executive (i.e. the ministers) makes the policy and, naturally, wants the policy implemented well. But there is a huge gap between intention and implementation. Why? We are hesitant to say it, but it must be said: within the Government (with a capital G) there is another government (with a small g). It is the small-g government that has failed the big-G government as well as the people, at least as far as India is concerned.
Let me make the point with two contrasting examples. Demonetisation was a policy blunder; the ministers who dreamed up that policy and constituted big-G Government must own responsibility. On the other hand, GST was a good policy. If it has caused as much distress as demonetisation, the blame must be taken by small-g government.
Swachh Bharat is good policy, but the false statistics fed on ODF status of states and villages is the deceit of small-g government. Ujjwala is good policy, but the replacement cylinder rate of three per year is the failure of small-g government.
When we vote, we the people vote for big-G Government. There is a small-g government over which we the people have no control at all. We have no say in their selection, recruitment, training, evaluation, posting, appraisal or promotion. We cannot go on in this fashion. We must re-invent small-g government. Just as we the people reward or punish big-G Government and its occupants every five years, we must find a way to reward or punish small-g government and its occupants every five years or sooner.
The main challenge that we face today is not in making policy. It is in the efficient, economical and excellent implementation of the policy.
This article first appeared in the print edition on June 23, 2019, under the title Across the aisle: government within Government