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Sunday, October 17, 2021

Remaking the Centre

Union government is changing old ways. It is yet to find new equilibrium.

Written by K M Chandrasekhar |
Updated: February 18, 2015 12:40:44 am
Bibek Debroy, Niti Aayong, Nitit Aayog Bibek Debroy, Arvind panagariya Announcing changes before alternative systems are ready to be put in place can lead to confusion.

Over the last few months, political and administrative executive mechanisms have been trying to find a new equilibrium under a new government. The pattern of relationships established in the past has gone through significant change. There is still uncertainty over the role of ministers, secretaries and other civil servants. A measure of instability is visible.

The recent replacement of secretaries in various ministries attracted a great deal of media attention. I had written a few months ago that complete security and predictability leads to a sense of complacence in the administration. The obverse is equally true. Too much instability can bring about a loss of morale, give rise to frustration and tensions in the administration.

I am too far away from the centre of power to make any value judgement on the individual transfers that have taken place. During my tenure as cabinet secretary, I witnessed severe damage done to the administration by state governments that resorted to large-scale and whimsical transfers. I know of one state in which district magistrates were transferred with such abandon that a three-month tenure was considered to be reasonably long. The government of India’s department of personnel and training did its bit to curb these transfers. It tried to persuade state governments to ensure that officers had a minimum tenure of two years. Though many states seemed to agree, it did not stop them from following their own course.

The government of India was always considered to be an oasis of stability, a place where an officer could work steadily and with a certain sense of security. Too much security, as I have said, can adversely affect the system. Too much freedom to officers to say and do what they like will corrode the system in the long term. At the same time, uncertainty and fear on a large scale have to be avoided. A balance has to be struck. The feedback that I get is that the balance is tilted, that too much tension is being created down the line.

The Delhi election itself points to the simmering discontent in the capital. It may be recalled that when the NDA government came to power at the Centre in 1999, one of the first things it did was raise the age of retirement for government servants from 58 to 60, in thanks for their support. It’s early days yet for the new government, and there is time to introspect and make changes along the way, if it feels such changes would help create an equilibrium.

It is also important, in my opinion, that announcements are fully thought through before they are made. Changes are necessary and they have to be made from time to time. But announcing changes before alternative systems are ready to be put in place can lead to confusion, which would not be apparent at the top but has the potential to create chaos at the operational level. A case in point is the manner in which the planning process, with which I am closely connected at present, has been dealt with. In the past, the states had some idea about the Central resources available for the annual plan. The Planning Commission initiated discussions with the states, during the course of which the volume of Central taxes to be transferred to the states and the quantum of Central plan assistance would be indicated. This year, no such meeting took place. The uncertainty factor has gone up even more because the 14th Finance Commission gave its recommendations in December last year and the pattern suggested by the commission is also applicable to the next financial year. In the meantime, there has been uncertainty over the fate of the 12th Five Year Plan and annual planning in future. Some of these doubts were laid to rest by the Union finance minister at the first full meeting of the NITI Aayog this month. The 12th Five Year Plan will continue, a mid-term appraisal will take place and annual plans will be prepared during the remaining part of the 12th Plan.

There is also a need for more clarity on how major announcements like smart cities and “Make in India” will be implemented, and what role the different stakeholders will play. The rural sector does not look all that healthy. According to the mid-term analysis of the ministry of finance, real wages have gone down and minimum support prices have risen only marginally. There are huge MGNREGA arrears to be paid.

There have been reports that the Central government plans to rank states according to the ease of doing business. If true, this would be a disturbing development, which may be seen politically as a means to divert investment to particular areas. How states are ranked would depend on the criteria chosen and can vary from agency to agency. Even today, there are newspapers and periodicals that rank states according to their own criteria. It may not be appropriate for the Central government to act in a manner reminiscent of schoolteachers ranking students. The Centre needs to take the states forward as “Team India” to achieve national objectives.

Eight months down the line from the Lok Sabha elections, it is perhaps time to organise a “chintan baithak” of sorts to evaluate where we stand, what we have done right and where changes are needed. The present political leadership has the experience and wisdom to look inward and map out a coherent strategy for the future.

The writer, a former cabinet secretary, is vice-chairman of the Kerala State Planning Board.

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