Administrative reforms towards Atmanirbhar Bharat

Policies are seen as a political investment, and the executive and legislature have electoral pressures and considerations. Civil services and other government jobs have generated interests primarily for their job security, high salaries, and promotions. On several occasions, we have seen them being compromised due to political pressures. As a result, the common people are at the receiving end. They get embroiled in red tape as they await necessary signatures and movement of files from one table to the other.

So, while heralding an Atmanirbhar Bharat, the country desperately needs the impending administrative reforms. With this background, a lecture on ‘Administrative reforms towards Atmanirbhar Bharat’ was delivered by Prof Amita Singh, President, NAPSIPAG Centre for Disaster Research, Delhi and retired Professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University.

The lecture organised by the Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI) was chaired by Prof M H Suryanarayana, Indira Gandhi Institute of Development and Research (IGIDR), Mumbai.

“Reforms are a political process and a calculated political investment in contemporary politics by each government. Reforms should be appropriate for implementation at the ground level, must generate resources, and have the legitimacy and administrative capacity. Accountable and efficient governance should reach the last person,” said Singh.

The major triggering point of reforms was the fifth pay commission, which brought to light the link between bureaucracy and implementation of programs. It set up a new process for operations related to performance standards, right-sizing of staff, cost-effective policies, speed, efficiency, transparency and accountability.

In her lecture, Singh discussed the objective of Atmanirbhar Bharat. Three articles in the constitution deserve mention here. Article 38 which suggests promotion of the welfare of people, prevention of concentration of wealth, inequalities, etc. Article 39 [C] says that state shall, in particular, direct its policy towards securing that the operation of the economic system does not result in the concentration of wealth and means of production to the common detriment. Article 40 says that state shall take steps to organise village panchayats and enable them to function as units of self-government. If read together, the three create the spirit of Atmanirbhar.

Self-reliance has only been mentioned in the context of the panchayat. It was expected that higher institutions like the district magistrate office etc., were, in any case, going to be self-sufficient and would train and structure themselves accordingly. Not much thought went into the macro and micro-level. It took a long time for village panchayats to achieve self-reliance.

Atmanirbhar Bharat package of 20 lakh crores was announced on May 12, 2020. Economy, infrastructure, system (technology, e-governance), demography and demand were the five pillars of India’s policy of self-reliance.

There are three stages in administrative reforms: what is the need of the people at the moment, how the government tries to fulfil the need, and how the government implements the reform.

The government’s idea was to use this 20 lakh crore package to revamp the failing economy. The package includes the previous sops by the RBI, so it came down to 12 lakh crore as an economic sop. RBI and the government are two different entities, where the former looks after the fiscal policies and the latter monetary policies. These two institutions cannot be combined. The launching of Atmanirbhar Bharat rested on a constitutionally untenable position.

Also, the economy was failing due to COVID-19, lack of demand being a problem. So, the government had to do direct funding expenditure. This should come as a direct expenditure from the government, but it came via banks. The government had no control over whether the banks would give it to people or not. To create the demand the government should have given huge sops on home loans. People would have rushed to buy and demand would have increased massively.

She highlighted some problems in implementing Atmanirbhar Bharat to its optimum level. The e-office system is unaccountable, the timeline for general services has no assurance from old pattern bureaucracy, and there is a lack of accurate assessments in the project development cells.

“Reforms are not a one-stop-shop. Great reforms come from great activism. The government should truly look into the administrative capacity to form accountable and efficient reforms, so it reaches the last-mile. There is a loss of legitimacy. Nowadays the important reforms programs are not being discussed,” said Singh.

“The first issue in any public policy formulation is to specify the problem. In the food security act, the government did not define food security. So, the problem is diagnosed based on wrong information,” said Prof M H Suryanarayana, IGIDR.

“Good governance is the bedrock of administrative reforms. Lack of accountability puts a stop on reforms. Projects mandated to be completed in two years, continue for twenty years. Those responsible are never questioned,” said Dr Nivedita P Haran, Retd. Additional Chief Secretary, Department of Home Affairs, Government of Kerala.

“We are good at drafting policies. But, fall behind when it comes to enforcement and implementation. Atmanirbhar Bharat cannot be implemented in isolation. The entire gamut of working people in the country needs to be a part of it. The government should find innovative ways to implement it. The work should start from basic training, which is not being done till now,” said Haran.

She also said that there is a need to bridge the gap between the private sector and the public sector, the academicians, and the bureaucrats as we are all working towards the same goal. We should pool our resources and make a huge impact, which has unfortunately not been happening.

“The state should not only provide equality of opportunity but also equality of outcome,” said Shri S N Tripathi, IAS (retd.), Director, Indian Institute of Public Administration (IIPA), New Delhi. He also said there is a need to clearly define the role of the state, bureaucrats and with this, any country can become Atmanirbhar.  

“Our businesses are smart and we need to remove some of the roadblocks to get extraordinary results. Recent reforms are neglecting the services sector like transport, tourism, etc. which need to be tracked. There is a need for evidence-based policy decisions. There should be in-depth analyses of each sector to carefully understand the type of reforms needed. A plan of action to implement them can be devised thereafter,” said Dr Poonam Munjal, Senior Fellow, National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER).