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How grand plans go wrong

May 10, 2008 13:59 IST

In a country where the gap between an idea and its execution is often quite large, the most dangerous ideas are those which sound good in theory but have little chance of working in practice.

The quickly-mangled scheme for the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) corridor in Delhi -- an idea being replicated in several other cities -- provides a useful starting point for understanding how poor execution can kill what might have been a good idea.

So does the national rural employment guarantee programme, whose ardent advocates ignored many warnings about impracticality, and argued on the basis of the experience in a few corners of Rajasthan that the scheme could be made to work in all 600 districts of the country.

Now the very same advocates complain about poor implementation -- which even a blind man could have seen would become the issue. But these are not the only ones; for those whose memory stretches back by a decade, there is the experience of the last Pay Commission, which handed out generous pay hikes to central government employees on the unrealistic recommendation (which quickly became an assumption) that the number of such employees would be reduced by 3 per cent each year, totalling up to a cumulative reduction of 30 per cent in a decade. Here's to day-dreaming, because nothing of the sort has happened; if anything, the headcount has grown since 1998.

Yet another example is now provided by Prasar Bharati, the supposedly autonomous broadcasting institution that was supposed to insulate Doordarshan and All India Radio from government control/supervision, through the device of having eminent and independent people on its board.

Prasar Bharati too has been functioning for about a decade, which is the time it has taken to grind all ideas of autonomy into the dust; the last step has now come with the appointment of a retired IAS officer who has no prior broadcasting experience, as its chairman. And you can decide how much autonomy or independence to expect since the gentleman concerned has just moved across from his perch in the Sonia Gandhi-inspired but defunct National Advisory Council.

In comparison, the instances where things work well are those where you create appropriate organisational structures and put in place leaders who can move mountains to deliver on the stated goals. Indeed, past experience suggests that one of the two pre-conditions will not do, you need both.

Thus, the Delhi Metro with Sreedharan at the helm is an obvious example. Operation Flood under Verghese Kurien was another. The National Highway Authority of India, under its hand-picked first chief executive and a roads minister like Gen. Khanduri was a third, except that it has started wilting after their departure. And going back in time, C-DOT under Sam Pitroda might have been another, except that Pitroda's attention shifted to other things.

The problem with citing these and other examples as success stories is that they all amount to exceptionalism. Success comes with a special set of circumstances, not as routine. And that, of course, is the heart of the problem. Most organisations that run well expect that to be the norm; in government, that is simply not the case.

Admittedly, the size, complexity and diversity of government bodies, as well as an operating environment that seems to guarantee sub-optimal matrices, comes in the way of standard yardsticks and simple solutions. And yet, any solution must start with the concept of accountability for performance when it comes to targets, of promising a certain standard of service delivery to citizens and then meeting that standard.

So, forget complicated, giant-scale experiments like the employment guarantee programme. Look simply at untrained helpers at a premier government-run medical institution taking part in surgical procedures involving patients, and you get to understand the scale of the problem.

T N Ninan
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