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A peek into the inner functioning of the Indian govt during Covid-19 crisis

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Of the eleven groups of secretary-led officers tasked with responding to the Covid-19 outbreak, the group to manage the “availability of hospitals, isolation and quarantine facilities, disease surveillance ….” is headed by C K Mishra, secretary of the Ministry of Environment and Forests, instead of Priti Sudan, the secretary of health and family welfare. 

“The appointment is not surprising because Sudan as the officer in charge of the ministry, has to provide resources to the thousands of hospitals and manage new emergencies daily,” says a former secretary level officer. “She is firefighting,” he adds. Instead Mishra who has held charge as additional secretary and mission director of the government’s National Health Mission can take a more considered view of the emerging needs of the sector. He has also been joint secretary in the ministry and is thus familiar with the terrain, able to provide inputs from the word, go.

Seven years into his term, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is bringing heavy interdisciplinary focus into the working of the senior officers of the central government. Similar initiatives had begun as early as 2017, but it is in the past one year it has become a regular phenomenon. It has almost become institutionalised with the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Each one of the empowered groups to deal with specific responses to the Covid-19 crisis is led by a secretary-level officer who is familiar with the terrain sought to be covered, but is not in charge of the ministry dealing with the issues. Instead they are chosen from among those who have served the ministry earlier and so carry domain knowledge, like Mishra. Modi has held meetings with these teams that include at least one officer from the cabinet secretariat and the Prime Minister’s Office. 

“Inter-ministerial consultations have been intensified in this regime much more than before,” says Jayant Dasgupta, India’s former ambassador and Permanent Representative to the WTO. It had begun with the combination of several ministries at the level of ministers like that of power, renewables and coal under Piyush Goyal, in the first term. “It has spread to the level of officers now,” adds Dasgupta. 

There have been so many of these that officers at the Centre and even at the states are not surprised any more. It was surprising, however, in 2017, when joint- or even additional secretary-level officers were appointed as Prabhari officers to steer development programmes in 115 districts. These districts were identified by Niti Aayog as the most backward in India. These officers were to visit these districts repeatedly and work with state- and district-level officials, “to ensure the convergence of the efforts of central and state government…to monitor the improvements in key (development) outcomes”.

It has become bigger since then. Last year, under the stewardship of the newly formed Jal Shakti ministry, the government sent out 255 officers (again joint- and additional secretary-level) as in charge of water recharging efforts in 256 districts. These officers led teams of government engineers, along with other officers at the district and state level and from civil society to build wells and tanks, as well as recharge bore wells and create watershed development measures, in each of these water-stressed districts. At its peak, there were 2,000 such officers who worked on the ground in these districts for three months. It has been the largest such mobilisation of government officers for a single programme in India, ever. This summer will test the efficacy of their efforts. 

Successes and failures

Despite the attempts, not all of these initiatives have been successes. Of course, no officer is willing to describe any one as a failure. But unlike the water campaign which had a clear time line and a visible result to demonstrate, some others have been difficult to showcase.  

For instance, just after coming back to power for a second term, Modi had appointed a team of secretaries to vet major schemes before they are presented to the Prime Minister at Pragati (Pro-Active Governance and Timely Implementation) and other meetings.

This is like a double bind. The idea of Pragati, the forum where secretaries meet each month with Modi was itself meant to cut through department red tape. "The Prime Minister has been encouraging the officers to work together, even informally, to resolve inter-departmental issues among themselves instead of simply writing letters to each other. This has considerably diluted the earlier rigid watertight compartments in which departments used to work,” says Ramesh Abhishek, former secretary, Department for Promotion of Industry and Internal Trade, in the Ministry of Commerce. 

The new approach explained by former cabinet secretary P K Sinha made every department a partner in any proposal made by any of them. Each group of about eight secretaries got a leader who was expected to steer the schemes for implementation, cutting through the ministerial turf battles.

It is big. In the coal scam episode of 2013, the auditors found that even though the coal ministry used to send out letters to concerned departments for scrutiny of proposals for allocation of coal blocs to private companies, only junior level officers used to turn up. The system became so lax that even records of many such steering committees were not available with the coal ministry when the courts asked for them. 

In its stead, Modi was asking the secretaries themselves to get involved in each other’s decisions. So not only would a scheme be vetted by the cabinet secretariat before Modi sat down with the secretaries, it would be tossed among the departments concerned, for self-evaluation at the first stage, reported an article in Business Standard. “We had developed such an approach in the last two years of the previous government,” said an officer. But it has now become a more regular phenomenon.

It was followed up by demands on all secretary-level officers to make presentations to him of common themes they would pursue in the term of this government. This included coming up with a five-year plan document for each ministry, with well-defined targets and milestones, plus a sectoral overview. 

Habits of course, die hard. One of the officers concerned said in his group, the first couple of meetings were spent more in deciding who among the secretaries would make the presentations to the Prime Minister, rather than debate substantive issues. It became serious once they realised the political executive meant business. “People were initially afraid that if someone pointed out the problems of others he would get into trouble. The officer might have to explain why they had not sorted out the problem among themselves instead of raking it up in a large forum,” says Abhishek. It has changed, he adds.

Yet judging by the results achieved, it is not clear how many of these have succeeded. For instance, the Centre appointed Prabhari Officers in 2018 to work in collaboration with the states and district administration to strengthen the ecosystem for micro, small and medium enterprises. The issues identified were improving ease of access to credit, cash flow and access to market and so on. One hasn't heard much of this initiative since. Tamal Sarkar, Executive Director of the Foundation for MSME Clusters, said for small and micro enterprises the intervention by the government needs to be intense, but not necessarily at an inter-ministerial level.

Long history

Previous Prime Ministers too have tried to bring down the silos in which the officers operate in government ministries. It has had a long history since the L. K Jha Commission on Economic Administration Reforms of 1982. It suggested the concept of Action Plans for government departments. As Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, in his very first set of discussions with ministry officials in November 2004 had suggested these measures “to improve transparency and accountability in the functioning of their Ministries”. It just didn't move. 

The prime weakness, as an Asian Productivity Organisation report finds out, is lack of incentives. For instance, the UPA government had made a commitment to Parliament in June 2009 to “establish mechanisms for performance monitoring and performance evaluation in government on a regular basis”. As Prime Minister, Singh set up a Performance Monitoring and Evaluation System for government departments in September 2009. Nothing much moved since then. Instead in 2015, when the NDA government came to power, it renamed the unit as Development Monitoring and Evaluation Office, housing it in Niti Aayog. 

As Yatish Rajawat, CEO of Centre for Civil Society puts it, the performance of civil servants does not depend on their performance across departments. “Department of personnel and training had examined this issue a couple of years ago. It had explored how the goals of the officials were linked to their roles performed across the ministries. The results were not encouraging,” he says.

For instance, as the Covid-19 lockdown set in, one of the first things states did was to to block trucks carrying cargoes, setting off massive shortages of goods across the country. The home ministry had to issue advisories several times to clear up the confusion. “The bottleneck could have been easily avoided with a telephone call”, said another former officer. But few officers in any state looked at the issue past their immediate departmental role. They essentially followed the silo-based approach encouraged by their superiors. 

Of the three key digital platforms launched in the past few years,  e-Office Project was set up under the National e-governance Plan (NeGP) to ensure a transparent and efficient inter- and intra-government processes. Essentially it meant files could travel across ministries without the peons carrying them across corridors. The ministry of information technology, which steers all digital programmes, has an online dashboard of how many users have signed on to each of them. There is no mention of e-Office among the 20 programmes it runs, ranging from Aadhaar to e-procurement. Hardly any ministries have actually signed on to the e-Office platform. 

But now the Covid-19 crisis does seem to be forcing changes, at least at the senior levels. Confined to homes, many ministries have now been forced to offer the suite to their officers to use. It has massive significance. Files from one department can be quickly inspected by another one, as has happened in the case of the empowered group of ministers.  

Dasgupta says he is hopeful the changes will stay. Some of the other initiatives like bringing in of officers at the senior level—ten joint secretaries in economic ministries came in through the lateral route in 2018 have had a demonstration effect. “The Covid-19 outbreak makes a backslide, difficult,” he says. 

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