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Notes on sloth: Snippets from the standing committees

Published: 04th September 2016 04:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 04th September 2016 08:26 AM   |  A+A-

Away from the din and dust of politics, Departmental Standing Committees of Parliament dredge into the innards of government to review the working of ministries. Members of Parliament shed political hues to study issues of allocations, efficiency and outcomes. The reports present a contiguous picture of the contest between competing crises and conflicting compulsions. It is one good way to know how India is doing. The reports also offer a ring-side view of the systemic sloth.

One of the campaign issues during the 2014 elections was the indefensible state of defence under the UPA. The advent of the new government ushered in its wake the promise of change. For sure, there have been positives—the opening up of private engagement and FDI in defence and the many tie-ups with friendly nations on defence cooperation. What about the nuts and bolts issues—of procurement, of preparedness, of productivity, of outcomes?

The Standing Committee of Defence led by Maj. Gen. B C Khanduri, it would seem, finds a lot yet wrong with the system—it has been particularly scathing in its comments on the red-tape that stalls equipping of the services personnel. In its report on ‘Demands and Grants’ for 2016-17, it finds that the age-old issue of mismatch between projections, allocations and utilisation persist.

The committee is concerned that “the Army is operating with large-scale vintage equipment. Furthermore, there is shortage in the number of vehicles, small arms/infantry specialist weapons, sight and surveillance equipment, signal/communication equipment, radars & power equipment and generators etc.” It observed that the ad-hoc reduction of allocations to the Navy have become a “routine feature” and results “in the modernisation programme getting postponed year to year”. It termed the submission of the Air Force on the “inability to procure spares and fuel, shortfall in training”, resulting in compromise of operational preparedness, as a “grave and unacceptable situation”.

This column has earlier revealed the sordid saga of the procurement of bullet-proof jackets (http://bit.ly/1Re20Qi) for the Army. The committee is “aghast to note” that 1,86,138 bullet-proof jackets approved in 2009 are still not available to the Army despite the committee “highlighting this again and again during the last eighteen months.” 

For a decade, the Indian Railways was in the shunting yard of political interests. The Railways have the potential to transform the idea of connectivity and drive GDP growth. The induction of Suresh Prabhu, blessed with a pro-reforms aura and integrity, promised to change all that. At one level, there is the promise of high-speed trains, the use of technology in services etc. At another level, there is the materiality of the gigantic chaos—so well documented by the Bibek Debroy Committee.

In its report on pending projects submitted on August 31, the Standing Committee on Railways is less than satisfied with the pace of change. The grunge of delays continues to afflict the Indian Railways. While clearance time for projects has purportedly come down from 30 months to 12 months, implementation continues to be an issue.

Yes, there is the issue of land. But the issue flagged by the committee is funds—which appears 34 times in the report. The headlines—higher allocation, money from LIC—may suggest that funds are not an issue. The committee is not convinced. It observed:  “Inadequate gross budgetary support and internal generation of resources resulting in meagre allocation for the pending projects fail to give any assurance of completion of these projects in the near future.”

With dismay, the committee lists “one project which was sanctioned 40 years ago, 3 projects sanctioned 30 years ago, 27 projects pending for 20 years and 30 projects sanctioned 15 years ago have still not reached completion”. Delayed projects include new lines, gauge conversion and electrification worth `4.5 lakh crore. Add workshop, production unit projects, signalling, telecom and 17 metro projects—all necessary to meet challenges of capacity that heighten pressure on infrastructure and compromise speed and safety.

The government has decided to do away with the colonial practice annual railway budget. It needs to “do away” with a lot more that derails performance. Already the Railways is losing market share—passengers to airlines and freight to road transporters. Its bottom line is weighed down by structural stasis. It must be corporatised, liberated from non-core activities and made lean. The next steps demand political gumption—the template is ready in the Debroy report.

Headlines in India often gravitate towards excess—as witnessed during the recent floods—or scarcity. A few months ago, the nation was struck by the inadequacy of governments in dealing with drought and, in particular, the problem of drinking water. How is India doing in mitigating the problem of drinking water in rural India? The Standing Committee on Rural Development, which focused on this issue, observes that the goal of piped water to 90 per cent of the rural population by 2022 is constrained by funding and by the chaos that defines Centrally sponsored schemes—specifically drinking water and sanitation.

The aspiration for covering over 3.4 lakh habitations is daunted by poor allocations by Centre and states and poorer utilisation by the states. While the ministry asked for `16,600 crore for 2016-17, the money allocated was only `5,000 crore—the expectation being states with higher allocation from 14th Finance Commission will top up the shortfall. That was not to be. Worse, the committee discovered that allocations of over `11,800 crore was unspent and with states—the worst offenders being the most-affected states in the recent drought. Clearly, the problem is the complex Centre-state authority-accountability matrix, and the solution lies in reinstating provision of and accountability for basic public services back to the states and off the concurrent list.

The notes cover Standing Committee reports of just three ministries, but the meme of bureaucratic apathy is a recurring one. India’s many failures are located in the lack of administrative accountability. Transformation needs emphasis of the political imperative. It also requires a radical change in approach and new systems to reboot governance.

shankkar.aiyar@gmail.com

Shankkar Aiyar  is the Author of Accidental   India: A History of the Nation’s Passage through Crisis  and Change

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