Monday, April 2, 2012

More on public policy implementation dilemmas

I have blogged earlier (also this) about the complex dynamics of field-level decision making on public issues in India. Consider two examples typical with the water supply market in most Indian cities.

1. Given inadequate supply by the local water supply utility, private operators abound. They take water, either from the municipal network lines (most often by pilfering from even pumping mains) or from privately drilled bores, and supply them by tankers to buyers. The buyers include both slum dwellers and the affluent. These private bores are generally drilled without permission and their use leads to depletion of ground water levels. This often causes neighbours, who fear their home bores would run dry, to complain against these bore operators. When complaints become relentless, officials occasionally seize a borewell  or two (it is also true that officials take bribes from the bore operator and keep quiet!).

For every bore seized, the supply demand being satisfied by that operator is now unmet. Denied their regular assured supply and without access to adequate supply from the public utility, they mount pressure on their local corporator. He in turn challenges the public utility to make good the borewater supply deprived areas (which the supply capacity constrained utility cannot), failing which demand that officials release the seized bore. Since such supplies are a not insignificant share of the total supply, their disruption will immediately resonate everywhere. When faced with a choice of tightening enforcement and thereby depriving people off their drinking water supply or letting things as they are, the officials prefer the latter.

2. Water supply in most Indian cities do not meet the required flow-pressure requirements. It is therefore commonplace for consumers, especially in multi-storied buildings like apartment complexes, to connect motors to their delivery outlets and suck water in from the network at a higher pressure. This in turn means that the already low flow rate is reduced further for those not using such motors and also affects supply at the tail-end areas of the network. Invariably, slum-dwellers are the worst affected.

Utility officials often get complaints from slum-dwellers and are often forced into seizing motors in the vicinity. They soon realize that almost every large household has a motor. Further, it is not possible to confine their seizures to certain households. Apart from the administrative challenge of seizing huge number of motors, widespread seizures immediately raises a chorus of public criticism since those affected are also the opinion makers. For all its negative effects, the fallback option of motor pumps had had the effect of softening criticism against the utility.

In both cases - the clandestine bore operators and motor pumps - officials end up with a difficult dilemma. If they enforce rules strictly, they run the risk of upsetting the delicate balance of water supply dynamics at the field level. They'll face uncomfortable questions about the operational efficiency of the utility and their inability to supply adequate water will be exposed. In the circumstances, the natural preference for utility officials is to maintain the status quo and let things be.

This is symptomatic of problems elsewhere. Many apparently simple enforcement challenges in public issues have deeper underlying challenges. Efforts to enforce the regulations, without addressing the underlying problems, is not only not likely to increase welfare outcomes and efficiency but also exacerbate problems. In the circumstances, officials take the easy way out.   

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