Monday, October 14, 2013

On Cyclone Phailin and India's state capability

Cyclone Phailin has come and gone. Thanks to a massive evacuation effort, nearly a million people, and good preparedness, loss of human lives have been minimal. Given the limited personnel and material resources and logistics available, it is a truly remarkable achievement by district governments in Odisha and Andhra Pradesh. 

It begs the question as to what is it about India's weak state machinery that enables it to do certain things, like massive emergency relief operations or organizing large events or managing large short duration campaigns, with a great degree of accomplishment, arguably better (and yes, I am sticking out my neck and confidently making that claim!) than what more developed bureaucracies with much greater resources could have done when faced with similar challenges? 

Amidst the plethora of governance failures, governments in India do remarkably well with certain activities like disaster relief, elections, census, pulse-polio campaigns, or even Kumbh Mela and the like. Just recently, the Tamil Nadu government successfully delivered on its campaign promise to distribute televisions and mixer-grinders. A defining feature of all these activities is that they have clearly defined goals and deadlines. A testament to the effectiveness of this strategy is that several state and local governments often embrace such one-off mission-mode campaigns to deliver certain prioritized public services. It is of course a different matter that the programs so implemented too fail, but for different reasons.

In stark contrast, once the program is open-ended, as those like statutory services and certain welfare services are, the problems start to arise and rot sets in quickly. What explains the contrasting fortunes of the two types of programs? Here are a few conjectures.

Primarily, these mission mode programs have clearly defined goals, both in terms of the activity to be done as well as the time line to be adhered to. Second, they involve mobilization of sufficient manpower and logistics, required to complete them within the required time and without compromising on its rigor. Third, all such programs involve unambiguous delineation of work responsibilities, well-documented processes and protocols, and well-defined and pre-announced functional targets for officials. Fourth, it has clear and rigorously enforced reporting mechanism that enables appropriate monitoring and supervision. Fifth, the officials are adequately trained in their functional responsibilities. 

But the most important reason may be its exclusive focus. This addresses the bandwidth scarcity problem associated with public systems. It is commonplace to have overburdened bureaucracies being entrusted with a variety of disparate responsibilities. This is a recipe for failure to deliver effectively on anything. 

In any case, it is surely a pointer to how we can set about reforming our program implementation environment, in a manner that helps get stuff done.  

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