Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Punishment transfers and the "backward areas trap"

It is common practice for the weakest, least efficient, corrupt and most errant government officials - teachers, doctors, engineers, agriculture officers, and others - to be transferred to the remotest and most backward areas as punishment for their lapses and omissions. The concept of "punishment transfers" is an indelible part of administering the Indian bureaucracy. The end result of this is that the most disadvantaged areas and those most in need of attention end up with the worst and least efficient officials.

This movement of officials to the less remoter areas is accentuated by the fact that officials, in general, prefer urban locations (for a variety of obvious reasons), and the more capable officials are more likely to succeed in getting themselves posted in these areas. Further, these urban centers are of greater importance for governments in view of their salience, and more efficient officials are accordingly preferred to deliver their services in these areas.

It is therefore inevitable that after a few rounds of transfers and disciplinary actions, the rural and more remoter areas become either vacant or filled with the most corrupt, least efficient and weaker officials and functionaries. Further, most of these officials, with their lower level of commitment and motivation, are more likely to abstain or stay away from work and shirk responsibilities. In other words, such remote areas come up against the "backward areas trap".

It has been suggested that one way of overcoming this problem is to get the local educated to fill up such posts in remote areas. While this is an appealing approach, it surely compromises on the quality of services delivered, except in a few basic services like primary education and primary health care. Even here too, a few years into the job, the local teacher or nurse will experience a movement up the "aspiration treadmill", and will prefer to migrate to the towns in search of primarily better facilities for their children.

Getting out of this gridlock is not very easy. Only policies that provide strong incentives can motivate people to stay on and serve in such remote locations. In many ways, greater connectivity through good quality public transport is critically important for ensuring better quality in delivery of many public services. Permitting provision of part-time services can be another way of encouraging officials to offer their services in such areas. Structuring recruitment and promotion policies (mandatory service in certain areas, especially in the initial periods) accordingly can also help incentivize people working in such areas. Needless to say, all such interventions have to be supported by a substantial difference in wages.

1 comment:

DBV said...

Nice thoughts. The government should actually have the will to provide incentives to those willing to work in the so-called backward or remote areas. There are scores of people who may actually be interested in working in such places with the service motive. For them, additional monetary benefits will be an incentive. Besides, our governments should focus on infrastructure building in such areas. So far this is one of the most neglected areas of governance, I feel.