A check list for trust-based governance

Live Mint, August 05, 2021

By Pradeep S. Mehta,

The ‘sabka vishwas’ part of Prime Minister Modi’s slogan can be realized if 10 must-dos are carried out

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Kargil Diwas call for a Bharat Jodo Abhiyan, a programme to ‘unite India’, was music to my ears for its twin objectives: first, to build trust among all; and second, to work with all in the country. Readers might recall my last column, ‘The world requires a trust-based model of governance’, published on 21 July 2021 (bit.ly/3x5TjzR) that speaks about multilateral issues and how we need to act from the bottom up to achieve our sustainable development goals by 2030. I concluded the piece with the question, which many of us have, of how we can achieve the same in India. Importantly, we need to implement the Bharat Jodo Abhiyan sincerely.

How can we create trust-based governance in our country? Modi’s slogan “Sabka saath, sabka vikas, aevam sabka vishwas”—everyone’s accompaniment, development and trust, that is—needs to reach everywhere and be absorbed at every level in India. Let me list out a few things which we must do to achieve trust-based governance in our nation.

The first thing we need is social harmony and all steps to achieve an equilibrium so that people can live peacefully and be active economic actors. Fundamentalism of all types needs to be acted against vigorously.

Second, our data collection and statistical system needs to get back on its feet. Without reliable data, our policies will continue to be based on outdated assumptions and not evidence.

Third, health, education and skilling are state-led subjects and Indian states need to do much more than they are doing now. Most of the states are strapped for funds and unable to increase public expenditure. This is where the Union government has to step in and transfer resources to states magnanimously, without any political prejudice or partisan considerations. By adopting such an attitude, the Centre can work with all state governments and also earn their trust to enable it to push for other reforms.

Fourth, the government should convert the Goods and Services Tax (GST) Council into an empowered State Finance Ministers Council, to be headed by a state finance minister, like the old Value Added Tax Council. This council should deal with all fiscal matters, including GST, that are in the domain of both the Centre and states. This will enhance trust between them.

Fifth, turn the Finance Commission into a standing body, headed by a noted economist, which will deal with budgetary allocations, the share of states, accountability, etc, authoritatively. It should be able to generate the confidence and trust of all states, irrespective of the party in power.

Sixth, we badly need administrative reforms, as the bureaucratic machinery as it stands knows only how to rule and not govern with a development mindset. Most of them are trained to retain the status quo and thus eschew responsibility for any action taken or not taken by them. Of course, there are exceptional officers, but that only proves the rule. One major problem is lack of accountability. Wrong-doers are hardly punished, except in red-handed cases of corruption or malfeasance; many get away with their deeds, or get reinstated and also promoted.

Seventh, leaders speak about a “whole of government” approach, so that departments don’t work in silos. Alas, this too is because of a lack of trust among bureaucrats and their egos, which are counter-productive. To sort this out, we need a Policy Coherence Unit at the Prime Minister’s Office and Chief Minister’s Offices, headed by an eminent retired politician (like a governor) or a retired but well-reputed judge or bureaucrat. This unit can foster critical coordination among different arms of the government, resolve conflicts, and also address investor grievances.

Eighth, corruption and badly-drafted laws are the key problems in our Ease of Doing Business (EODB) and Ease of Living standards. While the economic reforms of 1991 did liberalize our economy from the licence raj, they could not deliver us from the dreaded inspector raj. In any event, the EODB mostly concerns getting approvals and permits, except one or two indicators. We need to look at the Ease of Running a Business, which would track the stage after a project is launched through an institutionalized regulatory impact assessment, which could help the country’s relevant authorities review difficult provisions, unnecessary inspections and the like.

Ninth, we know that a crisis creates conditions for major changes. Our radical reforms of 1991 were triggered by grave financial problems. They have been of benefit to most of us and more than 300 million people were pulled out of poverty. Our per capita income rose along with our gross domestic product (GDP). We need to launch a second wave of reforms by implementing the draft National Competition Policy, so that everyone knows that India’s government means business.

Tenth, we need judicial reforms to reduce delays and the existing burden on our courts. To begin with, must abolish the colonial practice of summer and winter breaks for courts. Our trust in the judicial system is quite low and this needs to change.

In conclusion, I would suggest moving away from GDP to more inclusive indicators of development that show how equitable and sustainable the process is.

These suggestions will not only help in unifying India, but also realize a third way of development, as envisioned by Dattopant Thengadi (1920-2004).

Pradeep Mehta is secretary general, CUTS International

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