Director General of Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) and the Editor of Down To Earth magazine. She is an environmentalist who pushes for changes in policies, practices and mindsets

Fix what is broken

imageThe high corridors of the nation are abuzz with talk about how much food should be given to the country’s poor as a right. Should it be 25 kg of rice or 35 kg of wheat a month per person at highly subsidized rates?

Then they worry who should get this right to food. All who are poor, the very poor or the poor but not so very poor? This haggle over the below poverty line (BPL) and above poverty line (APL) seems to miss two crucial points. One, that the government does not know how to enumerate its people in terms of poverty. Two, there is no fixed and absolute line dividing the poor and not-poor. Subsistence economy of the poor is such that they are always at the risk of slipping down the poverty curve. One failed monsoon or crop, or one episode of illness in the family could dictate the difference between APL and BPL.

Even as economists and policy wonks are busy haggling, a huge amount of food is rotting in the country. Some 18 million tonnes of food grains are lying in the open or kept without adequate protection just because the government does not have storage facilities. Worse, a large number of people are going to bed hungry because the food, which is in the hands of their government, is not reaching their homes. Everybody agrees that the public distribution system is not working. It is badly broken.

But the policy discussion is not about how this system should be made to work. There is a belief that the system will work because of proposed improvements through new-fangled technologies—GPS to track the trucks that deliver food; electronic biometric cards to track delivery in the hands of the poor. I have nothing against smart solutions, but these miss the point. Technologies work in the hands of people. The system of delivery is broken because we have neglected the repair of our administrative system that has to make any programme work. The challenge lies in ensuring accountability at the very bottom and top of our delivery operations, addressing the personnel requirements, and in making sure that what has to be done is done. This is the old-fashioned governance route that nobody wants to take. Technology cannot be a silver bullet if there is no working gun to fire from.

This is what my colleagues learnt when they investigated the working of the public distribution system in Chhattisgarh and Tamil Nadu. There the system has been made to work against all odds that beset other states. Why and how? The states have introduced many reforms— from cleaning up and computerising the ration card list to computerising the procurement of grain and its transport to the fair price shops. But most importantly, they have invested in systems that make officials accountable for delivery and make people aware of their rights. The bottom line is that there is political will at the highest level to make the system function. And there is obsession at all levels to make sure it does.

Fix what is broken; don’t just shop for something new. We forget this simple rule as we make new plans and new programmes and even set up agencies to sidestep the basic problem. Take the matter of pollution control. We know that the institutions that manage pollution—the pollution control boards—desperately need more staff, better technology and facilities, and personnel and administrative reform. But fixing this system of administrative governance is time consuming, and it brings no accolades to the political reformer. So instead of fixing what is broken, the talk now is to build a new institution —the National Environment Protection Agency. The other option is to simply bypass the need for regulation by suggesting technology solutions to polluters. The system is so out of shape that it cannot be repaired, is the belief. But a new institution will also need the same reforms and same funds and facilities that will make the old one work. Sophisticated technology for self-monitoring will need even more sophisticated and well-informed regulators for its management.

The other dream reform is to invent new institutions— called authorities—to sweep the mess under some mythical carpet. But there is no effort to check if the structure of the new creature permits management or accountability. Then we rue that they don’t deliver. Take the Food Safety and Standards Authority. It was set up, through legislative order, to fix the food regulatory system in the country. But it has no head; nobody can hold it accountable because it reports fictionally to Parliament, where no clear structure for management has been created. It has little technical competence. Existing agencies involved in the business of food standards, like the Bureau of Indian Standards, have been left out of the new authority. But it does have a swanky new building and powerful new friends in the food business.

A new programme, some promised (repackaged from old schemes) money, a new authority and new buildings, all add to the grand illusion that the problem has been solved. And that government is busy at work. Let us only hope that more people see through the hoax. The business of pretend government must go.

—Sunita Narain

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  • Very good and relevant

    Very good and relevant article. Hope people who can and have commitment to change systems are reading articles like this

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • Good article.

    Good article.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • The message in the article is

    The message in the article is loud and clear. Change an administrative system that does not deliver. The agenda of change and innovation in government should not be a mere copy of what is happening in other countries. We should be more proactive in carrying forward the agenda of change and innovation in government in our own context across levels of governance, issues to be addressed, and goals to be achieved.

    The article sets the tone for this proactive approach to be adopted in India is to really emerge as a progressing and welfare oriented liberal democracy.

    s k tapasvi

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • This is widespread problem

    This is widespread problem and extends to many institutions such as the UNICEF, WFP etc, who ought to know better. New "pilot projects" are designed to "show the way", invariably to the very Government that has failed to make a success of their previous projects for the want of good governance and accountability.The point is, as you so well describe, just fix the old problem. Without that nothing will succeed.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply


    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • Whether it is food security

    Whether it is food security or environmental clearance of development projects, policy makers seem to think that more cutting edge technology in production or yet another Committee can solve the problem. The fundamental problem that I see here is the Government's definition and metric for poverty. If the measure of what or who constitutes poor is a 'line' or number how can we ever alleviate poverty and malnutrition. Why are the models of poverty definition operating effectively in Kerala not being applied for the country as a whole? This way the same resources (or even less) can be used efficiently to pull more people out of malnutrition and give access to food. Answers lie not in yet another new technology but in making the process more effective using technology appropriately. The NAC needs to work at the level of the basic definition of poverty as opposed to negotiating 25 vs 35 kg of rice or use of yet another 'technology / smart card /tool'.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • This article clearly reflects

    This article clearly reflects the need of the people and the grass root reality while implementing such most wanted scheme. This is an eye opener for all of us and need of the hour is to move forward with problem solving solutions / strategies / policies.

    In addition to the parameters to be fixed/decided like: quantity, identification of needy (BPL/APL)& delivery mechanism,the concentration should be focused on"
    @What is the Quality of the rice/food items?
    @How many (needy)are purchasing?
    @How much they are consuming/utilizing?
    @Is the delivery mechanism accessible?
    @Is the storage facility avoids spoiling of food
    In spite of the all these odds, still with an effective delivery system of PDS, sufficient food can be supplied to the right person at the right time with right quality at an affordable cost.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • on Fix what is Broken, Madam,

    on Fix what is Broken,

    Madam, it reminds me of long time back, in 1960, when I came accross a noted planner and was curious to know how the planning is done and how it works. I do not remember the exact conversation but since then I carry an Impression- "If things were to go as per our planners, half the population should have died of hunger. But, not many person have died of Hunger."

    So please do not worry. Our"Quick Fix" Jugaduus and formulas will fix 'in time', before it is broken like they did to CWG 2010.

    Once, it so happened that data on food roduction was presented in a House. It projected a bumper Harvest. However, a smart guy, used his laptop and raised a question - This much yield per hectare is scientifically impossible.

    So, the data went back to the authorities for checking.Finally it reached a lower division clerk. He put a note on the file "I never knew that I was running this country".

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • Ma'm, On "F' broken" Since I

    Ma'm, On "F' broken" Since I have also come up with bogus govt. data and too many authorities and too little tangible action yet Im loyal to the govt. Why, coz 'G' as a faceless person is easy to attack. So blame e'thing on Govt. But in reality, the authorities r too busy to check reports and then they have to give 'nil' pending reports at any cost. If everyone in the govt. right from the LDC who said that he didn't know that he was running the govt, to the secretary did their part of the job with responsibility then it is easy to find the person who went wrong and the system never goes wrong. Since everyone basks in glory on attack on the govt. and not the official who is responsible. When irresponsibility with lackadaisical attitude go hand in hand with all in a system, the top most should be held responsible just as in the case of kalmadi. But I agree with u on the govt.'s problem of identifying the needy. Here again, when the collector is responsible for the district beneficiary he asks an NGO or an Election Authority's data or census data and all are either atleast 4 or 9 years' back data therefore the system if properly implemented and if the supervisory just doesn't sign but feel responsible for the data then the system works heavenly. May be now the time has come to pin-up a face for govt. When I joined Govt. as LDC, I was told by the section head that Im the Leader in Deciding the cases for the section and not the lowest division clerk. And that made me feel so responsible in receiving letters for the section as though Im the deciding authority and not otherwise. Thats leadership and we need such kind of motivation and exactly that breed of higher authorities for making and not breaking any system. AMEN

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
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