Schemes Grand and Grandiose

01 May, 2010

Nikita Khrushchev once remarked, “Politicians are the same all over. They promise to build a bridge even where there is no river.” It’s interesting that such a comment came from the man who led, for 11 years, the Soviet Union, a nation that was no democracy and had, therefore, no real taste of politicians. But it was a nation that was, nonetheless, obsessed with drawing up grandiose plans and flamboyant projects that were often ill devised and inefficiently implemented. There were exorbitant space exploration programmes, colossal dams, power projects and heavy industry, even when a disproportionate mass of the country suffered from immense poverty. Some would say that the nomenklatura was building bridges for the sake of grandeur, even at places where there was no river to cross.

But, then, Khrushchev was the non-conformist leader of this tightly controlled country, presiding over a rigorous de-Stalinisation programme, his leadership marked by an opening up of Soviet society. His was a departure from the gloomy days of oppressive gulags, and there was, at least, some relaxation of state control.

It seems that Khrushchev’s remarks on politics and big government are now being echoed in some of the recent criticism that has been directed at the social welfare programmes being implemented by the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government in India.

On 1 April, India joined a select group of countries where education is treated as an inalienable fundamental right. The Right to Education bill, which was passed into law, now treats education among the basic tenets of human rights that our Constitution guarantees us.

Five years ago, the UPA government had unveiled an even more ambitious programme to provide 100 days of guaranteed employment a year to one member of every family living Below the Poverty Line {BPL} in rural India in the form of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA). Besides, the National Rural Health Mission and the Right to Information were also enacted. The government is currently also working on a comprehensive food security bill.

These schemes have been widely criticised on various grounds, specifically on those of inefficient implementation, poor resource planning and corruption. In this issue of our magazine, we carry a story that looks into the problematic implementation of the NREGA and the threats the scheme faces from vested interests. A major criticism of these social welfare schemes is that while the government has serially passed various acts on paper, it has not backed them up with the necessary resources to ensure the schemes are properly implemented.

What is the point of implementing the Right to Education when the Centre cannot provide for enough schools and teachers? What good is NREGA if it is riddled with corruption, fake job cards are rampant, development work on the ground is inadequately carried out, and a mere apology of the original funding ends up with the poorest of the poor?

It could be said the government is currently more preoccupied promising to build grand bridges without minutely examining how to actually build effectively and with proper men and materials.

On the other hand, despite being plagued by huge deficiencies in resource planning and implementation, these grand—some believe grandiose—schemes play an important role in working towards achieving the social objectives behind all welfare programmes.

Their importance stems from the fact that each of these schemes and programmes underline an institutional mechanism for fulfilling the desired social objectives. When they are first drafted, all the schemes and programmes are indeed akin to grandiose plans that seek to achieve tall ambitious goals that more often than not sound utopian.

But when the parliament passed NREGA, the Right to Education, or National Rural Health Mission, these plans were transformed from being mere intentions to legally binding institutions.

In a basic sense, institutions are no more and no less than a set of rules designed to channel human behaviour to work towards achieving desired objectives. By creating a flowchart of incentives and disincentives, and by laying down standard rules and processes, institutions reduce uncertainty and ambivalence in the process of establishing a stable structure—of give and take, obligations and expectations—for individuals to work in.

These are what give all the grandiose schemes being implemented impetus and weight. Universal education for children will undoubtedly remain a distant dream unless the state allocates trillions of rupees to the programme, along with clear plans for making good the shortfall of hundreds of thousands of teachers and schools. Nevertheless, by implementing it in the form of the Constitutional Right to Education, the state imposes legal obligations, incentives and liabilities on all involved—or else be held accountable.

Similarly, although the NREGA’s Achilles’ heel has proved to be corruption and poor planning, its value lies in its legal whip, which, if cracked at the right people, could help demolish the obstacles in its way.

While badly structured and rickety institutions will end up inhibiting rather than promoting growth, to say that the abovementioned schemes and acts are mere toothless statements of good intentions is to underestimate their potential and importance. The legislations behind them are the first step to ensuring that our Byzantine government machinery and bureaucracy works within a framework that is designed to realise precisely that potential.