Swachh Bharat to Namami Gange: Red Tape in Schemes Ruins the Cause
The Indian government has lots of ideas on how to collect money, but are baffled when it comes how to spend it. The government tries to keep this fiscal impotence behind closed doors, but every now and then, a well-placed RTI sneaks past their defences and shows the world what is really going on.
Transparency is always an important topic, and it is in the limelight yet again as India unveiled Voluntary National Review on the UN Sustainable Development Goals on 18 July. The one SDG goal that is reviewed every year is number 17 – global partnership for sustainable development. This includes issues relating to finance, technology, trade and diplomacy, and is a priority for the government in their 2017 SDG report.
Lack of Transparency
But even though the government describes the efforts in place to integrate Indian systems and international networks, they fail to mention the lack of transparency, how funds are spent, and if their programs are working.
The issues are immediately apparent, and start right from the budget drafting process. The International Budget Partnership has rated government budgets in 102 countries, and created an Open Budget Index.
For India, the study covered March 2014 to September 2015, and resulted in a score of 46/100, with 100 being the highest. For reference, Tanzania scored 46/100, Bangladesh scored 56/100, and South Africa scored 86/100.
This lack of proactive disclosure and oversight leads to reduced effectiveness, and lots of missing or unused funds. This is exemplified in the Self Employment Scheme for Rehabilitation of Manual Scavengers; in March 2016, “the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment reported that, between 2013 and 2016, the scheme’s actual spending came to Rs 37.7 crore – only 2.5 percent of the funds it was promised in the union budget over this period.”
True Face of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan
The lack of capacity plagues the government’s flagship Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (Clean India Mission) sanitation programme as well.
It was reported that the government has collected Rs 3,901.78 crore over 2015-2016 from the 0.5 percent Swachh Bharat cess, and resulted in 1,26,38,186 toilets built in the 2015-2016 financial year.
On-the-ground reporting revealed that many of the poorest neighbourhoods that are declared Open Defecation Free (ODF) have simply relocated their open defecation, and the facilities available are often low quality and need manual scavengers to work.
Also, depending on the area, there was a recorded lack of awareness of government subsidies or how to access them for building toilets, which translates into a significant underutilisation and misallocation of resources. This occurred despite a mandate of Swachh Bharat to only distribute funds if the states can prove that they are being used effectively.
Funds Not Spent
Such problems are present in all types of projects. The lack of implementation was also revealed through an RTI query on the progress of the government’s “Namami Gange” project. The information revealed that out of the revised Ganga cleaning budget for 2014-15, “only Rs 326 crore [was spent], leaving more than Rs 1,700 crore unspent.” The lack of measurable goals means that it is unclear how useful the spent funds were.
Obviously the distance from the Centre, to the state, to the ground is a problem that more funding cannot fix. Fortunately, there are solutions; according to the Centre for Budget and Governance Accountability India (CBGA), the incapability to utilise budgeted funds in a large part comes down to the lack of District Planning Committees (DPCs).
Curbing Red Tape
Currently, only a few states have DPC offices that operate, even though they are constitutionally mandated. Strengthened DPCs can collect disaggregated regional data that currently goes unrecorded, and engage with citizens to help them become more aware of how government funds can help them.
It would also empower the panchayats (local governments) and municipalities to have greater responsibility for their actions in district planning and spending, which can help cut through the layers of bureaucracy.
But, as with any attempt at reform, it needs pressure by the masses and a demand for change by their elected representatives. Although we can hope for international pressure from the SDG review to have an impact, waiting for reform from the top down is an excellent way to remain disappointed.
(The writer is a researcher at Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative. This is a personal blog and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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