Modi’s Road to 2019 Laced with Big Claims, Not Achievements

Modi govt may very well return to power on the basis of simply scaling-up services, without any real achievement.

5 min read
Modi’s Road to 2019 Laced with Big Claims, Not Achievements

Cricket fans would agree that in record books, a 40-ball century on a placid pitch will always count for more than a gritty match-saving thirty in tough batting conditions. Similarly, Sunil Chhetri’s feat of equaling Lionel Messi’s record for the number of international goals may seem paler when one compares the quality of their respective opponents.

History has a peculiar way of rewarding quantifiable achievements, primarily because they are easy to assess and process. Yet, such statistics hide more than what they reveal.

The Indian policy space is facing a novel tussle between the quantity and quality of administrative achievements. Having aced successive political communication battles, the BJP-led NDA government has also established its own paradigm for communication of governance-related results.

The focus seems to be on quantity and not the quality of achievements. Big numbers make for good press, which in turn, impacts the electorate’s perception.

After all, what are the chances of the median voter digging into headline data? Such onerous exercises attract only a small section of the society.

Loopholes in Govt’s Claims

For instance, in April 2018, the government claimed that India had achieved 100 percent electrification. The devil in the detail emerged only when some pointed out that 100 percent village electrification did not mean 100 percent household electrification. There are, in fact, over 3 crore rural households without any access to electricity. An electrified village, on the other hand, is defined as a village with access to basic electricity infrastructure, and where public places and at least 10 percent households have been electrified.

Prime Minister Modi’s pet project “Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan (rural)” is another case in point. A key statistic to quantify the scheme’s progress is the number of Open-Defecation Free (ODF) Villages.

An ODF village is one where no visible fecal matter can be found in the surroundings, and where all households and public institutions use “safe technology option for disposal of faeces”.

Remarkably, the number of ODF villages has increased by 725 percent, from around 47 thousand in 2015-16 to almost 3.88 lakh (as of 25 June 2018). As per guidelines, once a gram panchayat declares itself as ODF, at least two inspections – within the subsequent 3 and 9 months – are to be carried out to confirm the same. It seems though, that around 90 thousand of these villages have not been verified. Quality and sustainability of the scheme across these villages is not beyond doubt, and therefore, neither is the claim that 17 of the country’s states/UTs can be deemed as ODF.

Skewed Data

The fact that official guidelines for ODF verification suggest that at least two inspections be carried out, provides no incentives for the local administration to continue with similar exercises. Yet, an increase of 3.41 lakh in the number of ODF villages sounds like a massive achievement (and is an important part of an otherwise incomplete story).

Similarly, the government’s claim to have saved Rs 90,000 crores owing to its Direct Benefit Transfer initiative should merit plaudits. As per official claims, most of these savings have been made owing to de-duplication and deletion of fake or non-existent beneficiaries from official records. Yet, MGNREGA provides a good example of just how lack of quality-monitoring tends to exaggerate administrative achievements.

Presumably, beneficiaries ought to take up MGNREGA work if they need money, and can’t find means to earn within reasonable time. Payment delays, in this backdrop, dent the program’s core objectives.

Although DBT for wage payment under MGNREGA may have streamlined administrative processes, the system’s efficacy is not beyond doubt. On one hand, imposition of the DBT system (with some exceptions) in early 2016 placed the cart before the horse by demanding that even the remotest of villages process payments electronically (irrespective of the quality of their internet infrastructure and capacity of local officials).

At the same time, official data suggests that the process of transferring money from the governments’ accounts to beneficiaries’ accounts is taking much longer than expected.

For instance, as per norms, the process between uploading final documentation at the village/block-level and receipt of money into the beneficiary’s account should take no more than 7 days.

Official data (as of 23 June 2018), nevertheless, suggests that 20 percent of all dues uploaded for payment processing during 1-16 June 2018 (all of which should have been processed by 23 June) remain unpaid. This may have adversely affected over a quarter of all MGNREGA workers who worked during this period.

Notably, owing to India’s agricultural cycle and weather patterns, the months of May and June usually witness the highest demand for MGNREGA work within the year. Delays during this period of increased distress fly in the face of the program’s fundamental spirit.

Absence of a Counter-Narrative

The absence of a coherent counter-narrative has only helped the incumbent government. To some extent, one can blame the lack of credibility within the Opposition, which has resulted in a one-sided communication monopoly for the government.

However, an equally important issue is the process through which quality of delivery can be used to challenge quantitative achievements. While quantity-based communication thrives on numbers, a measure of quality is painstakingly difficult to quantify, and equally difficult to communicate.

In fact, back in the days of UPA-II, it was not as much the irregularities that the CAG discovered but the astronomical numbers associated with the 2G spectrum sale and coal block allocations that dealt a blow to the government of the day.

The Opposition of the day got lucky, for not only did it receive these big numbers to fling at the ruling government, it piggybacked on the claims of an independent authority that was perceived as credible.

The very fact that we are critically reviewing the quality of public delivery suggests that on numerous fronts, we have overcome the challenge of scaling up services. That is a fact that one can’t deny.

The current NDA government may very well return to power on the basis of simply scaling (or being perceived as the force behind the scale-up) up such services.

After all, it took only 31 percent of the country’s voters to hand over a decisive mandate to the BJP in 2014. With current political developments, even if that threshold were to rise up by a few percentage points, the quantity story may well be enough. The government need only target the required “critical mass”, which consists of voters who have either benefited from this scale-up or perceive the scale-up to be a big enough achievement in itself.

(Kartikeya Batra has graduated from Delhi University and The Fletcher School (Tufts University), thereafter, and is about to pursue a doctorate in economics at the University of Maryland (College Park). This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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