The consequences of ignoring implementation capacity

In my latest livemint article, I look at the perils of willfully ignoring implementation capacity – this, in the context of the UPA’s legislative push on welfarist legislations. I am all for a strong state and the role of state in delivering basic services, but the current state of implementation capacity doesn’t inspire much confidence.

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Recent legislation on food security and land acquisition have sparked off a public debate—most visibly among academics, industry captains and the urban affluent middle class. These debates have been of two kinds—one, on the desirability and economic feasibility of the guarantees being legislated; and two, on the capacity of the government to deliver on its promises. In this column, I focus on the second debate (which I think is a more grounded one) on the implementation capacity of the state.
Devesh Kapoor and Arvind Subramanian in their Business Standard column ask the following question of those who support the rights-based legislation:
How can an already enfeebled, leaking and corrupt state take on additional burdens to fulfil the legitimate objectives that they embrace? More food can hardly be distributed effectively when the existing public distribution system does not work where it is most needed. The right to education cannot be honoured if teachers do not show up in schools and the non-shows never pay the consequences.
This strikes right at the heart of the matter. Whether we talk about delivery of food, education or cash, or about the ability of the state to provide law and order, it is evident that the government of the day cannot just hope to paper over the cracks by legislating. In an uncertain political environment, the Congress-led government will do what it can to look good in its campaign for the upcoming elections—but the consequences of ignoring implementation capacity are a greater concern.
First: The Central government has sought to increasingly distance itself from implementation capacity—putting the responsibility squarely on the shoulders of state governments. While this may represent the reality of the division of governance responsibilities in the country, it also gives the Central government the leeway to divorce legislation from implementation—a clearly perilous governance formula.
Take the case of the National Food Security Act. In Parliament, the opposition parties urged the government to learn lessons from states such as Chhattisgarh and Tamil Nadu in improving the coverage and implementation of the proposed Act. The lessons learnt from these states are two-fold: one that the design of the scheme that provides universal coverage is an enabling factor for implementation; and two, the administrative machinery in these states (particularly at the districts and below) is geared towards ensuring smooth implementation.
However, as evident from the passage of the food Bill with no significant amendments, the government was determined to only push through its own version of the Bill. While its inability to stitch together a consensus with other political parties in the opposition is something that should worry the Bharatiya Janata Party, what we lost in the parliamentary debate was an opportunity to critically examine the implementation structure of the food security scheme and debate the prudence of burdening the state with additional responsibilities in the face of large gaps in the implementation of existing programmes.
Second: In a federal state, the role of the Central government in monitoring programme implementation should be strengthened. However, none of the recent interventions by the central government show a clear intent to make an improvement on this count. Take the example of Aadhaar. There have now been multiple news reports on how the Direct Benefits Transfer scheme failed to take off even in the most high-profile constituencies/districts of the country—it is being widely reported that it is the lack of Aadhaar and the linked-bank accounts that are the biggest impediments. However, the Central government that launched Aadhaar with much fanfare now seems clueless on how to expand coverage and facilitate targeting.
This is also related to the issue of the availability of good quality administrative data on the ground. In my previous column, I had lamented the lack of attention paid to administrative data. It is important to remember that implementation capacity has a positive correlation with the quality of administrative data, meaning that higher capacity will lead to and reflect in the form of better quality administrative data while poor capacity will reflect in the form of poor quality data. Given the persistently poor quality of data being generated and used by the administrative machinery, it is evident that implementation capacity continues to be ignored by the central government as it focuses on one scheme announcement after the other.
Ultimately, the losers are the same poor citizens in whose names these schemes are rolled out. Trapped in a downward spiral of poverty and deprivation, dependent on leaky government implementation machinery, they continue to be fed the same promises year after year. The federal system is intended to achieve a functional division of administrative responsibilities between the state and central governments. However, ignoring implementation capacity poses a serious threat to the efficacy of this arrangement. The question of why the central government is unwilling to take cognisance of its own feeble implementation capacity is possibly easily answered—but we should also be prepared to suffer the consequences of such myopic policymaking.
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