Dec 3, 2008

India - What did you do today ?

Vandana Gombar

What did you do today? That is the innocuous question that the chairman of Power Finance Corporation, Satnam Singh, asks his 30-odd team leaders to write an answer to, everyday, before they leave. In his own office, he has a prominently placed counter keeping track of the number of days he has spent in his office, so that he can keep track of what he is achieving on a daily basis, as well as the progress he is making on his long-term strategic goals. This simple productivity-enhancing tool can work wonders if made mandatory for ministers and bureaucrats across the country.

Now throw this question to the power minister, the home minister, the coal minister, the petroleum minister or any of the 80-odd ministers and ministers of state at the Centre and on most days, you are likely to come up with little more than nought. The heavy-weights among the ministers that make up the Central government have spent their time schmoozing at the right places, wearing the right attire and of course, making the right noises without an iota of action. So the dapper former home minister Shivraj Patil can repeat, ad nauseam, how coastal security is important or how intelligence is the best weapon to counter terrorism— he said it ten days ago in a speech to Directors-General and Inspectors-General of Police— but we know what happened to the actual intelligence leads that came in prior to the attacks in Mumbai. The large army of ministers-of-state meanwhile have mostly managed to keep busy by being involved with stamp release functions and other such heavy duties of state when they are not busy twiddling their thumbs.

Of course there are some ministers who are considered “active” but the country can do without such activism. Take the telecom minister for instance, who has managed to change the rules of the game in the sector so often since he took over that we don't have a telecom policy anymore, but rather a telecom maze. Or the health minister, who makes control of smoking his priority agenda, though the high infant mortality rate—which is double that of China— or the maternal mortality rate— which is 10 times that of China— does not disturb his conscience so much.

If the former chief of the Delhi Jal Board, Arun Mathur, has asked himself this question even every other week, he would not have been facing a jail term for “failing to prevent sewage from flowing into the Yamuna despite assuring the court two years ago that they would take steps to stem the sewage flow into the river,” according to a newspaper report.

Governance so far has mostly been about enjoying the frills of power— a handout there, a bailout here, a subsidy there, a duty imposition here, some largesse there, an occasional threat to some sector here, depending on which vested interest manages to hold sway at a particular point in time— without any accountability.

This whole governance matrix needs to change. A few heads rolling is not going to solve the problem, as one set of leaders will be replaced by another set who are not likely to be very different— a weird play of Pareto’s circulation of elites theory. No one is however working to change this matrix, or even thinking about change. Leaders are happy rubber-stamping the routine items when their task is clearly to think and implement ideas which shunt the country on a new path. Change is needed at a different level and that change does not seem to be in the works for a country of over a billion people with ambitions of being a superpower. As one hears responsible business leaders threatening to stop paying taxes which finance an incompetent government, it is obvious that such changes are required urgently to avoid a systemic breakdown.

Most smart managers say that they divide their average day into two time slots, of which one is committed to the daily routine demands and one is set aside for contribution to strategic long-term initiatives. There seems to be no-one looking beyond the day-to-day running, and survival, of the government. In fact, there seems to be no-one who is even trying to stem the downward slide in the day-to-day functioning of the state from within. There are however some hints of a change from without.

If you have missed the “jaagore” (meaning wake-up) ads on TV from Tata Tea, check out the site—— for more on the one billion votes movement aimed at the youth— “who make up a majority of our billion-plus population.” It asks the youth to vote if they want to resolve issues like bad roads, corrupt politicians and unfair reservations. As the voter basket is enlarged and the voter profile changes to accommodate a larger number of people who are aware of their rights, accountability will follow automatically. Meanwhile, let us make it a habit to ask ourselves, and those around us, what was done during the day. Or better still, what was achieved during the day!

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