'The government is over-stretched; we need stronger public-private partnerships'

By Rashme Sehgal

Former civil servant N K Singh, whose book 'The Politics of Change' has recently been published, believes that the state cannot absolve itself of responsibility in the social sector. But at the same time it cannot be expected to provide all the initiatives in these areas

N K Singh has been described as a world class policy analyst and strategist. A career civil servant, Singh has held several key positions in the ministry of commerce and industry and in the finance ministry. He has also served as revenue secretary and secretary to the prime minister and later as member, Planning Commission.

His recently published book, The Politics of Change: A Ringside View, comprises a collection of articles he has written for the Indian Express. These essays provide telling insights into governance and the changing global perspectives on India.

The book highlights the challenges India faces as its institutions try and keep pace with the rapidly changing social and economic landscape of the nation. An interview with the author.

You have been at the centre of decision-making right through the years of liberalisation. What have been our biggest achievements and what would you describe as our biggest unfinished agenda?
The most important achievement is to recognise the power of competition. Productivity is enhanced through the unleashing of competitive forces across all sectors. Take the example of the deregulation of the telecom sector and how rates were slashed once this happened. There is no doubt that multiplicity of choices helps the consumer.

Even more important is that this helps bring about a mindset change. We move away from state monopolies to the regulation of the market through a transparent regulator.

The unfinished agenda before the government covers a lot of areas. These include infrastructure development, education, health and of course agriculture. The Planning Commission has called for inclusive growth in the agricultural sector. There is no doubt that 22% of GDP comes from agriculture but it provides employment to 60% of the population. Its contribution to the GDP is shrinking and agricultural productivity has plateaued . We therefore need to think in terms of a value-added agriculture which is more suited to changing consumer needs.

What kind of localised solutions do you envisage for these problems?
The service sector has done well. What we need to do is provide a boost to our manufacturing sector. One of the reasons for this lack of growth is because the number of permissions that are required to set up a manufacturing unit are too many. This makes the whole task too cumbersome and bureaucratic. This is a hurdle which needs to be eliminated.

What about lack of growth in the social sectors?
There is no doubt that we are lagging behind in the health and education sectors. India has a young population that will provide us with tremendous demographic dividends. The number of people entering the economic mainstream is high. What we have to ensure is that we reduce the dropout ratio at our primary levels. This holds the key to the educational wellbeing of our students because at present most of the dropouts are taking place from mid-school onwards. The number of students appearing at the secondary level is very low and the percentage drops even more at the higher education level.

What kind of agricultural inputs do you think are required in order to give our agricultural sector a boost?
We need new R&D in agriculture. Only then will we be able to usher in a second Green Revolution. The basic problem is that there are too many people seeking a livelihood out of agriculture and that must change. I think the government needs to provide credit to farmers on much softer terms. Banks must replace moneylenders. Also, there is a complete absence of agricultural insurance schemes. Crops need to be protected and unless this happens, farmers will remain vulnerable.

What reforms would you suggest to ensure that liberalisation trickles down to the grassroots level?
We need to introduce the next generation of reforms. We also need to get the state governments deeply engaged in ensuring that these reforms reach the people who need them most. It is the state governments that must spearhead change and to do so, they need to be sensitised. Take the example of tele-density. We are adding 4 million connections a month. How many of these are being added at the rural level? Once this happens, farmers will immediately be open to many more services.

Basically, solutions must be out-of-the-box. We need to have foodchains in place. This will ensure that food does not perish quickly and that will also help farmers. Reforms are not about increasing the incomes of the elite but of those at the grassroot level.

What would you change about government functioning in order to ensure that policy gets implemented?
We must realise that the government is over-stretched. A district magistrate is presently implementing over 40 schemes. But there are limits to what he can do. In the same way, the PDS has become overburdened and that is one of the key reasons for its deterioration. I think we need to develop a stronger private-public partnership in order to reduce the burden on government and to ensure more efficacy in the implementation of our schemes.

Why are the human development indicators in health, literacy, infant mortality, nutrition still so low?
India's ratings in the human development index are low. So in that sense the state cannot absolve itself of responsibility in the social sector. But at the same time I maintain that the state alone cannot be expected to provide all the initiatives in these areas. The private sector must come forward.

Take the example of health workers and paramedics. We are facing a huge shortage of health workers and so both the state and the private sectors need to invest in this sector so that the numbers of trained personnel increase sufficiently to meet this shortfall.

Many of your articles have highlighted that the prevailing methods of estimating poverty are flawed and are serving to make poverty invisible. How should these empirical findings be improved? How should poverty be measured?
The interpretational issue of what constitutes poverty has been reopened. So far it has been defined along the patterns of income. But we need to look at it in its broader sense beyond just income. I believe we need to focus on the interpretational issue especially when a major part of India is prospering. We need to do a detailed central household survey that will provide direct evidence about the family's status. The National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) is the closest approximation of the cash dole system that has been evolved so far. We need to do a social audit to find the loopholes in this scheme so that they can be plugged. We have a plethora of anti-poverty schemes providing subsidised foodgrain, kerosene, electricity, seed and fertiliser. I think we need to adopt a more focused approach so that the really poor benefit. I am all for a dollar a day being sent by cash involving a direct cash transfer. This can be done through a bio-metric smart card. This is being done all over the world for passports. Put all the government allotments into one scheme and use technology to deliver it to the poor.

InfoChange News & Features, August 2007