As a columnist recently remarked, "One of the besetting sins of (Indian) policy making has always been an excess of ambition. Policy is rarely written for the constraints of implementation in Indian context." Amongst many other scholars and writers reviewing (and reflecting) on India's public-policy environment, I have, argued that our public policy ecosystem suffers from a chronic "implementation curse".
High on ambition
This ailment, for decades since independence, has been caused by interplaying factors: a shortage of allocated (public) resources; poor monitoring and analytical capacity to review processes of policy implementation; differential political motives at play across governance systems; delays in disbursement of announced outlays, and a 'bureaucratic overload'. The last term (bureaucratic overload) is a concept explained-with much empirical support-in a recent paper, co-authored by Aditya Dasgupta and Devesh Kapur.
Dasgupta and Kapur argue, in context of rural India, how, most government programmes fail on the ground due to poor implementation by bureaucrats. While most explanations for this emphasise on bureaucratic 'rent-seeking and capture' or an attitude of entitlement, what the authors bring forth is a causal explanation: bureaucratic overload, where, 'local bureaucrats are heavily under-resourced relative to their responsibilities'.
This executive 'overload' caused from a shortage, or a misallocation of public resources is empirically shown to have two key sub-features: a) 'officials with fewer resources are worse off in implementing rural development programs'; b) 'fewer resources are provided in administrative units where political responsibility for (executive) implementation is less clear'. As a result, what we see is the culmination of weak state capacity and a disastrous record on implementing what the state envisages.
In context of the National Education Policy (NEP), where much deliberation praise, and some critical scrutiny has emerged on the nuances of developing a more holistic, multi-layered content of learning through a localised-linguistic outreach, and make an over-arching attempt to overhaul India's broken education system, what's missing is this underlying reality on how ruptured our implementationand executive-capacity is. It isn't as if there is just a behavioural crisis of a weak executive intent to not implement a policy (or law) but this surfaces from a decentralised fragmentation of State authority, poor accountability and an under-allocation of financial resources in doing what needs to be done. Apart from the bureaucrats, other stakeholders too (in context of NEP) need to work and operate under a better structured incentive-system that makes the implementation process a 'win-win' for both.
A closer look
For better implementation, the politics of 'ambition' in public policy must be aligned with a plan that ensures a progressive implementation roadmap to be present in the design of the given policy itself. More so in form of a map for the executive to follow and a feedback system to work under in ensuring adequate implementation. Else, any policy will be seen as 'ink on paper' (as Prof. Kaushik Basu puts it). What we see now is a 'political' exercise of blame-game across party-lines, between Union and state governments combined with a subjugation of agency for bureaucrats and the stakeholders involved.
In context to the new National Education Policy (NEP) too, yes, there is much to be content and happy about. Adopting principles of multidisciplinary, flexible learning, 'easier' evaluation systems, and a more diverse linguistic exposure, are all welcome in India's diverse ethno-linguistic and socially fragmented national identity.
What remains to be seen is the government's effort in executing this. In the projected vision of regulatorily easing educational rules, or by setting up a new National Higher Education Body (replacing the UGC), one isn't sure if these steps may only be a tool to exert greater political control over universities. The National Research Fund too, for example, may turn into a tool for imposing ideological dispositions on educational institution across different levels.
Time to execute
The 6% GDP annual expenditure on (higher) education sounds more 'ambitious'. The vector of priority and political preference has been pointed at the reverse direction, say, towards a promotion of rampant privatisation and commercialisation of education; reducing funds to top public institutions, while posing concerns of unequal access to quality education for most of India's young citizenry, marred by a socio-economic divide. The policy needs more scrutiny and debate on its implications for the 'marginalised' groups.
While the excitement and praise on an 'ambitious' plan to overhaul India's education system may be understood, the underlying ability of the State to implement what it wishes and demonstrate effective executive capacity, requires greater scrutiny and engagement. It might be better to have an annual exercise of independent policy assessments, as part of periodic cycle of policy evaluations to understand context-specific ailments, afflicting the executive's policy implementation process at the groundrevel. Else, the realisation of an executive 'overload', amongst other reasons, may transpire as an inevitable outcome.
(Courtesy of Mail Today)