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More digitisation cannot cure India's ills, says Harvard's Lant Pritchett

Harvard prof says govt needs to look at implementation bottlenecks, delivery mechanisms

Subhayan Chakraborty  |  New Delhi 

Lant Pritchett
Lant Pritchett, professor of the Practice of International Development at Harvard Business School. Photo: harvard.edu

More is not the solution to most of India's intrinsic problems, such as its inefficient education system or police corruption, Lant Pritchett, professor of the Practice of International Development at the Harvard Business School, said here on Monday. 

In India to address the 14th Indian Policy Forum organised by economic think tank National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER), Pritchett said that while greater connectivity and technology-enabled governance has been touted as the panacea for most economic, demographic, and social challenges in the country, it may just prolong the process of finding a real solution.

Accepting that while the need for better digital solutions such as demonetisation, and the ensuing of transactions, cannot be overlooked, Pritchett said that the government needs to address the fact that the capability of the state to deliver is at an all-time low.

For that, instead of focusing more on finding new solutions to age-old problems, the government should instead focus on the implementation of existing policies that are well adapted to dealing with existing issues, he added.

"Policies in India are great, partly because people at the top are brilliant," Pritchett said, adding that it was their implementation – the 'state's capacity for policy implementation' – which had failed. On this count, India's score is very low, the professor added.

Pritchett attributes this to a systematic lack of training at the ground level, the stranglehold of bureaucracy, and a high tolerance for non-working models of governance among the people. In a major academic work published back in 2009, Pritchett coined the term 'flailing state' — a category of nations necessitated by India. He describes a flailing state as a country in which the head, that is the elite institutions at the national level, remains sound and functional but it is no longer reliably connected via nerves to its own limbs.

In many parts of India, and in several sectors, the everyday actions of field-level agents – state policemen, engineers, teachers, and health workers etc – are increasingly beyond the control of the administration at the national or state level, he said.

These may become a significant threat to the country's economic growth, according to Pritchett. "India needs to think while it's ahead but prepare for economic deceleration, which will inevitably come in the medium to long term," Pritchett said.

Drawing attention to the blank slating of reforms — reinventing reforms on the same subjects every time a new government takes charge, he said that this actually harms the overall process.

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