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Pradeep S Mehta: Institutions vs organisations in the reform agenda

Establishing bodies to deal with problems of poor governance will yield few results unless Modi takes an overarching institutional approach to the issue

Pradeep S Mehta 

Pradeep S Mehta
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Among several adrenaline-pumping measures, three points of Narendra Modi in his scintillating speech on Independence Day stood out. First, his ridicule of the siloed approach of different departments of the government. Second, rejuvenating the plan body by scrapping it and giving birth to a new body with active participation of the states. And third, to work in co-operation with the opposition parties to carry the reforms agenda forward.

All three ideas need an institutional approach if they have to be realised in their true sense, and not just by establishing bodies to deal with them. Institutions must not be confused with organisations. Organisations are a part of an institutional framework for achieving its objectives. For instance, the army is not an institution but an organisation in the institution of our security apparatus. Further, norms, regulations, traditions and conventions are the weft that holds the warp of the fabric of the security apparatus, and thus constitute the whole of an institution.

Warp is the longitudinal thicker core thread and the weft is the thread that is woven around it to create various patterns in a fabric. If the core thread is weak than the weft thread cannot hold on to the designed fabric.

Let's take the example of our civil services, which is an integral part of the institution of administration, and responsible for delivering governance, or not. The warp thread was inserted in the Constitution by providing protection to civil servants, i.e. the weft, from being victimised in the course of their duties. The protection was strengthened by more weft threads: laws, rules and regulations, to ensure their independent performance. Accountability was fostered through various measures including the ability of courts to question them or by transfer to a cold desk. To be sure, transfers do take place at the whims and fancies of the political class, another inseparable feature of the institution of administration.

The Supreme Court has recognised the dangers of such political interference and, thus, had recently directed the Centre and the states to set up a Civil Services Board for management of transfers, postings, inquiries, et al. It also suggested a fixed tenure for civil servants. A similar earlier order on police services remains unimplemented. As a result, the institution of administration, implementation and internal security remains vulnerable to the idiosyncrasies of the political class.

Let us review the internecine battles between our different departments. Components of skills building, which used to be under a large number of ministries and agencies, have been brought under the human resources development ministry. However, there could be situations where a similar solution cannot be adopted.

For example, the Department of Industrial Policy & Promotion (DIPP) believes that our preferential trade agreements (PTAs) are a losing proposition, which is quite contrary to what the Department of Commerce believes. Both are under one minister, yet the differences exist. The problem is the lack of understanding that the DIPP has in terms of the strategic gains of such PTAs and the fact that our traders are unable to exploit the advantages that exist. The absence of institutional practice of dialogue between departments is to be blamed.

The second issue concerns scrapping the Planning Commission and establishing a statutory new body, which will be a hybrid think tank and reforms agency. Partnering with states in this exercise is the institutional approach required to make it a success in our federal country, and not by creating a new body in a top-down manner. States are quite enamoured with Modi's call for co-operative federalism, and such a body will mean business. However, the new body will have to continue to do perspective planning and scenario building through a multi-stakeholder approach. Continuous evaluation of the programme by the Independent Evaluation Office will help credibility, thus conforming to the institution of accountability.

The third issue is that of working with opposition parties, not only because the National Democratic Alliance does not have majority in the upper House, but even otherwise. Here the government can take inspiration from Mexico, where the young President Enrique Pena Nieto signed a Pact for Mexico with four major political parties to get a consensus on vital policies and reforms of national importance with a 95-point agenda in December, 2012. The polity came together for the pact after the realisation that political grandstanding has weakened the economy for a decade. In 12 months, the pact has already been able to pass six major reforms, which includes the educational system, legal reforms, tax reform, electoral reform and energy reform.

Every single reform was vehemently opposed by vested interests, trade unions and anarchists. But the government stood ground with the support of the opposition. In each of the areas, we can see close similarities with our own situation. Modi could steer a similar pact for India with the opposition parties and in partnership with states, where the implementation takes place. Again, the institutional practice of positive discussion helped in Mexico, and we need the same thing in India.

We need to ask ourselves difficult questions and dig deeper to figure out the root cause of problems. To begin with, there is a need to start looking at things in perspective, understand the difference between institutions and organisations, and recognise the vital role of institutions in good governance. An effective remedy to the concerns that the country is facing today lies in pulling up or reinventing institutions.



The writer is Secretary General of CUTS International (psm@cuts.org)

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First Published: Thu, August 21 2014. 21:46 IST
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