Category Archives: India

Where have all the women gone?….

The 15th Finance Commission in India has just been set up and the announcement includes five members. For the fifteenth time, and to no one’s surprise, the Commission is composed entirely of men. The most-recent membership of the Niti Aayog also does not include a single woman in its ranks. And so we have to ask – in this great country of one+ billion, how can the government remain unable to find any woman it deems worthy and capable of serving in these policy and planning capacities? Where have all the women gone?

It seems that our current Government, which has co-opted many good initiatives of past Congress governments and leadership (e.g., concept of Mission, Aadhaar, GST, etc), has left out the most important one: real action in the spaces of female empowerment and gender equality.   Rajiv Gandhi’s Office had Mrs. Grewal at its helm for many years with a large number of senior women in his team.  But today’s PMO has only one woman on staff in a leadership capacity, and that too at the Joint Secretary-level (though there are several more at Director-level and below).

Our current Prime Minister is very fond of ancient history and so this fact may help the cause of my tribe. The recent archeological evidence shows that until 9,500 BCE or until the onset of domestication of agriculture and animals, there was complete equality between men and women. Experts believe that this was because men and women carried out the same tasks of hunting and gathering food. And it is only when specialization led to differentiation in work — i.e., women tended to agriculture or managing house while men continued to hunt — that inequality between the sexes seeped in over time. So perhaps for the modern-day gender crusaders: maybe we should start with equal representation at work to recreate history.

Back in modern day India, it is not just the Finance Commission where we’re seeing gross under-representation of women in senior leadership positions. In 2017, India ranks 139th in World Economic Forum’s gender inequality sub-index for Economic Participation and Opportunities for Women out of a total of 144 countries, ahead only of Iran, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Syria. And omitting women altogether for opportunities like this, where they are elevated to the national stage and have the chance to make a lasting impact on policy, isn’t just confirming fears we all already knew. It’s also an opportunity lost.

Perhaps we’re living in an era of empty words: Because although the government seems to be working overtime to flood the national media with news about India’s improved rankings for World Bank’s Doing Business 2018 index, little publicized fact remains that India’s gender gap specifically for economic participation and opportunities under this government has worsened.

Most of us are too busy to notice the chasm that exists between the “alternative reality” – the world of words spun by the government, a “good” development narrative, or token empowerment for all achievement amplified to the national stage – and our own, everyday experiences. Fifteen successive Finance Commissions with just one single female member (that too in 2009) isn’t just an unfortunate coincidence; it’s a pattern. It’s our reality.

Light, Camera… What is missing is…..

“If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they don’t want to hear.”

 George Orwell

The PM’s agenda of Governance is wrapped up in six impressive sets of buzzwords.

  • Pro-people good governance is about putting people at the center of development process;
  • Minimum Government, Maximum Governance limits government’s role to that of a facilitator;
  • Need for Action, Not Acts is about bureaucratic shift;
  • PPPP (People Public Private Partnership) is about making people partner in policy formation and execution;
  • Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas defines collective efforts for inclusive growth; and
  • Bring out Red Carpet, not Red Tape for investors.

I remember the old sentiment “Sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast” , but then, not everyone is in wonderland.

Unfortunately, good governance is not always available on order. Participation is not synonymous with transparency. Simply adding a fourth “P” in front of PPP does not automatically ensure accountability of the electorate. Getting India’s encumbered bureaucracy to take real action will require much more than the closure of one Planning Commission. Investors will definitely appreciate PM’s red carpet, but once they get to the end of that (very short) carpet, there will still be the same maze of red tape to navigate.

“Governance” is a popular term, but often imprecise and used to mean different things: a minimal state; the introduction of new public management; defining a new process or method of ordering a society, and so on. Similarly, to achieve good governance one will have to work on many ends simultaneously. An efficient, open, and accountable public service delivery will need bureaucratic and political competence, incentives, and most importantly, integrity.

There are many internal contradictions within these six strands too. The PM is silent on the way to resolve these trade-offs and conflicts. For example, how will minimum government be able to deal with the complex choices of PPPs (which seems to be a panacea of this government)? The United Kingdom, for example,had to set up many new agencies to deal with private infrastructure. Today, infrastructure projects are a series of opaque and very complex contracts between private sector sponsors and governments, providing pre-defined utility services. This approach to infrastructure presents major economic, social, and political risks for not only today’s consumers, but also for our future generations. Huge economic rents are inherent and so far neither politicians, nor bureaucracy have scored well on integrity scales anywhere in India, including PM’s “Janmbhoomi” Gujrat. The mere fact of people’s participation will not subsequently guarantee better governance.

100-day milestone for the new government is approaching fast and perhaps it is time for the PM to move away from the Humpty Dumpty approach: “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less.”

Good governance has to begin with meaningful participation by all stakeholders, open debate about options, and decisive steps forward, where integrity and accountability are demonstrated with…action.





And Let the People Rule…….

The Comptroller and Accountant General of India’s (C&AG’s) address “Social Obligations of Public Auditors” to the Kennedy School has created a mini storm yet again: C&AG chose to take debate about his mandate to what he calls “America’s most elite university”. The question raised is: should public auditors be mere accountants and do arithmetic over government expenditure or should they go beyond their (constitutional) mandate and seek to sensitize public opinions on audit observations? With this new mandate, C&AG hopes to  become an active participant in public governance rather than a mere report pusher.


In this new audit model, C&AG advocates broadening his stakeholders beyond the executive, legislature, judiciary and to include civil society, social organizations, media, and the public.  The new normal for C&AG includes three initiatives: first, “the fault-finding auditor”, “wiser at hindsight”, will be replaced with positive and balanced reporter. Second, “Noddy” type booklets and pamphlets on audit observations will awaken citizenry to demand better governance from various departments. And finally, participation of social groups in social audit will give better outreach and inclusion of wider groups.


Let me start with  some interesting takes on his approach. C&AG declared in the speech that “Today’s youth is discerning, demanding, and believes in respecting institutions. He is not willing to see politicians subvert these institutions. He seeks a new moral and ethical framework for sustainable governance.“ Seriously? Evidence in India seems to suggest otherwise: numbers at anti-corruption rallies are dwindling forcing Anna Hazare to take a short pause. Unless a critical mass of empowered youth leaders is allowed to emerge and they invest in their own future, their engagement on such issues will remain episodic.  They are more likely to be disillusioned and disengaged against continuous negative flows of global and local news, thus creating a wedge between their intention and action.


Second, respecting institutions also means that changes are brought in legitimately, following a due process, and not at the whims or the fancies of its leaders, however good these might be. One should never forget that the role of the rebranded US Government Accountability Office was changed over a very long period. And this was done at the behest of the US Congress, through an act in 2004.  As early as 1967, US Congress asked the then General Audit Office (GAO) to review federal government’s anti-poverty program. In 1974, GAO’s role was expanded to cover evaluation functions. With these changes, GAO no longer was staffed with accountants alone, but included scientists, economists, and other policy experts.  We do not have to follow these steps, but three lessons are worth noting: first, there was an explicit demand for professional and independent support from US Congress to see how government money was spent for the welfare of American people. Second, the change process took over 30 years from the first step in 1967 to the ultimate full recognition and rebranding of General Audit Office to Government Accountability Office.  Third, the organization itself changed to meet the rising challenge and now has become a multi-disciplinary expert agency, well respected by the media and the Congress. Some of these steps are inevitable if the role of India’s C&AG is to change to cover broader mandate.


Third, no doubt informed electorate is a key to effective democracy, but informed legislature will necessarily be the important first step towards this end. Even though technology has improved communications a great deal, it is really the Parliament that will have to be the supreme institution of accountability in our democratic society.  In fact Justice R M Lodha, in his famous judgment  “C&AG is not a munim” reminded all of us that C&AG is a constitutional authority and it is for the Parliament to correct the mandate.  Unless C&AG is seen to bring value to the Parliament as a whole, (as was the case for the US Congress), it can snatch a headline or two, but will not deliver the broader mandate of improving governance.


Fourth, creating trust requires credibility:  there have been many articles in the Press and in the academic world about the C&AG’s numbers, be that for 2G Scam, or for coal. There are also reports where C&AG seemed to have agreed to suggestions that some of the estimates can be debatable, but having the right number is what I expect from my accountant, more than anything else.  Don’t you?


Finally, media and technology enables information dissemination, may even raise social awareness, or assist in crowd sourcing, but certainly, it cannot replace the slow and painful task of institution building. Democratizing accountability sounds great, but will it address our fundamental challenge of development?