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The Lampost Framework: Why India Struggles With the Implementation of (some) Reforms

The ecosystem for implementation of reforms in India is structurally setup to solve acute, visible problems, but not chronic issues that require long-term monitoring.

By Akshay Alladi (@akshayalladi)

In much of our public policy discourse, many Indians are dismissive of state capacity. Much of what is run or managed by the state is shoddy- shabby hospitals, poor schools, crumbling roads and only intermittent power.

However, on closer examination, there are some areas where the Indian state’s performance is not just adequate, but indeed quite spectacular. Conducting elections in a free and fair manner, the eradication of polio through one of the largest public health programs in the world etc. are remarkable achievements.

Consider the case of polio eradication: The campaign was started only in 1995, and the total coverage of the target population was 99.7%! The WHO has now declared India to be totally polio free. Just a decade ago, the universal vaccination coverage in a state like Bihar was only 30%

What explains this seeming paradox?

If you look at it, a pattern emerges of the sorts of reforms the Indian state implements well, and what it doesn’t. The state manages to get several children into school, but fares very poorly on learning outcomes. It has been very successful in the eradication of diseases such as polio, but does badly on delivering healthcare in general. With the Mangalyaan mission it managed to reach Mars at an incredibly low cost, but struggles in delivering high quality science education to a broad mass of people. And as noted by Nobel laureate Professor Amartya Sen, the Indian state has prevented any famine from occurring in modern India (unlike in China or much of the developing world), but has a very poor track record on malnutrition.

The acute and the chronic

The pattern to note is that the Indian state does relatively well in handling “acute” conditions- that is those that require a specific intervention, for a limited time period, and with a clear, visible goal- which can measured at relatively low cost. The Indian state however struggles with chronic conditions- those that require painstaking management over a longer period of time, and where success is not as readily visible, so considerable cost and effort is required to measure progress.

The reason in some ways is the nature of Indian democracy. In Amartya Sen’s landmark work ”Democracy as Freedom” he asserted ”No famine has ever taken place in the history of the world in a functioning democracy”, and the reason he adduced was that democratic institutions—regular free and fair elections, independent courts and legislatures, free press and vibrant civil society—are all effective mechanisms of upholding the basic rights of citizens and would prevent a famine by providing effective feedback and pressure on the Government to act.

But why do the same mechanisms then not work in solving problems of a more chronic nature?

The lampost framework

To explain why reforms are difficult to implement in India (as opposed to why they are difficult to formulate and pass) I propose a new model (called the “lampost” framework). This framework  builds off the key concepts of Allison/ Elmore’s models as well as a modified version of Kingdon’s window specific to implementation (see schematic below). To illustrate the framework I use the case of sanitation or open defecation (OD) as an example.

Schematic1

Several initiatives, such as the recent Swachh Bharat, and the earlier Nirmal Bharat and Total Sanitation program (TSP) have sought to eliminate open defecation, but have progressed only on toilet construction, but not on the Information, Education and Communication (IEC) to improve toilet usage. Even now an estimated 600 million Indians defecate in the open, and only 46% of the toilets built in Year 1 of Swachh Bharat are reported to be used.

Explanation based on the framework: Absence of toilets is measurable at low cost, and building toilets is a one time activity addressing an acute issue (shortage of toilets). Hence, both for the media and for the public at large, by bounded rationality there is far greater emphasis on toilet construction and voters are rationally ignorant about toilet usage.

Though the media does highlight non-usage of toilets, such information is anecdotal, just given the high costs of gathering large scale information on toilet usage (a chronic condition). Hence, from a “demand” standpoint  it is easier for agenda setting on toilet construction (which then gets into the window of policy implementation), rather than usage (which is left out of the window).

The “supply” analysis is as follows: As a rational response to the “demand” side, both politicians and the bureaucracy prioritise toilet construction as a visible, measurable win; this is also because the allocation to IEC is lower (in fact it has been reduced to 8% of total funds in Swachh Bharat from an already low 15% earlier).

Given resource constraints the Government also cannot get a new, specialized implementation workforce focused on IEC- e.g., out of 76,108 Swachhata Doots required, only 8890 were recruited, the Communication and Capacity Development Units (CCDUs) that were supposed to implement this did not have dedicated staff, and had multiple objectives (Source: Arghyam Trust).

Hence the ‘bureaucratic actor’ who has multiple objectives, but not the commensurate capacity, rationally deprioritises the part that is less funded, and less measured- i.e., IEC. As an example of this behavior, in Himachal Pradesh IEC was initially prioritised with very good results for toilet usage, but as central allocation (and measurement) became far higher for construction, the bureaucracy prioritised construction, reversing the gains on sanitation.

The top down design of the sanitation program, also gave the line level bureaucracy very little autonomy or say in the policy design (as shown by the Himachal example)- hence from an Organizational Development standpoint the motivation to implement is lowered.

IEC and on-going toilet usage also depends on the last mile of the state- most of whose members are drawn from the same society who share the same prejudices about sanitation and are hence imperfect agents of change in social behaviour.

Finally, the activities of on-going maintenance and monitoring require coordination between multiple agencies. For example to build and maintain running water in the toilets, local officials must cooperate across more than 10 departments to obtain the relevant information, inputs and clearances as well as work with citizens and panchayats. These departments all have different objectives and priorities, and hence implementation for on-going maintenance is much more challenging.

I call this the “lampost” framework after the droll story about the medieval philosopher Nasruddin Hodja; when Hodja lost his keys he famously looked for them only under the lampost even though he likely dropped them elsewhere, because as he reasoned- what is the use of looking for something in the dark where it cannot be seen anyway! Much of the decision making in the Indian policy making is governed by the same principle- which explains the focus on visible wins that will be noted by the media, and hence the people, as opposed to the intervention that is likelier to have impact but is harder to measure.

This framework explains why India is good at solving acute issues/ crises/ one-time goals such as preventing famine (as Amartya Sen showed) or eradicating polio, but bad at implementing policies to address chronic issues that require sustained implementation and monitoring such as sanitation, malnutrition etc.

Akshay works in the e-commerce industry, and was a management consultant serving clients in the financial services and Government spaces. He is also an alumnus of the Takshashila GCPP13 Cohort.

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The Importance of the Constituent Assembly in Framing the Indian Constitution

By Madhav Chandavarkar ( @MadChaP88)

The Constitution of India is the rule-book for democratic governance in India. It came into force on 26 January 1950 and to date remains one of the biggest milestones in the history of our country. Framing a constitution is never a simple task but it was especially hard for India given the extremely tumultuous situation at the time. A newly independent country with a highly unequal social order was a daunting challenge to deal with, especially when it was still reeling under the effects of partition.

The Constitution was framed by the Constituent Assembly established under the Cabinet Mission Plan of 1946. The 299 individuals who comprised the Constituent Assembly can therefore rightfully be termed as the founding fathers and mothers of the Republic of India. Certain members of the Constituent Assembly played a key role, the foremost of whom was Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, whose role as the Chairman of the Drafting Committee of the Assembly has earned him the popular moniker of ‘Father of the Indian Constitution’. Other Congress stalwarts like Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, Dr. Rajendra Prasad, and Maulana Azad were also dominant voices in Assembly proceedings. A special mention must go to Constitutional Advisor, Dr. B.N. Rau who compiled the initial draft that the assembly debated after taking inputs from constitutional experts at home and abroad.

Challenges in framing the Constitution

The Constitution took a significant amount of time to be framed and though it continues relying on many institutions established by the British it borrows different aspects from various constitutions. However, widespread demands for an indigenous Constitution meant that a lot of the initial debates were about whether it would be wise to follow the model created by the British. Undoubtedly, the biggest challenge facing the assembly was to create a political framework that would keep the various communities and princely states happy in India and prevent Balkanisation. The members were acutely aware of this as Delhi was facing enough violence that they often needed curfew passes to attend Assembly sessions. The fact that the Assembly also functioned as an interim Parliament would have also informed the members about the scale of administrative work needed to ensure unity.

Other major challenges faced by the assembly were:

  • To frame a constitution which would uplift downtrodden sections of society. This meant providing an assurance to minorities regarding the protection of their rights as well as creating a welfare State that could improve their social and economic status.
  • To ensure democratic processes for citizens in perpetuity – the fathers wanted their vision of the country to remain after their death.
  • To frame a constitution capable of effectively handling communal violence. This was largely motivated by the violence occurring due to the partition.
  • To frame a constitution which could integrate princely states and their various demands.

At the time, the Congress party was the dominant political force in the country and was so in the Assembly as well. Yet the Congress actively sought out non-Congress luminaries such as Ambedkar to make sure that the best minds would be involved and that as many communities would be represented. There was even considerable divergence of opinions among leaders of the Congress itself. It is therefore a testament to the dedication of the constituent assembly that despite such odds, a consensus was reached.

This was perhaps the outcome of a recognition of the role unanimity in conceptualising the constitution would play in its durability and continuity. Issues were therefore debated until decisions as unanimous as possible could be made and proceedings were open to members of the public and the press. Many discussions also took place outside the halls of the Assembly in and between the various committees. These debates and committee proceedings have now been transcribed and published.

The completion and adoption of the Constitution was an historic event that was being avidly observed by the entire world. The decision to grant universal adult franchise was a tremendous gamble for the Indian State but was also one of the most transparent displays of democratic fervour.

The drafting of the Constitution is now considered a monumental feat of democracy for which the members deserve immense respect. These individuals, despite being a multicultural set of people from various communities, were collectively committed to achieving the historic task of establishing a democratic republic in India. Today, as we have entered the 70th year of our independence, our Constitution still stands as a shining beacon of democratic governance. It is because of the members of the constituent assembly that our flag flutters proudly over the Parliament in Delhi.

Madhav Chandavarkar is a Research Analyst at the Takshashila Institution. His Twitter handle is @MadChaP88

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