Event ReportsPublished on Jul 13, 2018
Big gap between ideas and implementation, says Vajpayee’s Economic Advisor

“The incumbent Government at the Centre can be criticised not on ideas, but on implementation,” according to Dr. S Narayan, Economic Advisor to Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and ex-Revenue Secretary, Government of India.

Initiating a discussion on “Issues of Implementation” at Observer Research Foundation, Chennai, on 7 July, Dr. Narayan said, “It is thus important to understand what is causing the gap between ideas and implementation.” He added, “Implementation is not in the hands of Government alone. Its responsibility lies also with the bureaucracy.”

He said there seemed to be a fundamental gap between ideas and implementation. There was also an apparent lack of logic to policies across the board. For instance, he pointed out, while there were several central schemes on employment, it appeared that many things had not been thought through at the implementation-level. The largest employment came from small and medium enterprises (MSMEs), and yet in just one State alone, namely, Tamil Nadu, close to 50,000 MSMEs have been shut down, leaving five Lakh people out of employment.

Stinging experience

Similarly, the demonetisation move also showed that several aspects were not considered or reasoned in a coherent manner. Demonetisation turned out to be a stinging experience for most of India because it was a failure in implementation, not necessarily a failure at the level of ideas. “Leaving aside the debate, whether or not the government should have made the move, it could have been done without the pain,” he said.

Changing the size of the currency to be fed into standardised ATM machines across the country was a trivial detail but the problems arising out of it could have been avoided, and so could have been the 15 days of chaos that the people suffered.

Discussing trade, Dr Narayan said, he couldn’t understand why certain non-issues had garnered national attention. It was unclear why the high import duties on ‘Harley Davidson’ motor-bikes from the US had become such a national issue when in reality only 2000 or so of the brand alone were sold in the country, compared to 45-lakh bikes riding the roads of Chennai city alone.


Dr Narayan felt that in order to address the problem of implementation, we had to look at the people and the process – both were in need of reform. Despite being a veteran of the Indian Administrative Service (IAS), Dr Narayan stated emphatically that people should not be selected to positions in ministries on the basis that “they passed the civil services examination 30 years ago”. It was imperative that they have specific domain-expertise.

He said he was dismayed to find that people at the decision-making level in Government did not possess the domain-expertise needed to implement specific policies. In some cases, it was found that those in charge of power projects had a background in tax-reforms while those from law-enforcement were in charge of finance policies.

He stated it was vital to have a corresponding domain-expertise for the corresponding ministry. “The fact that Joint Secretary-level vacancies in banking, finance and commerce are now being filled by people from outside the services was a realisation that this group of people aren’t performing,” observed Dr Narayan.

Playing by the rules

Analysing some of the schemes, on the health-for-all, senior citizens and national insurance fronts, Dr Narayan was disheartened that these programmes were stumbling. This again was because of lack of expertise in the respective fields. In this regard, he questioned whether the Niti Ayog was the best institution to implement these schemes, given that it had no expertise in the medical field, for instance.

Similarly, lack of domain expertise on trade in the Commerce Ministry meant that “trade policies were in a mess”, said Dr Narayan. He pointed out the country’s trade-surplus with US was 25 billion while its trade-deficit with China stood at $ 60 billion. Yet, we were reducing tariffs on Chinese goods and levying higher duties on US goods.

While the explanation given for reducing tariffs is that India is merely following WTO rules, Dr Narayan questioned the logic behind such claims. India was playing by WTO rules, when it was a smaller player in the global trading system, contributing to a mere one percent of global trade when neither China, nor Germany, nor even the US, particularly under President Donald Trump, all big players, was following the same.

Chasing files

The process of implementation is also in need of urgent reform, Dr Narayan said. He felt that unfortunately India had inherited and held onto an administrative system that the British had left behind. He questioned the entire system and the continuing culture of filing numerous reports. It was often the norm within ministries to have the views of four or five different persons in the hierarchy noted and ‘filed’ before an issue is brought to the table of the department’s Secretary.

Dr. Narayan argued that it was time to make this process more efficient, as too much time and energy was being wasted in the familiar problem of ‘chasing files.’ Every business trying to set up in India was a victim of ‘files not moving’ and having to ‘constantly chase files’, he said.

Recommending as a way to streamline the process, Dr. Narayan shared an anecdote from the late President R Venkatraman’s time as Union Finance Minister.  Venkatraman was known to call meetings that included everyone in his ministry, from the under-secretary and upwards. Everyone’s opinions would be discussed and debated until a consensus was reached and minutes of the meeting would be recorded. This avoided the situation of several people noting their opinions and filing them separately.

Dr. Narayan contended that it was time to rethink the existing processes. There is also an urgent need to rethink the process by which implementation takes place at the civil service level. In this context, Dr Narayan criticised the Indian media, which he felt was not balanced, as a result we had become victims to opinions, not facts. The Indian media often took individual cases and blew it out of proportion. The notion that land-acquisition was a problem, he maintained, was a media-created hype. While land-acquisition was a problem for government infrastructure projects, it did not seem to be the case for private companies, he pointed out.

Learning from Bangladesh

In terms of processes and implementation, Dr Narayan said there was much India could learn from Bangladesh. The ‘Swachh Bharat Mission’, aimed at eradicating open defecation by 2019, was far from reaching its goal, whereas Bangladesh had managed to reduce it from 34 percent to one. This was another example of a fundamental gap between ideas and implementation.

While over six-crore toilets have been built across rural India, getting people to use it remains a huge hurdle. “We seem to be starting at the top-level, without understanding mindsets.” Instead, in Bangladesh he found applicants for loans from the Grameen Bank, who are mainly housewives,  had to agree to follow 16 conditions listed in its charter and recalled regularly at its events and meetings.

The conditions include commitments to build and use latrines, drink only tube-well water or drink water only after boiling it, plant seedlings wherever and whenever possible, and send their girl-children to school. The idea is to involve the rural housewives in the implementation of such schemes and change their mindsets of generations and centuries. “Encouraging the use of clean toilets, for instance, has to take place at the lowest levels,” concluded Dr. Narayan.

This report was prepared by Dr. Vinitha Revi, Research Associate,  Observer Research Foundation, Chennai

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.