Bihar's Big-thinking Babu

Indian Express, 16 January 2010

For most of his life, N K Singh was a very successful bureaucrat. Today, he is a member of the Rajya Sabha and through that he continues to participate in the policy making process. In addition, he advises Nitish Kumar on India's hardest problems in one of the most difficult states to govern, Bihar. Along the way, he also writes thoughtful columns. Given his unique background, knowledge and perspective, it is always interesting and important to reflect on what he says.

A set of his columns in Indian Express have been assembled into a recent book titled 'Not by reason alone: The politics of change'. For readers of the newspaper column, a big value added of the book format is when columns are grouped together by subject. Reading a group of chapters on one broad area gives a much better picture, when compared with reading the columns as they have appeared in the newspaper over time, particularly given the competition for focus that characterises the newspaper format. The themes under which columns have been grouped are: `Globalising India', 'Sustainable development', `Inclusion', `Inclusionary fiscal policy', `Infrastructure', `Education', `Institutions', `Political dynamics' and `Elections 2009'.

Looking beyond this structure, I found the columns directly linked to Bihar to be consistently outstanding and particularly interesting. They reflect a lifetime of knowledge of Bihar coupled with the urgent sense of rolling up ones sleeves and starting to solve problem.

The author and most readers are aware of a host of specific solutions that Bihar needs at the broad level: better law and order, better transportation links to the rest of the country, and better education. But as the title of the book emphasises, the challenge lies in navigating hard-headed ideas through to execution in the context of the inevitable pulls and pressures of India's representative democracy. The author does well in taking the reader beyond the platitudes, to a one-level-deeper understanding of what holds Bihar back and the work that is underway in breaking through these barriers.

I found the last three sections to be the most interesting. India has inherited a certain institutional machinery by virtue of the colonial heritage, the drafting of the Constitution and a glacial process of incremental change.

The suitability of the colonial heritage (e.g. the RBI Act of 1934) in 1947 was questionable, and in 2010 the gap between India and the structure of laws and agencies is acute. Every organisation requires fundamental organisational modifications to cope with a doubling in activities. In India, with 7% growth, we have been getting one doubling every decade. Hence, there is a large gulf between the needs of the economy and the existing institutional structure.

The task for policy makers consists of simultaneously getting the creaky institutional structure to turn out superior outcomes, and putting top management time and political capital into institutional reform. These twin themes, and the balance between expediency and deeper reform, repeatedly surface in this group of columns. The message that comes through for every leader of a government agency or every minister is to continually seek far-reaching structural change in information, incentives and legal foundations: to catch up with the India of 2010 and to support India's growth from 2010 to 2020.

The heart of institutional change is law-making, and myriad columns of this book come back to the law-making agenda. Ultimately, reform is only achieved by drafting high quality legislation and taking this through Parliament. The author rightly points out the weaknesses of Parliament in recent years, in failing to enact important legislations and in failing to even spend enough time on debating and crafting legislation. A particularly strong piece there is `The Problem with Parliament' which summarises what is wrong with the present mechanism through which legislation is handled in Parliament, and proposes specific solutions.

Some of the columns might appear dated at first blush. As an example, `A CMP between Congress and BJP' was timely and topical in October 2007, when it was written. Today, the BJP appears to have self-destructed, and the importance of such an alliance appears diminished. Diminished, but not extinct. In coming years, this same issue is likely to surface. India needs a centre party that is able to be aloof from the twin afflictions of religion and socialism. The raw material for this lies in combining the less-religious elements of the BJP with the less-socialist elements of the Congress. With religious sentiment and socialist fervour both ebbing in the younger generation, such a development cannot be ruled out. The column could prove to be dated, or it could prove to be prescient.

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