& DHIRAJ NAYYAR
Issues flagged by Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra, related to clearances for a project by the national highways and for the Navi Mumbai airport, respectively, were also taken up. In all, six central government projects involving more than a dozen ministries and thirteen states, stymied because of delay in various actions and permissions, were addressed. Some of the problems were resolved during the course of the meeting.
The Prime Minister also dealt with impediments to the school toilet programme and the Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan, and issued directions accordingly. These directions, incidentally, are retained in the PRAGATI system, to ensure follow-up until the matter has been finally resolved.
Till June 2017, nineteen PRAGATI meetings had been held and 167 central and state government projects, worth 28,31,000 crore and delayed for years because of various bottlenecks, had been assessed and fast-tracked. Most were critical infrastructure projects of the railways, national highways, power, coal, and civil aviation. Also, thirty-eight flagship programmes and grievances of sixteen ministries/departments had been reviewed.
At the second PRAGATI meeting on 22 April 2015, the Prime Minister had a discussion with the Indian ambassadors to Myanmar and Thailand, on the India—Myanmar—Thailand trilateral highway. The overall development of the North East hills, he pointed out, was contingent on speeding up infrastructure projects to improve connectivity. In this context, he also discussed railway undertakings in Assam and West Bengal. In a later meeting, he would describe the Rih—Tedim road project in Myanmar as one of the cornerstones of India’s Act East Policy and urge timely completion.
The Prime Minister emphasised that PRAGATI interactions were meant to break the silos between various government agencies that impede decision-making and the idea behind the scheme was to find ways to speed up government processes. He suggested, for instance, that satellite technology could be employed to expedite identification of tribal habitations, so that tribals could get the land titles mandated long ago by the Forest Rights Act of 2006.
Public grievances figured in the second PRAGATI meeting as well, relating to LPG (liquefied petroleum gas) distribution and BSNL services. Both departments were admonished and told to set up systems so that such problems did not arise in future, but the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas also got a pat on the back for some of its people-friendly initiatives.
At the very next meeting on 27 May, the Prime Minister was able to say that PRAGATI seemed to be speeding up decision-making and inculcating a spirit of problem-solving and swift implementation. He was seriously miffed, however, at the perceived ‘atmosphere of indifference vis-a-vis the unconscionable delay in pension and retirement benefits for ex-servicemen.
Infrastructure development has figured prominently in every PRAGATI meeting. One of the specific issues which attracted his attention was the delay in the modernisation and expansion of the Bhilai Steel Plant. He told the Steel and Heavy Industries ministries to sort it out.
By the fourth session, the Prime Minister was able to compliment state governments for having got their act together to expedite projects. However, he was dismayed at the snags created by long-drawn out litigation and suggested that highlighting the fallout of these hold-ups while pursuing the cases in court might help.
His approach has been eminently practical, judging from his interventions. While discussing road and rail links in Odisha, he pointed out that a slew of major festivals were coming up in Odisha (Nabakalebara), Madhya Pradesh (Simhastha) and Maharashtra (Kumbh), so exemplary arrangements for transportation, as well as sanitation and security, should be worked out to handle the footfall.
One of the schemes which caught his eye was the Crime and Criminal Tracking Network and System (CCTNS). He was given a demonstration, through live videoconferencing with three police stations in Assam, Uttar Pradesh and Karnataka, at the end of which he demanded an enhanced level of sophistication and told the states to accord the system a high priority.
A range of public grievances have figured in the meetings, notably corruption in the railways, inefficiency in the postal department and delays in the disbursal of scholarships and in the delivery of passports. He wanted to know why students were not getting their fellowship and scholarship payments on time and also asked about the progress of Aadhaar-linked disbursal of benefits to students. With regard to passport services, the External Affairs and Home Affairs ministries were told to hold a joint workshop to examine ways of expediting clearances, for quicker processing of applications.
Postal services cropped up twice, with the Prime Minister insisting that timely delivery of policy benefits, money orders, savings account interest and letters was non-negotiable, because it affected the poorest sections of society. Pointing out that the importance of postal services was on the rise, he asked whether the officials responsible for lapses had been held accountable and what measures had been taken to beef up the postal services.
He found a large volume of complaints related to e-commerce, such as booking of tickets and hotel reservations and said the National Consumer Helpline would have to augment its capacity to address them within ten days. Likewise, telecom customers had red-flagged poor service quality, connectivity and non-functioning of landline connections. The income tax department also came in for scrutiny because of taxpayers’ complaints. The railways were told that the flurry of complaints related to corruption would have to be addressed with the strictest possible action against erring officials. They were also directed to institute a single telephone number for all grievances and queries.
The deluge of complaints by labourers and EPF beneficiaries put the EPFO, ESIC and labour commissioners on the mat. The Prime Minister observed that in a democracy, labourers should not have to struggle to receive their legitimate dues. He also asked the Labour Ministry to introduce a system whereby finalisation of retirement benefits for employees could begin a year in advance. In case of an untimely death, a time frame for processing claims should be set in stone and officers held accountable.
Over time, it became clear that public health was among the hot topics for the PMO. He has reviewed the quality of service under CGHS (Central Government Health Service), the Revised National Tuberculosis Control Programme, efforts towards reduction of the Infant Mortality Rate and Maternal Mortality Rate (IMR and MMR), and Mission Indradhanush for universal immunisation of children. He suggested that youth organisations such as NCC and Nehru Yuva Kendra be drafted in the immunisation outreach effort.
The Prime Minister also brought up the Ease of Doing Business rankings and asked all chief secretaries and secretaries to study the World Bank’s report of October 2016 and analyse the scope for improvement in their respective departments and states. Progress in this regard is subject to weekly review, and the latest rankings saw India catapult into top hundred for the first time ever, a very rare rise of thirty rankings seen by any country.
Other schemes which came up for audit were mobile connectivity in backward areas, particularly those affected by extremism, Direct Benefit Transfer under MGNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) and end-to-end computerisation of the Targeted Public Distribution System (TPDS), the ‘waste to wealth’ initiative under the Swachh Bharat Mission, installation of solar pumps across the country, flood preparedness, e-NAM or the National Agriculture Market, the Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AMRUT), Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana and the Pradhan Mantri Khanij Kshetra Kalyan Yojana.
At one point, the Prime Minister told everyone present (digitally or physically) that speed of implementation should not be limited’ to projects reviewed under PRAGATI, but should span all pending projects. The subtext of the remark was doubtless that the culture of bureaucracy would have to change so that project implementation and outcomes were not contingent on relentless oversight.
PRAGATI represents both a departure from the status quo mindset and progress in the direction of a new work ethic, one that emphasises effective yet flexible decision-making, mandates a constructive approach to problem-solving, and galvanises delivery mechanisms. PRAGATI is truly fast-tracking India’s progress.
(The above article is taken from recently published book
‘The Innovation Republic’.