Friday, December 07, 2012

Privatizing public responsibility

One problem with specialists in a field, particularly a theoretical one is that they get entrapped in dogma. Now, the naive are also victims of dogma (ex: Apple buyers), but they do not command the language or terminology of a field to convince others of their beliefs. Specialist dogma, on the other hand is more threatening, because specialists can summon both language and superficially correct evidence to support their dogma which may convince non-specialists to follow their lead.

The dogma of the UPA government starts with the assumption that the public sector cannot be fixed (or won’t be fixed) and that the private sector is the ONLY efficient source of delivery of all services. The inevitable conclusion from this is to outsource all government functions to private parties.

They did it with 2G, by outsourcing decision making to an individual and with coal, outsourcing it to a committee of individuals with private vested interests. Unfortunately, successful outsourcing means outsourcing non-essential functions and not your core competency, and the UPA is out to remake the government into a defunct body of fat cats riding in red light cars. (Clay Christensen has a different opinion on core and non-core functions here, but I’ll stick with dogma!)

This trend started with the RTE act. With an interesting twist of language, the government hoisted the responsibility of protecting the Right to education on the private schools. The consequences of this and the subsequent approval by the Supreme Court of the act mean that governments now have no incentive to improve public schools. Anyone who asks for quality education will be directed to beg at the nearby private school. Never mind that outside the big cities, private schools are in much worse shape than their government counterparts. Never mind that this opens up new avenues of corruption for government servants. Never mind that this will lead to a huge influx of people into the major cities simply looking for a better education for their children.

Further evidence comes in the form of FDI in retail. Whatever be the merits or demerits of the policy, a much-publicised reason for opening up retail for FDI is that the Walmarts of the world will create cold chains in India and reduce agricultural wastage. Now, I was thinking, Walmarts will be allowed in 53 cities in India, so how many cold chains will they need to create? 10, 20, 50? In contrast, the Food Corporation has 69,474.96 godowns (Page 42) with an income of 74,711 crores (roughly 15 billion USD). Not to mention, the 5300 cold chains already in operation in the private and public sectors. Now, I don’t know how much it costs to build a cold chain, but surely it would cost less than 15 billion USD to upgrade FCI godowns to cold chains? Again, observe the underlying dogma. (On an aside, I got these stats within 3 minutes - why can’t the media find stats like these and ask the right questions instead of simply thrusting mikes in suited faces?)

The latest in this is the cash transfer program. As recognized by dozens of committees and mentioned in hundreds of reports, the problem in government is the delivery mechanism, not what is being delivered. So, how can a system that can’t deliver grains deliver cash? Why wouldn’t the leakages that persist in delivering goods not remain in delivering cash? How will the system prevent the drunken husband from beating his wife and drowning all the cash in drink?

Unfortunately, for those who run the country, such questions are not worth answering.

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