Budget 2005 2006: the missing audit

  • 30/03/2005

The discussions on the Union budget 2005-2006 reflect the media's middle-class obsession. The finance minister's proposal for a fringe tax - on perquisites and other benefits of the salariat - was all that was found worth discussing. Nothing else mattered.

But it should. The budget is about expenditure for development - water, roads, schools, infrastructure. More importantly, it is about how this expenditure will be made and who will make it. Thus, even more than counting funds allocated under each expenditure head, what we need to reflect on is how the money will be spent. So that schools can be built. So that there is drinking water in every village, electricity to run each house, and roads built one season are not washed away by the time of the next budget. The finance minister is a doctor who needs a medicine-delivery mechanism.

Take drinking water and toilets. The 2005-2006 budget has increased allocation in these areas - from Rs 3,300 crore to Rs 4,750 crore. This is critical. The minister also pointed out in his speech that emphasis would be laid on tackling water quality in different states. Even more critical. The fact that millions of Indians do not have access to water or sanitation, and that this failure is a deadly one - most babies in this country die because the water they drink is dirty - is well known.

But the fact also is that we have spent, according to the Union ministry of finance's own estimation, Rs 45,000 crore on the rural drinking water supply programme in the last 30 years. This investment notwithstanding, each year the number of partially covered villages - without full water supply - goes up, not down. A similar maths is possible for funds spent on watersheds, tanks, afforestation, soil and water conservation over the years. This is what the maths suggests: on the one hand, a need for enhanced allocation; on the other, a desperate need to improve the systems to administer funds.

The maths also leads to inescapable questions. What has the government done to assess the success and failure of each scheme? What has worked? What hasn't, and why not? Thereafter, what requires deliberation is what has been done to take into account the lessons, as the schemes have evolved and funds further allocated. In other words, we must ask for economic intelligence leading to better programme design and implementation.

The fact is we have lost the ability to review and critique. We have definitely lost it in government. Even the enlightened advisers of the Planning Commission are clueless about the nature of the institutional failures. We have also lost it outside government. Simply because government has lost respect for the creators of this knowledge. When government asks for research to be conducted, it knows the answers it must get. When it gets uncomfortable replies, it does not know how to assimilate and digest it. The sad truth is that researchers and analysts find it easier and more profitable to 'consult' in the urban-industrial segment because the client is more purposeful about the value of their advice.

As a result, we really don't have any inputs from the laboratory of development to seek the ways ahead. But, ways ahead is what we must seek. We know that implementation is government's biggest nightmare. Its failure makes governance a virtual write-off. We also know that over the past 20 years or so, we have launched scheme after scheme, some good, some bad and many indifferent. We know we have also innovated with the delivery mechanisms of many of the schemes. It is not as if we do not have the experience. What we really lack desperately is any kind of intelligence from that experience.

Sure, there are no real new answers. What we are seeking is answers others have already found. But what we need is the conviction to stand behind the idea, implement it seriously, learn from its evolution and so reform and restructure. The problem, when you think over the 55 years of development in India, is that we have never really worked hard enough on the idea of the solution we seek.

Just think. In my 20-odd years of watching and cajoling development thinking, the most exciting period was in the late 1980s and early 1990s. We were in some ways at the threshold of new discoveries - rural regeneration, drought and poverty removal topped the national agenda; we had understood by then that government programmes working through bureaucracies were incapable of delivery. It was clear people had to be directly involved in managing their resources, their affairs.

This was the time when the country launched massive programmes for social forestry, wasteland development. It was the time when there was talk (much like there is now) of an employment guarantee programme, which would use the labour of people to build rural assets so that drought-proofing would be proof against drought. This was also when the government enacted the panchayati raj constitutional amendment. And when government understood that for effective governance at the village level, and for delivery of services, the representative body of panchayat s was inadequate. The concept of the gram sabha, the village assembly, became part of policy delivery. It was introduced, but left to states to enact.

Today, these very questions still stare us in the face. Because we have not documented our successes and never worked through our failures, we have no clue on how to move ahead. It is this, the budget must be an audit of. Otherwise, there will only be fringe discussions on more non-fringe issues. The real, undeveloped, fringe will remain where it is: impaled upon schemes, beyond development's pale.

- Sunita Narain