N.K. Singh is, for many, the quintessential bureaucrat, who knew how to get things done in government, with his reputedly vast knowledge of administrative procedures and rules and his network of contacts.
He was a key member of Manmohan Singh's team that introduced liberalisation to the Indian economy under the direction of Prime Minister Narasimha Rao. He worked for several Congress governments, the subsequent short-lived coalitions, the BJP-led government of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and the Manmohan Singh government. After retirement, his academic pursuits led him to the Stanford University and his administrative skills to the Nitish Kumar's Janata Dal (Secular) government in Bihar. He is now a member of the Rajya Sabha. Given that Singh has worked closely with governments of different hues in the Indian political spectrum, one should expect his observations on the politics of change to be educative.
This book is a compilation of Singh's articles published in newspapers, and many of them are in the nature of on-line comments on contemporary events. There are as many as 70-plus pieces grouped in nine sections covering many aspects of changing India. If the style is typically bureaucratic — replete with ‘firstly,' ‘secondly,' ‘thirdly,' and so on — the brevity of each article does not lend itself to a detailed analysis or discussion. And his views lie scattered in different articles across different sections.
Ratification of treaties
Singh makes out a strong case for the ratification of international treaties to be made only after a parliamentary debate and approval. As he observes, this helps deferring commitment till the benefits of a given treaty become absolutely clear. Oddly enough, there is no discussion of the Congress' progress from the empty rhetoric of Indira Gandhi's garibi hatao to the Sonia Gandhi-Manmohan Singh mantra of ‘inclusive growth' for the aam aadmi through such instruments as the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, the Right to Education Act and so on — measures with which Singh was associated. He approvingly cites the well-known prescriptions Boskins gave for India's economic policy reforms while speaking at a Stanford conference.
Singh's views on agriculture are impeccable but cursory. Bringing into sharp focus the poor availability of rural bank credit and crop insurance, as also the need for a single government window, he says the kisan credit card facility should be extended, but strongly disapproves of the practice of writing-off farm loans. However, many vital issues — such as water management; groundwater ownership and depletion; implications of cheap or free power to farmers; changing crop patterns and land salinity; fertilizer imbalances, and the dilemma of minimum support prices — have not been covered.
He makes the valid point that the government's accounting procedures need to be rationalised and the classifications made more meaningful than Plan/non-Plan and capital/revenue expenditures. To cite an existing anomaly, funds allocated for health and education are treated as ‘revenue expenditure', although the money so spent contributes to building human capital.
On the electricity front, the remedies Singh suggests appear superficial. They have not taken into consideration the several analyses already made of the critical issues involved in the power sector nor the remedies prescribed. The main problem, in fact, has two elements: one, the lack of political leadership; and the other, the bureaucracy's unwillingness to let go. The national carriers, Air India and Indian Airlines, represent a classic example of ‘death by bureaucracy.' In the concept of ‘independent regulation' vis-à-vis electricity, many compliant bureaucrats see a haven post-retirement. The privatisation of electricity distribution does not get the necessary emphasis, nor is the success of Delhi in this respect highlighted. That the Electricity Act 2003 provides for merchant power outside the regulated framework finds no mention, although ‘open access' — which has been almost frozen for seven years — does get noticed.
Singh's views on the changes necessary in the Land Acquisition Act do not take cognisance of the fact that industrial and commercial projects lead to sharp rises in land values, with the land-owners and the landless farmers staking a claim in the appreciated value.
On the education front, he has little say about the fundamental issue of huge shortages in faculty, both in quantity and quality, and the urgent need for expanding and upgrading the training facilities. Overall, what is on offer in this book is somewhat disappointing, given especially the fact that it is from an administrator par excellence with a long career record. Hopefully, his next book will have a lot more to give by way of practical suggestions on how the changes India needs in the realm of public administration and development can be brought about.
NOT BY REASON ALONE - The Politics of Change: N. K. Singh; Penguin Books India Pvt. Ltd., 11, Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi-110017. Rs. 499.
Keywords: Political change