Big bangs do not have details: Anil Swarup

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Big bangs do not have details: Anil Swarup

Big bangs do not have details: Anil Swarup

20 May 2020 Long Read
This most looked-up-to man has been a gold medallist who graduated in political science. He served as an Indian Police Service officer for one year and then joined the Indian Administrative Service. In his 38 years of career, he has served in various key positions in both, the Union and the Government of Uttar Pradesh. In addition to serving as the former secretary to the Government of India, he has also been education secretary and coal secretary, additional secretary to the Government of India, former director general of the Ministry of Labour and Employment, among others. He’s none other than Anil Swarup!

He took over as the secretary in the coal ministry after the coal scam, and was instrumental in carrying out the auction of coal blocks; initiatives taken by him resulted in record production of coal in the country, which helped India tide over the coal shortage crisis. Mr Swarup also won the CONSTRUCTION WORLD Man of the Year in 2014. He is the author of the book ‘Not Just A Civil Servant’ launched in February 2019 and has now launched a foundation called the ‘Nexus of Good’.

In an exclusive video interview hosted by CONSTRUCTION WORLD, Anil Swarup shares more actions required by the government, what India needs for growth, the commercial mining, and more...

Excerpts:

Actions taken in view of the COVID crisis: This crisis was unprecedented and unanticipated; it came as a surprise and was a difficult situation to understand. But if you compare it with the other countries of the world, I think India has done reasonably well in containing the impact of the crisis. Yes, there have been problems – those related to migrant workers, which could have been handled better. But by and large, the handling of the situation has been pretty competent, especially the field officers are doing a marvellous job and have managed to mitigate some of the impact of COVID. But of course, there’s still a lot to be done; the crisis is still far from over. Only time will tell how we will come out of it.

There are many aspects to the crisis: One was to immediately handle the impact of this crisis – which was to prevent the spike in the spread of this virus, which has happened in countries like Italy and Spain where it spiked. To that extent, the control has been good because the immediate imposition of the lockdown did help in containing the crisis. The immediate necessity of the lockdown also gave the government time to equip itself to the other fallouts of the crisis, for example, they have been able to equip hospitals, to create infrastructure in case the numbers go up. Imagine a scenario where a lockdown had not been imposed and the numbers had spiked up – the government would not be in a position to do that. So they have taken that time and set up such facilities. Now there are many other impacts that will have to be looked into – there are other fallouts to the economic and educational parts; so there are many dimensions to this crisis which need to be managed over a period of time.

Problem-solving strategies: Be it coal, school education or any sector with a problem, there is a fundamental approach to a problem. Firstly, we must admit the existence of the problem. If we try and push the problem under the carpet, that is disastrous. So first, acceptance of existence of the problem. Second is to understand the ‘why’ of the problem – why does the problem exist; because without understanding the ‘why’ of the problem, you will not be able to find a solution.

For example, let me elaborate what happened in coal. At that point in time, everyone thought the problem in the coal sector to be scams. So when I took over as coal secretary, I tried to understand the ‘why’ of these problems and discovered that the problem was not scams, but that India was shot of coal. Now you go to the next level of why was India short of coal, given the fact that India sits on 300 billion tonnes of coal and our requirement is only about 800 million tonnes per annum; so we have access of coal, we have the demand we are unable to meet. Now go to the next level, coal extraction requires acquiring of land, then it requires forest clearance, and it requires evacuation. So you have to look at finding solutions to these problems. Once you understand the cause of the problem, you can work towards finding a solution. You have to get into the details.

Same is the case with education; you have to understand if there is a problem in a particular segment of education – that problem could be a national problem or a local problem. So you have to understand the nature of the problem, location of the problem, and then work out a strategy.

In coal, for instance, we worked out a strategy for land acquisition, a strategy for land clearance, a strategy for evacuation, and that is the reason in the year 2015-16 we had a record in the production of coal – so much so that there we could tide over the crisis. The strategy adopted was that, as secretary, I did not convene a single meeting in Delhi – all the meetings were held at the state levels, the reason being to convey value propositions to the stakeholder – something we don't understand in the government!

Solutions on delayed projects: To me the primary crisis until today is the delays. The Project Monitoring Group, which I worked with, was one such instrument or institution which was taking care of firstly, understanding why the delays are happening. And they happen because at the bureaucratic level there is no premium on taking fast decisions. So how do you create an environment where a civil servant is induced to take a decision – that’s what PMG did.

It tried to create a transparent mechanism where any industry having an investment of more than 1,000 crore could raise that issue in a transparent platform. So we created a system where the world would know who is sitting on which file, for how much time – that did the trick, because the officers knew that could be exposed. One such cabinet minister at that time lost her job because she was sitting on files of more than Rs 50,000 crore – that was the power of transparency and technology. And so, in those 15 months we got clearance of more than Rs 5 lakh crore worth projects. 

And I had come to believe that a combination of transparency and technology can solve a number of problems that this country has. The only thing it is requires is going into the details. And that is lacking. Because details won't give you publicity. Going into the details requires hard work, but in the end you to get the appreciation. And the appreciation that PMG got was phenomenal, it was unprecedented – but it was after we did all the long and hard work. In fact, for the first time perhaps in the history of the country, both FICCI and CII wrote to the PM at that time that this is the manner in which governance should happen.

Why the issue of delayed projects continues: The project monitoring group was an institution that did solve problems – this was during UPA 2.0. Now this government is actually equipped to do it and I am surprised why aren't they pushing it enough and reinvigorating the PMG and getting a forward-thinking officer to head it and get things moving.

No matter what announcements are made, what packages are announced, the ultimate bottom line is to make things happen on the ground. I have always believed that if you make the industry comfortable, the investor comfortable, international investors will automatically come to you. In fact, the best advertisers of good work being done in India would be if I hear that the industry or investors feel comfortable. And that’s how international investors will listen and come here. On the contrary, we are trying to do road shows.

Talking of ease of doing business, let us look at what actually has been in ease of doing business. Now first would be to accept the existence of a problem and then find out why the problem, then locate such models like the PMG and replicate it at the national level and then for a lesser value at the state level.

Big bang reforms: I am not a great believer of big bangs, I am not a revolutionary. Being a student of history, I believe that all revolutions have led to dictatorships. I am a believer of going into the nitty-gritty, of understanding the ‘why’ of a problem. No matter what big bang announcements are being made, ultimately the bottom line is making things happen on the ground. There is usually silence after the announcements. There has to be consistent efforts in terms of institution building, system building, and not mere announcements.

Let’s take the example of the title of Make in India – why hasn’t it travelled the distance it was supposed to travel. We can’t keep pushing it away and saying it has worked. We need to try and have informal discussions and see if business has not eased in the extent it should have, then try and understand why it hasn't. We should have the humidity to first accept why it has not happened and then move forward.

Commercial mining: The commercial coal mining was allowed some time ago already, and it is now part of the package being talked about by the finance minister. This was already announced a year ago; in fact, I had moved this file four years ago. The prime minister had agreed but nothing happened. The problem in this country is we love big bang announcements, and every day there is a new big bang announcement – so before you realise what happens to the previous one, you are waiting for the next big bang announcement. No one looks at making it happen. And these big bangs will not have details.

My book titled ‘Not Just A Civil Servant’ would have alternatively been titled ‘Making Things Happen in the Government’ because that is what matters. The common man is not bothered about policies. We need an action plan. We make policies because that is what reached the headlines, that is what is discussed on television shows. We are so busy with policies that solid hard work takes back seat.

For instance, when you plan a construction project, there will be an announcement, but you also need to get into the nitty-gritty of how much steel will be required, how much migrant labour will be required, from where will we get the labour, from where will we get the steel. It is nice to be a visionary but with your feet on the ground by understanding the ground realities, have action plans, and monitor and facilitate them. We all like to monitor others, but facilitation is what is required.

Will the economic package revive Indian businesses?: Revival will depend on how it operates on the ground. Announcements have their role to play but ultimately what happens on the ground is what matters. We have got so carried away with announcements that we don't even look at the previous announcement because we are waiting for the next announcement. We need to get into the nitty-gritty, and we will get the details. I have been appealing to the industry not to ask for announcements but for details. Four simple questions – what needs to be done, how it will be done, who will do it, and by when will it be done. Answer these, and things will move. In my personal experience of 38 years in civil service, whatever little I could do was by going into the details.

Favourite quote in times of COVID: Never lose hope, there is always a turn around, and keep leveraging the positives. Leverage the power of technology. There are many positives that have even come out of COVID. There are massive opportunities in terms of investment that is moving out of China which we need to bring to India. So make the investor comfortable and they will automatically come to India because India has the market. If we can improve our infrastructure, which can be improved, investments will flow; but you have to do the ground work. So let’s leverage the positives of COVID-19.

Watch the full video on what Anil Swarup has to say on problem-solving strategies, delayed projects, and more...

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