Big bangs do not have details

Interviews

Big bangs do not have details

Big bangs do not have details

01 Jun 2020 Long Read
In a 38-year career, Anil Swarup has served in various key positions in both the Union Government and the Uttar Pradesh Government.

This former secretary to the Government of India has also been education secretary and coal secretary, additional secretary to the Government of India and director-general of the Ministry of Labour and Employment, among others. 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; his initiatives have resulted in record production of coal in the country, which helped India tide over the coal shortage crisis. Swarup also won the CONSTRUCTION WORLD Man of the Year award in 2014. The author of Not Just A Civil Servant, released in February 2019, he has now launched a foundation called the ‘Nexus of Good’. In an exclusive video interview with CW, he speaks about the COVID-19 crisis, problem-solving strategies, solutions on delayed projects, and more...

Excerpts:

What are your thoughts on the actions taken in view of the COVID-19 crisis?

This crisis was unprecedented and unanticipated. But compared to other countries, India has done reasonably well in containing its impact. Yes, there have been problems – related to migrant workers – which could have been handled better. But by and large, the handling has been pretty competent. And there’s still a lot to be done.

There are many aspects to the crisis: One was to immediately handle the impact to prevent the spike in the spread of the virus. To that extent, the control has been good. Now, other impacts will have to be looked into – fallouts of the economic and educational aspects. So there are many dimensions that need to be managed over a period of time.

With regard to coal and education, what was your experience as secretary in terms of problem-solving strategies?

Whether it is coal, school education or any sector, there is a fundamental approach to a problem. First, there needs to be acceptance of the existence of the problem. Second is to understand why the problem exists.

Let’s take coal, for example.
At one point, everyone thought the problem was scams. When I took over as coal secretary, I discovered that the problem was not scams but that India was short of coal. Now, why was India short of coal, given the fact that we sit on 300 billion tonne and our requirement is only about 800 million tonne per annum? Now go to the next level; coal extraction requires acquisition of land, forest clearance and evacuation. Once you understand the cause, you can work towards finding a solution. We worked out strategies for land acquisition, clearance and evacuation. That’s why we set a record in production of coal in 2015-16 – so much so that we could tide over the crisis. As secretary, I did not convene a single meeting in Delhi. All the meetings were held at the state levels to convey value propositions to the stakeholder – something we don't understand in the government.

You have also worked with the Project Monitoring Group (PMG) that looked into delayed projects...

To me, the primary crisis until today is delays. PMG was one such instrument that attempted to understand why delays are happening. 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 with an investment of over Rs.10 billion could raise the issue. We created a system where the world would know who is sitting on which file, for how much time. That did the trick, because officers knew they could be exposed. In those 15 months, we got clearance for projects worth over Rs.5 trillion.

A combination of transparency and technology can solve a number of India’s problems. The only thing it 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 get appreciation. And the appreciation PMG got was phenomenal and unprecedented.

In fact, for the first time perhaps in the history of the country, both FICCI and CII wrote to the PM that this is the manner in which governance should happen.

Why does the issue of delayed projects continue even today?

PMG 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 they aren't pushing it enough, why aren't they reinvigorating the PMG and getting a forward-thinking officer to head it and get things moving. No matter what announcements are made or packages announced, the bottomline is to make things happen on the ground. If you make the industry and investor comfortable, international investors will automatically come in.

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

Do we need big-bang reforms to change the way things are?

I am not a great believer in big bangs, I am not a revolutionary. Being a student of history, I believe all revolutions have led to dictatorships. I am a believer of going into the nitty-gritty, of understanding the ‘why’ of a problem. There have to be consistent efforts in terms of institution and system building, not mere announcements.

Let’s take the example of Make in India – why hasn’t it travelled the distance it was supposed to? We need informal discussions to understand why business has not eased to the extent it should have.

Also, commercial coal mining was allowed some time ago already. But it's now part of the package being talked about by the finance minister...

I was surprised! 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 that we love big-bang announcements, and every day there is a new one. So before you realise what happens to the previous one, you are waiting for the next. No one looks at making it happen. And these big bangs will not have details. The common man is not bothered about policies.

We need an action plan, and to then monitor and facilitate it.

Will the economic package revive Indian businesses?

Revival will depend on how it operates on the ground. 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.

What would be your message in such trying times?

Never lose hope – there is always a turnaround – and keep leveraging the positives.

Leverage the power of technology. There are many positives that have come out of COVID-19. There are massive opportunities in terms of investment moving out of China. Make investors comfortable and they will automatically come to India because we have the market. If we can improve our infrastructure, investments will flow. But you have to do the groundwork. Let’s leverage the positives of COVID-19.

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