About the Talk
The working of government at the grassroots was explored through a case study of field administration in one district in Madhya Pradesh, based on an analysis of 56 government organizations across 8 departments, interviews with Panchayat Representatives, government officials, NGO representatives and journalists, and focus group discussions with citizens.
The case study found that though the role of field administration was very wide, the capacity to deliver was constrained for several reasons. The structure was fragmented, with separate offices of 37 departments at various levels, as well as rural and urban local governments. Given the large number of government offices, there was inadequate manpower in individual institutions, especially at the grassroots. Moreover, there were several gaps in expertise, and a large number of posts were vacant. At the grassroots, several types of workers were hired on contract at low salaries, with no prospects of promotion. They were dissatisfied and agitated constantly for better working conditions. The posting of regular employees was patronage-based, and promotions very slow, which created a perverse incentive. The infrastructure in many field institutions was inadequate in terms of seating space, toilets, drinking water and sanitation.
Departmental offices from the state headquarter exercised tight control over the field offices in terms of activities, manpower and finances. This made it difficult for government workers to respond to people’s needs. The role of local governments, through extensive as per law, was very limited in practice. The District Collector had varying authority over departmental offices. Consequently, the capacity for coordinated action was limited. There was little analysis of problems, because officials saw their role as following orders. Technology had been used to centralize even more as state level officials monitored more intensely through daily reports and video conferences. There was wide-spread rent-seeking, and the impact of measures to enhance the accountability to the community was weak. This resulted in poor quality institutions, fractious relations between government workers and citizens, and poor capacity to solve local problems.
There is need to seriously re-think field administration. The measures suggested include empowering local governments, creating fewer but stronger organizations, hiring better skilled personnel at the grassroots, providing greater opportunities for promotion, developing more consultative and analytical processes of working and eliminating rent-seeking.
About the Speaker
Rashmi Sharma is a former Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer and currently a senior visiting fellow at the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations (ICRIER). She has worked in several capacities in the central and state government in India, especially in the areas of school education and local government. She had also published several academic articles and two books, ‘Local Government in India: Policy and Practice’ and ‘The Elementary Education System in India’. At present, she is engaged in researching and writing about the structure and working of government, with a focus on the grassroots.
About the State Capacity Initiative
The State Capacity Initiative at the Centre for Policy Research (CPR) is a new interdisciplinary centre for research and practice focused on addressing the challenges of the 21st century Indian state: its roles, federal structure, institutional design, organisational forms and culture, administrative reforms, the everyday life of local bureaucracies and frontline functionaries, knowledge resources, regulatory and fiscal capacity, and the complex and changing relations between society, politics and state capacity.
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