The rocky road to food security

Aug 16 2013, 11:36 IST
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SummaryFood security, DBT and many others policies will exist for years.

It has been mandated that the National Food Security Ordinance needs to be implemented in the next 6 months by all states. Some states have been tasked to implement it even more quickly. While a few states have shown, perhaps misplaced, bravado in taking on this challenge, most are struggling with how they will manage to achieve this monumental task. There are no clear guidelines on how to move from current beneficiary lists to the new guidelines. While states have been told to take into consideration fair price shop (FPS) viability and institutionalisation of the fair price shops, what has to be done and how it has to be done is not specified. The potential liability claim against the state because of the specific guideline on food allowance in case of non-disbursal of grain to a beneficiary can be humongous unless there are robust beneficiary tracking mechanisms in place at the FPS. Who is helping the states think through these challenges of implementation as they are given a 6-month deadline to implement?

In a similar policy move late last year, 50 districts were announced as Direct Benefits Transfer (DBT) districts and had to launch services within a few months; another 78 were added on April 1, 2013. Unfortunately, 10 months from the initial announcement, the reports that highlight the shortcoming in the DBT implementation far outnumber the reports of successful implementation.

India spends more than R2 lakh crore annually in social safety net schemes that are aimed directly at end beneficiaries. The themes of these schemes cover all topics from food security, healthcare, education, employment, housing, etc. However, the gaps in the implementation of most of these schemes become very evident when one looks at the trends of any of the human development indicators that these schemes were to address. In spite of SSA and RTE, learning level outcomes in public schools continue to decrease almost across the country. We are far away from the MDGs on issues of improved maternal health, child mortality, eradication of extreme poverty and hunger.

What is the reason for this? Why do many of our schemes not meet the stated objectives much more often? The issue is often not in the design of the policy itself and what it aims to achieve. It is in the thinking (or perhaps the lack of thinking) behind the implementation mechanism of the schemes coupled with near impossible timelines for implementation.

We believe that there are five things that the central as well as the state governments need to do differently to achieve better policy outcomes.

1. The need for disproportionate time thinking through the ‘how’: It is just not enough to say what needs to be done; it is critical to say how it will be done. How will a state go from its current HH based ration card list categorised as AAY, BPL, APL and perhaps a couple of other additional state defined categories to a central government determined number of individual beneficiaries now categorised only as AAY and priority? How should a state or district think about moving from benefits given out in the current manner to DBTs? What are the alternative routes to make this happen? Which one is appropriate for each state or district? What challenges are likely to be faced in the process of doing this? What exception management tools may be needed?

Unfortunately, none of these are included in our policy documents. At best a set of broad and often very tactical guidelines are sent to states weeks/months after the policy has been issued and often this is only weeks/months prior to the deadline for full scale implementation. Resultant poorly thought through, stop-gap solutions are implemented on the ground that obviously have many issues—thus not meeting the original objectives, inconveniencing the beneficiaries in multiple ways and opening up the policy itself to significant criticism.

2. Improved ‘technical/process capability’ all along the command chain: In order to achieve 1, what is required is strong technical and process design capability across the hierarchy for robust design and implementation. Currently, quite often, the senior administrators/bureaucrats are tasked with this. It is important to recognise that they have significant business-as-usual responsibility, are always being pulled in multiple directions and may/may not have domain expertise depending upon the length of time they have held the portfolio. Because of these constraints this constituency is unlikely to be able to develop robust implementation guidelines in a matter of days/weeks and also oversee the implementation at the ground level.

Hence, for far-reaching and broad-based policy measures, it is critical to develop dedicated technical/process design capability at all levels. At the centre and state level for option evaluation and design of the implementation plans and at the district/block level for local customisation of solution and robust implementation. Unfortunately, often enough this task of design and implementation is outsourced to a ‘technical’ vendors/consultants who have a limited strategic lens, poor systemic overview and often have incentives that are not entirely aligned with those of the state.

While the ultimate decision-making authority needs to continue to rest with the line administrator or bureaucrat—what is required are small but highly focused and capable teams who are tasked with the implementation design and are given adequate timelines to do so. These teams need to undertake the research, analysis, option design and evaluation—and hence assist the bureaucrats in their decision making.

3. Strong change management capability closer to the ground: To say that implementing a transformative solution that touches 67% of India’s 1.2 billion population and that involves 500,000 fair price shops, or a solution to be rolled in more than 1 million public schools across the country or something that needs to be done in the 6-lakh-plus villages is no easy task is a gross understatement. The best of the brains across the world will shudder with managing a change programme that spans that scale. However, time and again our policy implementation plans seem to indicate that we believe this can happen by the same people working in the same way as they have done for years—all we need to do is throw a small project management team and some training and communication budget their way. It is truly time we recognised that is impossible.

As we look to transform our age-old systems, as we look to the on-the-ground service deliverers (whether they be teaches/headmasters in schools, Asha workers in ICDS or FPS owners in the TPDS) to adopt new technologies, new processes, as we look to beneficiaries becoming more comfortable with a new system (that’s likely far better in the long term but confounding and seemingly difficult in the short term), it requires a change management exercise of a massive proportion. This capability cannot be assumed to be embedded in the existing systems and needs to be budgeted and provided separately just like the technical capability mentioned in point.

The specific change management challenges for each initiative need to be thought through, complexities, roadblocks identified and highlighted and people and processes brought in to manage this. Without this capability, the best of systems and technologies are unlikely to yield significant benefit.

4. Appropriate outcomes orientation: The examination of many of the schemes closely reveals that the focus is often biased towards the input to be provided and not so much on the outcome to be achieved. For example, the ‘end-to-end computerisation’ of the TPDS focuses more on infusing technology into the system and is less explicit about the desirable end outcomes such as reduced leakages, improved customer benefits, etc. Much of the education-related reforms talk about inputs to be provided—physical infrastructure, trainings, etc, but focus lesser on learning level outcomes.

‘What gets measured gets done.’ Hence, it is critical to move policy design and implementation to focus as much on the real end outcomes to be achieved as to the inputs to be provided to achieve those. Input parameters are important as leading indicators of implementation robustness, but they are not the ultimate goal. For example, what would happen if NFSO told the states that one of the indicators of success 3-5 years down the line will be enhanced nutritional outcomes for the population? What if DBT success metrics included elements such as improved timelines for benefit delivery and an improvement in the HDIs addressed by the schemes moving to DBT?

This requires three things: One, an upfront agreement in the entire ecosystem on what the end outcomes to be achieved are. Two, a robust system to measure the progress over time around those end outcomes. And, finally, an incentive/disincentive mechanism that ensures there is adequate effort and motivation towards achieving the outcomes.

5. Realistic timelines for implementation: Finally, there should be no hesitation in admitting that to undertake a complex exercise that touches close to 800 million people is near impossible in 6 months. Any system that reaches out to the broader population in India is going to be massive. Additionally, the demographics, the infrastructure availability both physical and technical, and the political and social landscape increase the complexity manifold.

RTE, food security, DBT and many others policies and systems which we envisage will exist for years and perhaps decades and fundamentally transform the quality of life for the broader Indian population forever. Are we not short changing ourselves by insisting these new and transformational systems be implemented in 3-6 months after taking at times years to craft the policy?

Arindam Bhattacharya is managing director, India; Ashish Jhina is project leader; Seema Bansal is principal, the Boston Consulting Group, India

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