Ease of Living: Modi Sets the Agenda for Cutting Red Tape

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has set a laudable agenda for India’s administrators, asking them make ‘ease of living’ the highlight of good governance initiatives so that it reflects the pro-incumbency mandate delivered by the electorate that aspires to change the status quo of bureaucratic red tape.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (C) waves on his departure as Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe looks on at Bandaranaike International Airport in Katunayake, near Colombo, on June 9, 2019. (Photo by ISHARA S. KODIKARA/AFP/Getty Images)

Modi reminded secretaries of various government departments that the Indian voters had outlined a vision for the next five years, which should be used to deliver qualitative results that helps simplify the citizen’s relationship with the government. “The huge expectations of the people should not be viewed as a challenge but as an opportunity,” he added.

The process of simplifying governance rules began way back in 1991 with economic liberalization under the Narasimha Rao-Manmohan Singh regime, but despite all the rhetoric, the fact remains that India has languished on two crucial indices of human existence – Ease of Doing Business and Happiness Quotient.

While the first one notes the impact of red-tape on entrepreneurship, the second analyses the quality of human existence, of which governance is just one part. Both these reports are published each year under the aegis of the United Nations, albeit without any direct operational control over the research methodology.

India hasn’t exactly covered itself in glory in either respect, and the reasons are quite obvious. Though ‘single-window clearance’ became a buzzword three decades ago, the fact is that windows have only increased, as is evident from the latest rankings on the Ease of Doing Business Report created by Simeon Djankov at the World Bank Group.

India’s overall position improved from an abysmal 134 in 2014 to a more respectable 77 in 2018, though in specific areas such as ‘starting a business’ or ‘registering property’, our numbers remain dismal- 137 and 166 respectively. This is what the ruling NDA regime needs to focus on, given that every citizen connects with government machinery at some level.

In the latest Happiness Report, authors John F. Helliwell, Richard Layard and Jeffrey D. Sachs highlight the fact that links between government and happiness operate both ways, i.e., what governments do affects happiness, and in turn, the happiness of citizens (in most countries) determines what kind of government they elect.

On this report, India’s position is at 140 among 156 countries for which data is available. Worse still, in terms of changes in the scale of happiness, we stood at number 129 with overall changes actually showing a negative impact on human existence. The report suggests that India was amongst the worst performers on these grounds between 2005-2018.

By directly putting the onus of ‘ease of living’ on the bureaucracy, the Prime Minister has set the tone for simplification of procedures and removal of red-tape that could effectively combine to reduce corruption. He is stating unequivocally that less governance is good governance.

Reports of the removal of 12 senior officers from the IT department suggests that Modi is ready to walk the talk this time, armed as he is with a resounding mandate for the removal of the status quo. The message is loud and clear: lead, follow or just get out of the way! Cabinet Secretary PK Sinha set the ball rolling by asking for a five-year vision plan and action points that would result from the plan over the next 100 days.

This may not be the first time that governments have sacked senior bureaucrats, but the manner in which Modi went about the business is what is making headlines. Would the bureaucracy warm up to the Prime Minister’s no-nonsense way of functioning or will the resistance continue?

In the past, the governance machinery managed to fly under the radar, working as it was with multi-party governments at the Centre or certain families in the states. This caused the Babus to work surreptitiously with the many power-centers that existed for short-term goals. In other words, they thought personal and kept the nation as a low priority.

With Modi at the helm and Amit Shah holding the Home portfolio, the message couldn’t have been clearer. The voters have voted for change and that is exactly what this government appears to be demanding from those functioning in the corridors of power.

Open up the corridors and let the common man benefit. Ease our lives by cutting the red tape so that each of us can be a party to India’s progress.