New Delhi: An ambitious governance reform launched by PM Narendra Modi in 2015 to fast-track development projects appears to have slowed down after getting off to a promising start.
PRAGATI, or Pro-Active Governance and Timely Implementation, is aimed at removing bottlenecks in key developmental projects of the central and state governments in sectors such as railways, national highways, power and civil aviation through monthly reviews held under the direct oversight of the prime minister.
Government officials involved in the programme say it had an encouraging beginning, with meetings where as many as 30 agenda points were dealt with in a time span of 1-1.5 hours. The PM’s involvement, they add, made a clear difference.
However, the scheme appears to have lost steam since the Modi government was re-elected in 2019. Consider this: Of the 33 PRAGATI meetings chaired by the PM so far, only two each were held in 2019 and 2020.
Asked about the apparent slowdown, retired government officials said the PM has had his hands full since 2019 with a host of matters, ranging from the scrapping of Article 370 to the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and now the Covid-19 pandemic.
Some of them said the biggest USP of the initiative is also a major hold-up in conducting constant reviews. The active involvement of the prime minister means that the meetings suffer if, for example, he is away for election campaigns.
ThePrint contacted Dhiraj Singh, the official spokesperson of the PMO through calls and email to seek a response on the infrequency of the meetings, and if there were alternative review programmes in place. Singh said he would forward the queries to the relevant officials. But there was no response received until the time of publishing this report.
Speaking on the condition of anonymity, some government officials privy to the workings of PRAGATI made light of the infrequency of meetings, saying it does not mean work suffers. According to them, a lot gets done at each meeting.
Off to a promising start
PRAGATI was launched in March 2015, less than a year after the Modi government first assumed office.
The stated aim of the platform was to make “governance in India more efficient and responsive”.
As part of the programme, the PM was to hold a meeting on the fourth Wednesday of every month, where he would interact directly with Union secretaries and state chief secretaries to fast-track pending projects, identify bottlenecks at the level of the Centre and states, offer “a unique combination in the direction of cooperative federalism”, and break down silos within the bureaucracy.
It was touted as a first-of-its-kind initiative in India.
“Such an effort has never been made in India. It is also an innovative project in e-governance and good governance,” a press release from the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) said at the time.
There was scepticism when the scheme arrived amid concerns that a direct link between the PM and chief secretaries would undermine the role of state/union territory governments.
However, there was excitement too, stoked by expectations that the PM’s hands-on approach would speed up governance and shake things up at the Centre after what was seen as a lull under UPA-II.
“There was a lot of anticipation around the project initially,” said a chief secretary-level officer who did not wish to be named.
The initial run, the officer added, reinforced the hope.
“The feedback of the officers was that the PM seemed very well-briefed, everything was discussed quickly, 25-30 agenda points were discussed in each meeting that lasted about 1-1.5 hours,” the officer said.
“I remember there was this one time, the PM pulled up a secretary who said 500 cases of consumer grievances had been resolved… The PM retorted, asking how the secretary could consider 500 cases an achievement in a country of 130 crore people,” he added. “The point being that the PM focused on micro-details himself.”
Even the state chief secretaries, the officer said, “were quite keen to participate in these meetings since there was a feeling that the PM’s direct involvement could actually shake things up”.
According to former Union secretary Satyanand Mishra, who retired as the secretary of the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT), “The meetings really started to move things in the government.
“Before this, the Cabinet Secretariat would review projects. But the attitude of the secretaries and chief secretaries would be very different if the Cabinet Secretary is reviewing something versus if the PM is reviewing something.”
Mishra added, “The level of oversight and review was elevated in this government, and that did make a difference.”
There have been 33 meetings under PRAGATI so far, according to information from the PMO. At the latest meeting, held on 25 November, projects worth Rs 1.41 lakh crore across 10 states were reviewed. A total of 275 projects worth a combined Rs 12.5 lakh crore were reviewed in the preceding 32 meetings.
From once a month to twice a year
The 33rd and 32nd PRAGATI meetings were held 10 months apart, with the latter taking place in January 2020.
The infrequency of PRAGATI meetings in 2020 could be attributed to the Covid-19 pandemic. Routine governance, government officials say, has taken a backseat this year since the administrative machinery has been focused on containing the pandemic.
However, press releases from the PMO reveal that even 2019 saw just two meetings — in July and November. The remaining 29 meetings were held between March 2015 and September 2018.
Sources said the first break in the meetings came in the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, with the PM getting more engaged in election campaigning. Even after the election, they added, the reform never really picked up.
“The frequency and rigour of the PRAGATI meetings have gone down because it seems that the PM is increasingly preoccupied,” said Mishra.
“There were the Lok Sabha polls earlier, then there are state elections. And if you see, something or the other has kept him very busy since he came back to power in 2019. First, it was Kashmir Article 370 abrogation, then anti-CAA protests, etc. and then this year, everything has been about Covid.”
The PM’s direct involvement is believed to have thrown up a big challenge: How much could be accommodated in the PM’s schedule, and was it desirable, or even possible, for the PM to himself to monitor all projects?
While the government projected PRAGATI as a first-of-its-kind initiative, a retired Union secretary said it was conceptualised entirely on the lines of the Project Monitoring Group (PMG) launched in 2013.
“The PMG was under the Cabinet Secretariat because that is where inter-ministerial and department coordination was done. But when the new government came, the same programme was repackaged and the PM became the face of it,” the official added.
Former Cabinet Secretary K.M. Chandrashekhar said the job of coordination and review should actually rest with the Cabinet Secretariat.
“It is impossible for the PM to review all the projects. Even the principal secretary to the PM cannot be doing this,” he said. “The Cabinet Secretariat is the appropriate agency to do this, and it has become considerably weak now.”
Another retired Union secretary said the fizzling out of the programme is a result of the “further centralisation of powers in the PMO”. “Initially, there were regular meetings with secretaries, etc, too. That has also stopped,” the retired official said. “Because all the power is centralised in the PMO now. So what’s left to monitor?”
The attempt to engage state secretaries, the official added, was fraught with limitations in the first place.
“See, chief secretaries can participate with enthusiasm, but the point is their priorities will be the priorities of the state government, and not of the Centre,” the official said. “As a union secretary, I can give xyz clearances, but if the state government does not want, it will not happen.”
The first retired Union secretary quoted above said another issue with PRAGATI was that “the whole attention of the programme, which was meant to fast-track projects, shifted to this one event once in a month”.
“The whole point of reviews should be that they should happen continuously, but when the PM took over, this Wednesday meeting became the focus of everyone’s attention, and there was little follow-up in between,” the official added.
“There was no attention paid to actually studying the systemic issues that make things slow down, there was no attention to build an institution which would look into fundamental issues… It became more personality- than institution-driven.”
‘Infrequency doesn’t mean low productivity’
Mishra said the PM’s direct involvement in the reviews did have a huge impact in moving projects along, but added that it also had a negative impact in creating a culture where ministries do not move at all without the prodding of the PMO.
“Technically speaking, nobody is stopping individual ministers or the Cabinet Secretariat from doing their own reviews, but when the PMO is believed to be doing everything, others are apprehensive,” he said.
Mekhala Krishnamurthy, who runs the state capacity initiative at the Delhi-based think tank Centre for Policy Research, said this “level of centralisation of powers is fundamentally not sustainable. It is physically not possible”.
“This is part of the larger problem of not having decentralised institutions,” she added. “There is a marked move away from institutions who are geared to do their job… One can argue that those institutions have not performed, but then there has to be focus on strengthening them rather than weakening them further.”
“At the same time, mechanisms for Centre-state and inter-state coordination are more important than ever before,” she said. “And it is vital to keep them going.”
A central government official, who requested anonymity, opposed the argument that centralisation of powers has hurt the PRAGATI initiative.
“Yes, the meetings have become infrequent, but that does not mean that they are not productive,” said the official. “In the last meeting alone, there were projects worth over 1 lakh crore that were sped up. The PM’s direct involvement is a push for governance across the Centre and states.
“Before that, in the last to last meeting scheduled before Covid, the PM managed to push through a railway project in Odisha that was stuck for two-and-a-half decades,” the official added. “In this meeting, even the Odisha chief secretary acknowledged that this project was stuck since 1995, and things started moving only in 2015, when the PM started these reviews.”
The project being referred to here is the 289-km Khurda-Bolangir railway line in Odisha.
An official working in a state government said the various groups at the ministers’ and bureaucrats’ level at the Centre and the PMO also keep a close watch on crucial projects that are time-bound.
“There are video conferences and discussions on important projects to monitor their progress, irrespective of the platform,” the official added.
Mishra said even if the PM is not carrying out these meetings himself, “his principal secretary, along with his three advisors in the PMO, would be doing it”. “His initial involvement in the beginning helped signal that the PM is directly watching, but now, things would have also become more streamlined,” he added.
There is a lot of merit in the thinking behind PRAGATI, and it is nobody’s case that monitoring should not happen at the highest levels, he added. “To this extent, PRAGATI was a very important reform, and it should not be allowed to fizzle out.”
This report has been updated with additional information