Political promises to fix India’s service delivery and welfare implementation problems are staples of every election. In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the resolute and fashionable phrase ‘mission mode’ has made it into these promises, including the BJP’s. The party promised to expand irrigation and digitise land records in ‘mission mode’. On Sunday’s Mann Ki Baat, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that India said needs a Swachh Bharat-like water conservation mission.
In the last five years of the Narendra Modi government, almost every service delivery loophole was plugged with the promise of execution in “mission mode”.
And yet, no one knows what the term really means. We even asked seasoned policy experts and IAS officers to explain it to us. How is a government ‘mission’ different from its already existing programmes, campaigns and schemes? We found no consensus.
But conceptual clarity is critical to identifying design features for a successful implementation agenda. And mission mode programmes seem to be the bullet train the country needs to hop on.
Although Telecom Mission was one of the early Indian success stories, the Modi government’s Swachh Bharat Mission and ‘Saubhagya’ rural electrification scheme can provide potential roadmaps for shifting to mission mode projects.
From the 1999 Total Sanitation Campaign (TSC) to its current successor, the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM), India’s sanitation sector has progressed in fits and starts. Contrasting the TSC and the SBM shows why the Modi government’s attempt to adopt a mission mindset is proving to be much more effective.
When a government scheme is given the mission mode status, it signals its political priority to public officials.
The transition from business-as-usual under the TSC to mission mode under the SBM increased prioritisation of sanitation outcomes. The SBM guidelines note that the programme was “given the status of a Mission, recognising its dire need for the country.”
Most public officials agree that missions enjoy considerable attention, often supported by designated task forces or focus groups responsible for execution.
Whereas the TSC was overseen and implemented by the Department of Drinking Water and Sanitation under the Ministry of Rural Development, the SBM benefited from more focused attention by the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation, which obtained ministry status in 2011. Since the ministry directs only two centrally sponsored flagship programmes, the National Rural Drinking Water Programme and the Swachh Bharat Mission, the programmes reap the benefits of greater institutional bandwidth.
Better funding flows
Mission mode projects offer a greater degree of flexibility in funding.
States now contribute a larger share of the funds in the SBM, with the ratio of Centre to state expenditure shifting from 80:20 under the TSC to 60:40 under the SBM.
Additionally, in an effort to mitigate funding delays, the SBM restricted funding contributions from other centrally sponsored schemes, such as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme.
Unlike the TSC, the SBM requires that fund transfers are time-bound and levy financial penalties for non-compliance. Compared to the TSC, the SBM also provides fewer instalments in larger chunks, allowing implementing agencies more spending flexibility.
Focused attention makes sure schemes like the SBM have better and detailed implementation goals.
The TSC provided no guidance on how or when to achieve milestones. The SBM, on the other hand, requests states to develop five-year project rollouts along with five individual annual plans.
Moreover, implementation authority under the SBM is less centralised than under the TSC. States have been empowered to become critical actors in implementation planning.
Finally, the SBM guidelines delineate Swachh Bharat Missions, programme management units, and committees at all levels – national state, district, block, and gram panchayat/village –ensuring a deeper focus on implementation responsibilities across tiers.
Building local capacity
The SBM also increased the involvement of local government in public service delivery. While the TSC guidelines barely acknowledged strategies for collaborating with local government, the SBM guidelines make local capacity building a priority.
Employing a holistic behaviour change strategy, the SBM recruits the assistance of Nigrani committees, natural leaders, and panchayat representatives in nudging citizens toward making gram panchayats open defecation free.
The SBM’s achievements in a short time show that mission mode gets faster results. Under the TSC and its successor the Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan, 9.45 crore individual households had obtained sanitation facilities between 1999 and 2013. Under the SBM, 8.95 crore individual household latrines have been built between 2014 and 2018, demonstrating a rapid acceleration in implementation.
Mission mode has a few flaws too
Of course, the Modi government’s efforts still leave much to be desired. Vague objective-setting and incentive misalignments have undercut both the TSC and the SBM.
Building toilets is only half the work done. By employing an infrastructure-oriented strategy aimed exclusively at constructing latrines, both the programmes confuse outputs with outcomes. Even when it comes to achieving desired outputs, both the TSC and the SBM have underperformed, as evident in the complaints of nonfunctional latrines.
Both also require individual households to shoulder the financial burden of building latrines. The absence of financial incentives coupled with increased pressure to deliver has resulted in authorities adopting coercive strategies to get the job done.
On the right track
In 2006, under the National e-Governance Plan, MeitY introduced 27 Mission Mode Projects, which carved out clearly defined objectives, scopes, and implementation timelines across sectors.
Additionally, India’s earlier rural electrification programme Rajiv Gandhi Grameen Vidyutikaran Yojana (RGGVY) picked up pace when it was subsumed under the Modi government’s Deen Dayal Upadhyaya Gram Jyoti Yojana (DDUGJY) in 2015. Coverage expanded from 1,645 villages to 7,999 within the year because the project was implemented in mission mode.
Still, India’s sanitation sector offers a case study in how policymakers can begin to design a contextual science of delivery.
As commitments toward social protection rise around the world, India has a responsibility to plan for better public service delivery. Programmes like Swachh Bharat Mission will give policymakers valuable lessons as they confront the thorny task of rethinking governance.
Reva Abrol is an analyst and Linda Bedenik is an associate at IDFC Institute, a Mumbai-based think/do tank. Views are personal.
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