Development administration: top-down approach

On becoming an independent nation, with its constitutional provisions, the task of the federal government in power was to promote welfare and development of the whole nation. Although some influenced by the global market economy forces have tried to bring in reforms in the country so that it can become a market-driven economy, the local context of the country and its political economy has often forced it back to the welfare state. The national and state budgets reflect the emphasis of India on development administration.

For implementation of development projects and schemes of both the state government and the federal government in the scheduled areas, the district administration becomes the landing point for both. Below the district administration, reaching to the intended communities is often considered as the Black box by the higher-up administrations in the Indian bureaucracy. The sole responsibility of development administration from the perspective of public governance (either state or center) is primarily driven by the district administration.

The schemes and programs are designed by experts and budgeted by some bureaucrats and approved by legislators and politicians, both at the state level and national level. Based on the operational guidelines of a development program or a scheme, say PMAY housing scheme, the district administration is supposed to implement them at the level of the beneficiaries. Clearly, the administration of development schemes is a top-down approach i.e., from the state/federal governments to the district. The role of the District Collector along with the district administration is to ensure that the program is implemented as per the letter and spirit of the guidelines of a given scheme.

The state through its executive branch usually conceives and designs its programs and schemes based on the advice of its experts. The process of policy making and development of schemes involves several rounds of consultations to capture the concerns of the ground realities. The stakeholders include domain experts, social scientists, senior practitioners, consultants, civil society representatives, and corporate representatives. The views of these stakeholders are usually moderated by the middle-level bureaucrats. The decisions are finally taken or approved by senior bureaucrats based on the desires and wisdom of politicians and ministers.

The appropriateness of policy in the above form of government depends on the following:

  • (a) Ability of the middle-level bureaucrats in respective ministries of the central government to synthesize the different perspectives offered by various stakeholders and their ability to put forward an unbiased view to the higher-level bureaucrats.
  • (b) Immunity of senior bureaucrats to make fair case of the programs/schemes to the concerned ministers of the government.
  • (c) Sincerity and honesty of ministers of the government to withstand the influence of powerful small interest groups that often benefit a few at the cost of most of the politicians and majority of citizens of the country.
  • (d) Ability and passion of the bureaucrats to give quality time work with experts to develop operational guidelines of individual policy that provides flexibility in implementation in different socioeconomic-environmental contexts.

The Policy Operational guideline is also subject to the first of the three points. Let us cite an example of formulation of a National Policy as well as its Operational Guidelines on Farmer Producer Organization in India that the first author of this book was closely associated with. This policy guideline was to implement 10,000 Farmer Producer Organizations (FPOs) in the country over a period of five years, 2020-2025.

The FPO Policy was initiated by the Ministry of Agriculture & Farmers’ Welfare (MOA&FW), Government of India. The Secretary, MOA&FW was the overall in-charge to formulate the policy guidelines and submit to the Cabinet for approval for release of funds to implement. The Joint Secretary, Department of Agricultural Marketing, JS (Marketing) was tasked to formulate the draft policy on FPO. The JS (Mktg) initiated a dialogue process to identify experts for the first round of consultation. The Secretary, MOAF&W introduced one expert, Amar Nayak (one of the authors), to the JS (Mktg) in early 2018 to take him on board for formulation of the FPO Policy. By this time, Amar had already spent about a decade of research on FPOs, been the national consultant on FPOs to Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN in India, Chair Professor of National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD), and had also an academic stint as Professor at the National Academy of Administration that trains the top bureaucrats in the country. At this time, Amar also happened to be the National Consultant to the same MOA&FW on Sustainable Agriculture.

Following the initial dialogue process by the JS (Mktg), with some domain experts and interest groups, the department organized a consultation process among various stakeholders viz., producer organization implementing agencies, state government agriculture department officials dealing with FPOs, national government agencies such as Small Farmers Agribusiness Consortium (SFAC), NABARD, Civil Society Organizations, progressive farmers, representatives from corporate and others from across the country.

The FPO Policy was one of key subjects of discussions at the two Rabi1 Conferences during 2018 and 2019, organized by the MOA&FW. The conference of 2018 was chaired by the Prime Minister of India and the conference of 2019 was chaired by the then Union Minister. These conferences were attended by the Department of Agriculture from all the states, select agriculture research institutions, NABARD, and other state agencies in agriculture. While the broad issues and principles were shared and deliberated upon during the pre-conference meetings and presented during the plenary sessions, the details of the FPO policy and guidelines were to be worked out and finalized.

As a Consultant to the MOA&FW, Amar was requested to help formulate the detailed policy guidelines by the JS (Mktg). The team in the department developed a draft outline and asked for Amar’s suggestions. The JS (Mktg) sincerely consulted various stakeholders of FPO including business consultants and former bureaucrats, leading FPO implementing agencies and probably other interest groups who offered their expertise on FPOs.

The policy draft was again presented to the Secretary, MOA&FW. While the team in the Department of Marketing had referred to most of the articles, papers, and reports on FPOs, there were several gaps in their understanding and hence Amar was requested to be present at this meeting for any clarification and justification of the draft. The Secretary was satisfied with the design aspects of FPO but asked the JS (Mktg) to provide a minimum credit support to primary-level FPOs as s/he expressed that the banks would not give FPOs the minimum credit to begin their business activities during their formative years.

The JS (Mktg) was hesitant whether the government will be able to cover the minimum credit requirement of the FPOs in the country. The FPO policy remained in the back burner for a while until the Secretary' retired and a new Secretary' took charge of the Ministry. Nearly one year had passed since the Cabinet had asked the Ministry to formulate a National Policy document. The Draft FPO Policy was to be presented to the new Secretary', MOA&FW. Amar was once again requested by the JS (Mktg) to be present at the meeting for any clarification. The new Secretary' raised two queries relating to (a) scope of activities of an FPO and (b) optimal geographic cluster size of an FPO. Using both the theoretical rationale and empirical data across the country, Amar explained the need for multiple product-service basket strategy of an FPO and Gram Panchayat (GP) as an optimal geographic cluster size of an FPO. The Secretary', MOA&FW was convinced with the explanations. The Secretary only thought aloud that for some specific items like honey, where the geographic cluster size could be larger.

A couple of months passed, the JS (Mktg) had few more rounds of discussions with various stakeholders in small groups including a meeting with the MOA&FW, Government of India. Despite all these discussion and meetings, the team in the Marketing department was unable to complete the task of finalizing the draft FPO policy for submission to the Cabinet.

The JS (Mktg) finally asked if the team under him for this policy document can sit with Amar for a couple of days to finalize the policy document. Amar agreed and asked the officer-in-charge to come down to Bhubaneswar, where he was based. The FPO policy document was finally edited, to make it technically consistent in line with the objective of enabling and empowering the smallholder farmers of the country through the FPO Policy.

Having lost substantial amount of time, the Government of India was now in hurry to announce the 10,000 FPO scheme. Even before the final announcement of the scheme, a query from the Prime Minister office was passed on to Amar by phone regarding the optimality of geographic cluster size. Amar reminded the JS (Mktg) on the logic of GP as the optimal size and how this could be technically consistent to the national and state policy for diversification of production by smallholder farmer in India. Further, the following day; based on mass consultation on optimal size of FPO with over 200 farmers from across Odisha, Amar sent a photo evidence to show that over 80% of farmers felt that GP was the optimal cluster size for an FPO.

However, in the final announcement of the 10,000 FPOs by the Prime Minister, it got highlighted as the One District One Product approach of the national scheme for the FPOs. It signaled for commodity focused FPO rather than diversified agricultural and food systems. The mega FPO scheme was to ensure supplies of agriculture commodities to large traders and commodities markets through FPOs as intermediaries. Risk mitigation of small farmers who formed 90% of agricultural community in India or empowering these marginal members in the long run by encouraging mixed or diversified farming did not seem to be the objective of the National FPO scheme. Business interests of commodity trading had prevailed over the logic of empowering smallholder farmers and climate resilient agriculture. The top-down approach runs through all levels of public administration including district administration. The two excellent cases of development administration by the two District Collectors were indeed possible because of the additional amount of efforts they put in beyond their regular duty of executing the top-down orders (please see Section 5.4 in Chapter 5).

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