Policy formulation in a country committed to the rule of law and democratic principles is supposed to be an exercise carried out by a large number of people who represent the entire population, and, hence, is the voice of the people. Like it or not, it does not happen in this manner. Many a time, there is hardly any discussion, and it is only one individual and his thinking which gets formulated as a policy with a nod by the other representatives, who might not have even bothered to apply their minds to the merits of the case.
In the recent past, the country has witnessed, unbelievably, on several occasions when knee-jerk reactions of individuals have, willy-nilly, been called the policy of the government and executed in an undesirably swift manner. One such wrong signal is being sent to the entire world by the ministry of environment, led by the new Minister, that no file would be kept pending due to non-clearance of a project on grounds of environmental issues.
It can be no one’s case that any project should be kept pending for clearance unnecessarily, as inordinate delay in clearances results in time and cost overruns and the entire project planning goes for a toss. However, it needs to be appreciated that it is also not expected that with a new minister taking command of the ministry, all of a sudden, all the requirements for a project for clearance would have been met. Had it been so simple, what could have been the reason for not clearing the projects prior to a new minister taking the charge?
It could either have been the fulfillment of certain objective criteria, or, subjective decision-making involving exercise of discretion by individuals in positions of authority. In case of the former, it is a no-brainer and does not simply require the involvement of persons who can decide the matter either this way or that. Due to objectivity in the criteria, any person making a decision can decide in a particular manner, and that can be the only way the decision could be made. There can’t be two ways. The fact of the matter is that such decisions can be made by a programmed computer.
One doesn’t need individuals. But, in case of the latter, certain individuals have the power to exercise discretion and based on whatever the facts are, they make the decision differently. For example, A may allow, whereas, B may disallow. That is precisely the role of the minister and the top bureaucrats. As we go down in the hierarchy in an organisation, including the ministry, the discretionary power goes down. Thus, one cannot find fault with the new minister, if while exercising discretion, he makes the decision in a particular manner.
The real problem comes when something, which was unacceptable till a certain point of time, becomes acceptable, not due to simply exercise of discretionary power in making decisions, but due to a change in policy. It surely makes any reasonable and prudent person uncomfortable that with all the facts remaining the same, the earlier policy is dumped, and a new policy is formulated so that an approval can be granted. The speed with which environmental clearance is being granted to so many pending projects raises the question about the sanctity and use of the entire exercise of policy formulation.
There is a requirement, which is fundamental and goes to the root of the matter, that policy formulation must be insulated from the whims and fancies of an individual. It makes a mockery of the democratic principles and questions the very purpose of the existence of a large army of generalist bureaucrats and specialist technocrats. No doubt that the political master is at the apex of the ministry and aligns all the forces in one direction, in a manner in what a true leader is supposed to do, but negating the opinion of individuals specialising in the matter is simply treating them as pieces of furniture.
We will do well to remember that ministers in any ministry are just ‘birds of passage.’ It is time the country was assured of continuity of a policy. An individual’s whims and fancies should not be allowed to create uncertainty and unpredictability, resulting in large number of investors – foreigners, as well as Indians – to hold back, or worse, look for other places to invest.