Cosmetics giant Proctor & Gamble sent scores of its executives to study the habits and psyche of rural Indians before it could penetrate the rural market with an appropriate razor brand. During their first visit to one such village, they were surprised to see a man shave, while sitting barefoot on the floor in a tiny hut in India, sans electricity, running water and mirror! Their first lessons on the rural psyche were learnt that day and after painstaking research, they brought out the Gillette Guard, a low-cost razor suitable for rural India and today this brand has the biggest market share in rural India.
Compared to the cosmetic major, the government provides goods and services to the citizens on a much larger scale than the private players. The central government does this all over the country, while the state governments do it in their respective states. Government provides concessional finance to a lot of people for housing, for studies, for weddings and for so many purposes. Government provides food grains, vegetables, edible oil, kerosene and even idli and dosa at concessional rates to the citizens! Nowadays, in the competitive electoral politics, governments compete with each other in offering as many freebies as possible.
But unlike in the private sector, there is not so much of background research of the targeted beneficiaries before launching a scheme. If under a central or state scheme, toilets are to be provided, say in the tribal areas, the policy makers do not have as much knowledge about the targeted beneficiaries nor is there such research into the socio-economic and psychological behaviour of the target group that is supposed to benefit from the scheme. The government has another compulsion, unlike the private player. The government is bound to be committed to certain lofty principles because of its constitutional responsibility. For example, a private airline would not fly to destinations in the North East, unless mandated by a regulatory authority, as it would be solely guided by commercial considerations.
Of late, the trends are changing in the government. Also the government has access to voluminous data from the census, from various other government-commissioned studies and sources. These days, the trend is to go for feedback and background information from the consultants, NGOs and subject-matter experts and evaluate the efficacy of many programmes. In fact, many ongoing programmes are dropped or recast in a new format due to such feedback received from such sources about the ground-level reality.
An interesting example may be discussed here. The apex court directed the state governments to construct night shelters on an urgent basis to take care of the unfortunate homeless people who are forced to sleep on the streets. A lot of night shelters were constructed all over the country without adequate background research. In some cases, it was found that the homeless were not shifting to these night shelters. In some of these areas where the homeless stay, they carry out their small business activities like making articles from bamboo or making clay pots and lamps.
They have a market right where they stay. If the night shelter is far away, they simply would not shift for fear of losing their livelihood.
The government cannot act like Proctor & Gamble. But we can certainly give more emphasis to background research and availability of relevant data in order to ensure better policy formulation and implementation.
The author is municipal commissioner of Ahmedabad