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Who will Tell the Prime Minister? – 2

The meeting started late in the afternoon at 7, Race Course Road, the residence of the PM The Health Secretary made a presentation on the proposed health insurance scheme Apart from a couple of Ministers, there were a few officers as well. Everyone was apprehensive about the PM’s response
anil swarup

The call was from the Prime Minister’s office and the Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister (PM) was on the line. This was 2018. I was posted as Secretary, School Education and Literacy and I was due to superannuate in a few months. But the conversation we had did not relate to education.

“Anil, can you brief the Prime Minister on Health Insurance?” was his question. I couldn’t fathom the context. Yes, I had been involved in arguably the largest health insurance scheme Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana (RSBY) in the world. This scheme had come to be recognised by International Labour Organisation (ILO) and World Bank as one of the finest. But the scheme had fallen from grace as it was considered to be a scheme of the ‘previous’ government.

CALLED FOR HEALTH INSURANCE INPUTS

“Sir, but what have I to do with Health Insurance?” I asked, thoroughly puzzled.

“No, the Prime Minister is keen on providing health insurance (‘assurance’ as it was called) to the citizens of the country and the Health Ministry has been trying to evolve a scheme. However, there hasn’t been a consensus,” he concluded.

“But sir, what is my locus standi to provide my inputs and suggestions to the PM on health insurance?” I countered.

The Principal Secretary had a ready answer, “There is a meeting scheduled for the review of certain proposals of the Health Ministry. We will line up a review of the Education Ministry as well. Hence, you will be present when the discussion on health insurance will take place. If the PM asks you about your views on the health insurance scheme, you can give your inputs.”

MEETING AT PM RESIDENCE

The meeting started late in the afternoon at 7, Race Course Road, the residence of the PM. Apart from a couple of Ministers, there were a few officers as well. The Health Secretary made a presentation on the proposed health insurance scheme. Everyone was apprehensive about the PM’s response. I had been informed that on a few occasions in the past when the scheme was presented to him, he was unhappy.

On this occasion too, he didn’t appear to be very impressed. However, he turned towards me and remarked, “Anil, you have handled Health Insurance in the past, what is your comment?” I spoke for around 15 minutes outlining the need for health insurance and the strengths of the proposed scheme. The PM listened very patiently (which is one of the most remarkable features of his functioning). He appeared quite convinced with the rationale provided by me. He did ask a couple of questions (his yearning for details is amazing) and then a decision was taken in principle to go ahead with the scheme.

As I was walking out after the meeting, one of the Joint Secretaries in the PMO asked me, “Sir, You were aware that the PM wasn’t appreciative of the insurance model that you were suggesting, yet you spoke about it pretty bluntly. How could you do that?” After a brief pause, I responded, “I don’t expect any personal favour from the PM now or after my retirement.”. The officer understood but looked amused

MISMANAGEMENT OF HUMAN RESOURCES

The government seems to be doing well on a number of fronts, specially on the road infrastructure front. However, what is quite inexplicable is the mismanagement of Human Resources:

  1. We can keep cursing the Central Public Sector Undertakings (CPSUs) for poor performance. Some of it may be well deserved but one of the many reasons is our poor human resource management. A large number of Public Sector Undertakings have been left headless and without Directors for months together, adversely impacting the performance of these entities. Coal India Limited (CIL) is one such example where the absence of a CMD created havoc.  The consequences were there for everyone to see. After record coal production during 2014-15 and 2015-16, there was yet again acute shortage of coal in the country. CIL was without a regular CMD for a year.  The situation improved once  full time CMD took over. This is true of a number of public sector undertakings. The Minister of State for Heavy Industry reported to the Lok Sabha last year that as many as 274 positions of independent Directors were vacant in the CPSUs. Ironically, the post of Chairman, Public Enterprises Services Board has been held by 5 different persons during past 6 years and is presently vacant. Who will select senior level positions for PSUs that include Public Sector Banks?
  2. Number of India’s 40 Central Universities do not have full-time Vice Chancellors
  3. Why are posts of members of Central Board of Direct Taxes vacant for such a long time? Why are there a large number of vacancies (400 reported in 2021) at the level of Commissioners and above in the Income Tax Department?

These are just a few of the many examples where vacancies/unstable tenures are adversely impacting the outcomes.

DELAY BY THE ADVISORS?

Every time one interacted with the Prime Minister, one could not but be impressed with his sincerity of purpose and clarity of thought. The intent was always there and this was reflected in his thought, expression and action. There were indeed some brilliant initiatives and decisions. But then, why is the  human resource management getting all messed up? Is it perhaps on account of humongous nature of managing the army of civil servants? With almost everything getting concentrated in the hands of a handful civil servants, the task has become too big to handle. This has also led to enormous delays in decisions relating to postings, resulting in vacancies for long durations. There is indeed something amiss. Some of the work can easily be delegated to different levels. Government now faces enormous challenges. Civil servants are the face of the government. The government can face these challenges if these ‘faces’ are in position and feel more secure. Why should there be a need to over-indulge in determining selecting/postings/positioning of these officers? The PM himself cannot assess each officer personally. However, he can assess those that assess these officers. A lot depends on the advisors that call the shots in this regard.

The Prime Minister does listen. Someone needs to muster the courage to tell him but the question is, who will tell him?

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