System Change and Zero Tolerance will Ensure Better Compliance
It is commonly agreed that Indians are not a very law abiding people, although the individual Indian is probably as civic minded and interested in doing good as anyone in any other country. Then why do people in India behave the way they do, ie with scant regard for rules and laws? There are many answers that will be offered in answer to this question, and most of them will end up in the dubious and murky domains of culture, habits and social mores.
But, there is a more reliable way of looking at the problem, and that is using the systems approach. In systems theory, there is a maxim: structure determines behaviour. In this view, the structure of a system, and the way decisions are taken as a result of the operation of that system, will determine the way a component part of that system behaves.
If people in India disregard the rules and laws, and try to find short cuts, there must be a reason for them to behave in this way. That can range from recent history of behaviour, the way incentives in the system are structured to reward certain kinds of behaviour, the poor enforcement of the system and so on. The fact that this is the present condition should at least enable us to agree that the system works in such a way as to not only not penalize non-compliance but tacitly reward non-compliance. We can see examples of egregious operation of this perverse system every day, on the streets, in offices, in shops etc. Rarely do we see rule-based behaviour anywhere. In fact, she who follows the proper procedure or rule looks foolish because no one else is doing so. This leads to the absurd situation where the person following the rule becomes the cause of another problem, because all the others around are trying to game the system, and to get their work done somehow. A look at any traffic block and the response of commuters will explain what I mean.
We make light of this trait, and have even coined a word to normalize this kind of behaviour: we call this disregard for rules and processes ‘jugaad’, which freely translated from Hindi means a resourceful approach to problem-solving. But this definition is incomplete. The word means a resourceful approach to problem-solving unhampered by the need to adhere to any standards or rules or constraints, the only restriction being what you can get away with! In that sense, ‘jugaad’ is a bit like the curate’s egg, and can be likened to Victorian morality, which a wag defined as ‘lack of opportunity’!
What are the consequences of this ‘Indian’ approach to rules and laws? In every day life, this reflects in hundreds of unnecessary and egregious short cuts ranging from ‘looping’ an electric wire and thereby bypassing the fuse instead of replacing the broken fuse, shoving two ends of a naked wire into an electric socket instead of looking for a proper plug, using any tool that is handy for a task instead of looking for the right tool, tying a broken part instead of replacing it with a new one etc. In all these cases, the intention is probably that these fixes are temporary, but once the job is done, the focus shifts to other urgent matters, and the need to replace the defective part with a proper part is forgotten. Engineers on the shop floor take pride in pointing out such examples of such ‘ingenuity’ in getting a job done despite a breakage, using whatever material that was at hand. We tend to reward and appreciate such initiative, and value it higher than the systematic approach to preventive maintenance and problem solving that will yield better results.
This attitude leads to such sloppy practices becoming commonplace and normal, with the inevitable consequences on performance. It is therefore not surprising that few Indian products have earned a reputation for quality and reliability. These jury-rigged solutions always perform below standards, and affect not only quality, but also the cost of the system. Despite very low wages, cheap input costs and low-cost components, Indian industry has to struggle with the highest cost of manufacture anywhere in the world. The desire of the Indian businessman to get the problem solved instantly and without consideration of the proper way to do it means that he is constantly looking for shortcuts. That opens the door for pervasive corruption at every stage of the process flow and supply chain. This cannot be rooted out by better policing alone, but will need to be accompanied by a system change.
An excellent example of what a system change can accomplish is the highway transportation system in India. The Indian road transportation system is probably among the most inefficient in the world, with a cost of transportation (in terms of cost per ton kilometer) several times that of the US! Despite the higher quality and more expensive trucks, and the much higher wages of truck drivers, which are the main components of transportation cost, costs in India are much higher than in the US. This is the result of the combination of several factors, including the condition of highways, the number of stops during a journey due to checkposts, bribes to be paid at every checkpost, distance travelled in a day by a truck etc. Simplifying the system, removing the large number of checkposts, improving the highways, improving the quality of the trucks, and having better trained drivers will all help improve these various parameters, which will combine to drive down costs.
How do we then start to improve matters in India, across various domains and sectors, each of which have different issues, and which require different system solutions? We will notice that the common factor to all sectors and domains is the Indian disregard for rules and laws, for the processes prescribed for getting anything done. This is at the root of the problem. This must therefore become the focus of any improvement project, and must be addressed directly. It is true that the Indian road transportation sector has started to show significant improvement in performance and outcomes, despite there being no aggressive campaign against corruption. This has been accomplished by making rules simpler, enforcing these rules strictly and enabling truck owners and businesses to quickly see the advantages of following the rules and regulations.
A similar approach must be taken in all other sectors. In every case, a systems approach must be adopted to identify the system that would work best in terms of clearly measurable outcomes. After that, the system should be put in the public domain in unambiguous and clear and easily understandable language. This should be widely disseminated, and explained through training programmes. At the same time, the enforcement arm of the regulatory body should equip itself with training and the necessary powers to act against non-compliance. There are several examples already in India of what can be accomplished by such an approach. One process that is notorious for corruption in every State, and causes a huge loss of revenue to the government, is the registration of sale transactions. A combination of computerization of processes, fixing deadlines for completion of each task, and accountability for such tasks on specific officials, will help remove the uncertainty and ambiguity, without which corruption will not be able to thrive.
When we got to a bank to withdraw money or carry out another transaction, these tasks are done speedily using the teller system. These days, these tasks are done even without having to go to the bank. Why cannot the tasks like getting a house number, effecting a property sale or transfer, getting a ration card, an income certificate, and all the other quotidian tasks that citizens have to routinely get done, be enabled in such a simple manner? It should only be necessary for the applicant to provide the documentary support needed, which should be clearly specified. Once that is done, the action to issue the certificate or document should follow. The use of digital technology and online platforms now makes these tasks even simpler.
If an entrepreneur wants to set up a business and wants to construct a factory, what he needs to know is the rules and regulations that govern the design, layout and construction of such factories. These should be available in an easy to understand and accessible manner. He should then ensure that his engineers and architect design and plan the factory in compliance with the rules, and should be free to start construction once the application together with supporting documents are submitted. Once the factory is completed, he should notify the concerned department which will then inspect the factory for compliance. If the factory complies, he will be permitted to start operations. If it does not, he will have to correct the defects pointed out in the inspection, and again undergo an inspection. The power to delay is the biggest source of corruption, as the interest clock of the businessman is ticking. The recent example of the tragic suicide of a businessman in Kannur due to delays by the local body is still fresh in public memory. That can be solved by having a deadline clause that will stipulate that the permission will be deemed to have been given unless a decision is taken within a certain specified time.
Therefore, by a series of simple system changes, it is possible for the present poor state of affairs of administrative processes to be significantly improved, with huge benefits to business and industry. But, a necessary condition to ensure that these benefits accrue to the economy and society, is to have a regulatory and governance approach that is based on zero tolerance for even small violations of the rules and laws, by both the businessman and the official. This is crucial: every little transgression should be dealt with when it happens, and with zero tolerance. That will ensure that small transgressions and mistakes are noticed and acted on, and not dismissed as minor and unimportant. What will happen if action is not taken is that these will expand to fill the frame, and will become the biggest sources of corruption. The top person in each department should send down the message that, together with simplification and transparency, no deviation from rules and processes by any official will be tolerated. Similarly, business people will know that not only is it no longer possible to ‘fix’ a problem by paying some money to an official, but instead that a heavy penalty will have to be incurred.
It is this zero tolerance of small offences and deviations from the rules and laws that enabled William Bratton, the celebrated Chief of Police of New York, to sharply reduce crime in what was once regarded as the crime capital of the USA. He focused on making the streets and public transport systems safe, and on ensuring traffic rules were followed. By cracking down on every little infringement, he made the average New Yorker who had become cynical and had a contempt for the law, regain their respect for the law without which no rule-based society can function. That was the platform on which he then built a culture of compliance, by motivating his police officers to go out and enforce the law. He did not go after just the big fish, which is another strategy some others have adopted, with mixed results. He chose instead to have a policy of zero tolerance on every little infringement.
What we need in this country is a government that not only goes after the big fish, and sees that they do not get away by gaming the system, or abusing the public faith in institutions, or looting public funds by inflating project costs, funding these projects using public money in banks, and then not repaying loans. That must of course be done, and is part of the job of government. But, they should equally importantly, crack down on every little parking offence and traffic violation, so that the citizen is constantly reminded of his responsibility in ensuring that the system works.