On sight – and insight

MOHAN KANDA

back to issue

Omkara Parivritham Vishvam

Sankalpa Parimitham Drishyam

(Much as the universe is circumscribed by the ‘Omkara’, the panorama of vision is defined by what one is determined to view)

 

FEW areas in the realm of public administration in our country suffer as acutely with built-in infirmities as does the field of monitoring, whether of programmes or of other administrative tasks. The gap between field-reality and the systemic-perception is unacceptably wide and is assuming frightening dimensions.

This is more so in agencies which deal with sensitive issues such as the persisting maladies of poverty and backwardness and the provision of basic minimum needs to the excluded sections of the population, or increasing the production and enhancing the productivity of primary commodities.

When scarce resources are being applied to the resolution of issues critical to the nation’s well-being, the efficacy of monitoring the impact of the chosen interventions should be of concern. Yet, the mechanisms in place are pathetic; so much so that it is not funny any more to pretend that anything else requires greater or more immediate attention.

Our systems are dilapidated, primitive and incompetent, and have reduced us to an existence characterized by not mere ignorance but, often, as experience bordering on delusion! It is thus that we remain confined to a reactive mindset. Effectively disconnected with the dynamics of reality, we blunder along – living in a world of confusion – jumpy, nervous and forever resigned to responding in a knee-jerk fashion to endless crises largely the creation of our own ignorance.

How much longer can we live with the inability to decide whether we need to import food grains or export them, or whether a particular disease is, in fact, stalking the streets of the Capital or not! If, in one season, it is the onion-farmer to whose aid we are forced to rush ad hoc help in the wake of an unprecedented glut in the commodity with crashing prices, it is the onion-consumer, in the very next season, who is complaining as prices sky-rocket following an acute shortage. One month, administrators of a large metropolis are biting their nails off wondering where the potato production has disappeared and hoping for supplies to arrive before unrest peaks; weeks later farmers are dumping potato in neighbours’ fields as the transport cost to the mandi is not worth the asking price!

 

 

Should not the headless chicken syndrome be replaced by a sensible system that is reasonably au fait with its environment and somewhat alive to the shape of things to come?

The task itself is not all that difficult to describe, at least in terms of definitional aspects, if not performance. One clearly needs to know why one wants to monitor a given phenomenon. In other words, one has in the first instance to decide on the description of the desired output. One has then to identify what one wants to monitor, how one will go about doing it, and through which means.

Let me explain: What does a doctor monitor in a sick patient? Certainly the pulse, temperature and blood pressure, and perhaps other aspects depending on the nature of the malady, the patient’s age and so forth. For the pulse he uses his own fingers and a watch, for pressure the stethoscope, and for temperature the thermometer. And then there may be a nurse who actually performs the task of measurement.

Imagine the nurse replying, ‘I don’t know,’ when asked for information by the doctor on any of the parameters. Or, worse, the nurse and the instrument combining to furnish incorrect figures. If perchance the patient was a reasonably literate person, and this transpired in his presence, what would he feel? Precisely what I, as a discerning consumer of information, feel in today’s system whenever the need arises for information, as a back up mechanism for the process of selective decision-making in the face of alternative choices.

Another connected issue is that most of the information generated in public systems is compliance-driven. There are questions to be answered in Parliament or cases to be defended in courts or explanations to be furnished to audit, and so on. That the information collected for the purpose of discharging these obligations often masquerades as a management information system, is an eloquent commentary of its quality. This is not to suggest that the august bodies referred to are being served with poor quality information. It is just that there is a world of difference between the manner of collection, the degree of analysis and the all-important value addition that characterizes a management system and sets it apart from a system that is largely informed by the need to organize an effective defence when called upon to justify its output.

Suffocated by compulsions of short-term accountability, expertise hides behind the skirts of expediency and we have the system spasmodically spewing out a featureless cocktail – a classical example of excellent raw-material and first-rate processing equipment producing a deliberately insipid product.

 

 

Errors of less than half-a-percentage point in assessing whether foodgrains should be imported or not, even as a measure of abundant caution, can be called into question and result in endless inquisition. It will probably be some time before the taking of risks, and not their avoidance, will be recognised as the management function and the information system to support it designed.

Consequently, the system has deteriorated into a perennial state of reactive responses to situations which are otherwise eminently suited to scientific anticipation – events whose onset is predictable through a set of early warning systems that are easy to institute. Clearly the consumption requirements of a managerial origin now need to occupy centre-stage rather than the dictates of an approach driven entirely by considerations of compliance.

 

 

There are many issues which need to be addressed: One is information technology or management? It is typical, of our times and our systems, that everyone is obsessed with information technology but hardly any emphasis is laid on the management of information. There is little effort at establishing a continuous and meaningful dialogue with the external environment. Internalized systems are consequently out of ‘sync’ with signals emerging from events at the cutting edge level. Spatial, temporal and phase differences set in, causing a total lack of compatibility between what is and what it is perceived to be.

a) Just because data is available, it does not follow that its collection will lead to any specific benefit. Similarly, the mere absence of readily available data from familiar sources and at convenient intervals, does not preclude the possibility of rearranging the retrieval mechanism in such a manner, in space and time, as to facilitate acquisition of information that usually lies hidden from the ‘naked eye’ of conventional systems of observation.

b) Mere collection of data, from stereotyped locations and at conventional points of time cannot, in short, help organise a Management Information System (MIS). Working with an MIS is like looking for sea-shells in sand or polishing mined coal to obtain diamonds.

c) Sir Edmond Hillary was on a mission of adventure, which is probably why he could afford to say, ‘Because it is there’, when asked why he climbed Mount Everest. Managers of an information system, not being sportsmen or adventurers, need to have more specific motivation.

d) Unless we address these weaknesses with determination and a sense of urgency, the managerial regimes of our public system will remain forever out of touch with reality, robbed of the ability to organise pro-active and robust reactions, constantly involved in fire-fighting rather than enjoying harmonious and smooth relationship with the progress of initiatives at the grassroots level.

 

 

Calendar orientation: Suppose we want to know how many houses are being constructed in a year and from time to time, the tempo of implementation of the programme with reference to a pre-set schedule.

Clearly the construction of a house divides itself into four fairly simple stages – the foundation, raising the walls to the lintel level, laying the roof and executing the internal finishing touches. It is at these points, in the ‘life-cycles’ of the programme, that reports need to be acquired so that conclusions can be drawn, recording the pace of the task with reference to the programme drawn up initially.

See what happens if, instead, the system prescribes a calendar-interval output like, for instance, a monthly report. If, in a given case, the foundation was, in fact, completed by the fourth of a month, and the report was due on the second of the same month, one would get a report of an incomplete task for a whole month, although it was indeed performed within a couple of days after the previous report was due. Similarly, if the end of the year is defined in a routine manner, as say, 31 March and hypothetically, all houses had the last phase of completion performed on 1 April of the same year, clearly the monitoring system would come up with a report that not a single house had been completed in that year – a feeling does not quite convey the flavour of the actual situation.

Take a statement like, ‘There was normal rainfall during this week in the state of Andhra Pradesh.’ Let us say it is made in the last week of July of a year. Anyone reasonably acquainted with the climatic realities of that region will tell us that if the said rain fell in, say Anantpur district, it would in all likelihood have saved the groundnut crop from perishing from acute moisture stress. If, on the other hand, the same rainfall occurred in Prakasham district, it is highly likely that the standing cotton crop there would have suffered irreparable damage.

 

 

Clearly, therefore, rainfall is not good, but geography makes it so! Even that, because we were given the time of the year. You can just imagine the total loss of value if the same statement were to apply to a whole year! We have also seen that in the absence of knowledge as to the crop that is standing in a given area at a given point of time, the information relating to rainfall has little intrinsic significance.

People entrusted with monitoring the condition and, therefore, the prospects of wheat, rice, cotton, onion or potato crops should be looking at the crop with reference to its own known ‘life-cycle’ (established technologies of crop modelling are available for this purpose) and with reference to the behaviour of the many related parameters such as the availability of seed, fertilizer and credit, the impact, on the health of the crop, of the incidence of pests and diseases, and, of course, the pattern of rainfall and so on. Looking at the rainfall in isolation clearly serves no purpose.

Like when it rained in November 1997. Wheat being an important crop and the heavy and somewhat untimely rains having occurred mostly in the wheat belt, there was a good deal of concern in a central ministry. Was this rain good or bad? At that time there was a plea urging for a one-time-catch-up exercise within the system to come abreast with happenings in the world without, especially in the wake of internal liberalization of the economy and external globalization of markets. There were, as well, the new and unfamiliar obligations arising out of the set of obligations the country is committed to in the World Trade Organization.

The perestroika aficionados suggested the institution of an on-line, real time early warning system to track the prospects of selected crops and the seasonal conditions in general through a managerial approach to information and by outsourcing the requisite expertise and men/material back up. Not many of the mandarins concerned were unduly keen on this exotic modus operandi and the protagonists of change were running out of effective methods of sensitizing those at the top. The rains, literally, were a god send to this group.

 

 

Assessment: The first step, of course, was to expose the weaknesses of the extant dispensation. The bosses were asked to summon the technical advisors and ask for a sitrep. All hell broke loose. The reach-for-the-phone bug went berserk. And the assessments started taking shape. Good. Can’t say. Disastrous. If you showed me the version, I would have pointed you the man touting it. And not even one of the views was based on a knowledge of the life-cycle of the wheat crop or the way it would manifest itself when transposed on to the geo-climatic situation of the region, or the timing of the rain and its intensity!

Nor did any of the opinions offer themselves in value-added presentations, such as, what the implications would be to the crops/seed/credit/plant protection areas or to agencies dealing with fertilizer or food distribution or, for that matter, the farmers! All analysis studiously ignored the rigours of a scientific approach. Every assessment without exception was based entirely on the aggregation of reports collected from spatial units and temporal divisions.

 

 

If all that was wrong with the ‘reports’ was that they were based on hearsay (collected with touching faith from equally uninformed sources committed to an exasperatingly similar approach), it would not have been too bad. The worst part of it was that no one agreed with another, or with themselves at different times!

That was also the year a major wheat state generated absurdly inconsistent forecasts, faithfully reproduced by the central system.

And in January/February of the succeeding year the system was caught unawares by a wholly predictable but totally unexpected demand for fertiliser from farmers who had cultivated wheat in areas normally kept fallow and covered by the November rains. The masters took their gloves off and authorised new initiatives in monitoring.

That the numbers were so infuriatingly erratic was irritating enough. What really got the goat of the masters was that each seemingly indefensible output was mechanically put forth, by the helpless mechanism, without so much as even a remotely plausible technical explanation, leaving one wondering whether there was any professional input at all in the whole process. The simple point was, there was none!

I have little quarrel, either with the actors in the whole episode or with the acrimony one generated by identifying with the reformist school, as, between the two phenomena, the institutions in question, much in the fashion of the legendary lemming, had pressed the self-destruct button.

 

 

Asymmetric information flow: To come back to the point, it is clearly essential that the monitoring system ‘dock’ with what I would call the ‘event horizon’. In other words, one has to be clear about what is to be observed, where, when, and by whom. Any system that generates featureless information flows unrelated to the pattern and quality of the demand is clearly in danger of deteriorating into ‘noise’ or worse still, ‘static’.

And that, unfortunately, is another feature of the extant systems. One often gets the feeling of standing in no man’s land, with deafening silence on the one side and ear splitting noise on the other. Decipherable signals, within decibel levels that correlate with the range within which our senses are receptive, are generally speaking, difficult to come by. Hence the pitiable status of our monitoring systems which, when called upon to aid critical decision-making, provide what best can be described as ‘a synthesis of gut feelings’, not even a ‘ball-park’ number or what astronomers (given the dimension of speculation in their field) would call a ‘guestimate’.

There are many major issues one has to contend with in this regard. The first is the problem of asymmetry. It has been known that the phenomenon of ‘self-addressal’ generates fallacious situations in the realm of logic. A famous example is that of Plato stating, ‘What Aristotle is about to say is false’ and Aristotle’s response, ‘Plato is right’. Both cannot be correct statements!

There is the other well-known example of ‘video feedback’, the phenomenon caused by a video camera (normally meant to capture the image of an object and display it on a monitor) being pointed at the monitor causing the camera to go berserk and generate chaotic output.

Most of our monitoring is undertaken by the agency charged with the implementation of the programme. I rest my case! The stage is set for the generation of the asymmetric information flows.

 

 

Event constitution: The system in place, which is a function of geography and calendar slices is totally unrelated to the rhythm of the lifecycle of events, whether it is a cotton crop or a house under construction. It is a settled precept of management systems that the original building block of the MIS structure should be the event constituting the destination of the initiatives underway. Each individual transaction on every card of a credit card company or the status, at a given point of time, of an aircraft in an airline are good illustrations. No other source of original information either in terms of space or time can aid the MIS in place. Information compiled hierarchically or in aggregates of events completely loses value in terms of assisting a decision support mechanism.

Even the most desi businessman often institutes and manages at least two systems of information-acquisition and analysis – one for discharging his obligations towards the regulatory mechanisms to which he is answerable and other to stay tuned to the dynamics of his operations with a view to maximizing the efficiency of the system.

Hence time has come to invert the syndrome so that the stage is set for the creation of an environment that will help put in place backup mechanism that will enable and undertake imaginative and location specific designs of interventions; generate ‘real time’ and on ‘on line’ ‘observation perspectives’ and in-depth evaluation directly applicable to consumption requirements and likely to lead to re-engineering of the programme architecture; It is not enough even to acquire the ability merely to study the output efficiently. The method should be able to ‘provoke’ the generation of a response from the system to a given stimulus.

 

 

Before we can do all this, however, there are other things to be done. Some of them are:

* To establish a network of observation points in a ‘best-actor’ mode.

* To define clearly what is the desired output – the data, primary or otherwise, that will be the ‘building blocks’, so that instead of sifting through a downpour of noise looking for what is of value to the proposed analysis, we can straightaway work at the desired raw material.

* Prepare the theatre for the task of observation – much as a surgeon would prepare the patient, the operation theatre, and himself, before commencing a procedure.

Or, as all of us do, before watching a programme on TV – switch on the set, tune into the desired channel, adjust the controls, dim the lights, wear our spectacles or sit at the right distance from the picture.

* Frame synchronisation – organisation of ‘sync’, between the rhythm of the ‘life-cycle’ of the event being observed and the spatial, temporal and activity-related signal-acquisition matrix.

* Installation of a cognitive system – that mechanically recognizes and diverts different parts of the incoming traffic into separate ‘lanes’ in accordance with a pre-set logic so that the architecture of the superstructure is undertaken automatically.

* Introduce a value addition function that will, thereafter, perform the task of converting the stored raw data into capsules in a consumable form

* Install a Management By Exception (MBE) regime, to establish a selective access protocol, that will throw up reports only in a ‘by exception’ mode previously defined. The mere fact of receipt of a message will indicate that there is some significant observation to be looked at. This must include a built-in facility that facilitates ‘graded-response’ so that different modes of cognition are associated with the receipt of information pertaining to the occurrence of events of varying significance to the system.

Observation of rare celestial spectacles requires careful preparation and skilful application of the state-of-the-art techniques; mere gazing at the sky expectantly will not quite do the trick. The monitoring of programmes is no different.

 

 

Managing land resources: Let us now turn to the status of the efforts on at managing the country’s land resources and the issues that arise in monitoring this effort. We note, briefly that there have been some noteworthy developments in recent times. The first is the constitution of the Department of Land Resources (DoLR) in the Government of India essentially through strengthening the erstwhile Department of Wasteland Development which, in turn was an offshoot of the original National Wastelands Development Project in the Ministry of Environment and Forests.

All land related programmes concerning drought prone areas and deserts (in addition to the original Integrated Wastelands Development Programme) and land reforms such as institutional issues including ceilings on surplus land, etc., and the updating and the computerization of land records, strengthening of the state revenue administrations have been brought under a single umbrella.

Thanks largely to the unrelenting endeavours of the Soil Conservation Society of India and the strong sentiments expressed by the Mohan Dharia Committee on Wastelands Development, exclusive administrative and political space has for the first time been created in the central government for the all important subject of land.

 

 

We also make another quick note of some interesting aspects of the ambience in which this nascent work-station is taking off. First, ‘land’ is a state subject under Schedule VII of the Constitution of India. But so are agriculture, primary education and irrigation – all areas of public concern and large-scale central interventions supported by massive funding.

What is happening is that a mere 50 years down the road after Independence, it would neither be politically pragmatic nor economically feasible for the allocational priorities of states to be entirely resonant to major concerns of the national developmental agenda. Also, a weakness for populist measures is an understandable drawback of state-level approaches, especially in the multi-party dispensation that is rapidly gaining ground as a major feature of the country’s polity. Therefore, central initiatives in these areas are not only accepted but actually welcomed, if not demanded, by the states.

That ‘wastelands’ mindset continued to influence the interventions of DoLR even after Drought Prone Areas Programme (DPAP) and Desert Development Programme (DDP) were made over to it and all the programmes of DoLR, including the IWDP, adopted the integrated watershed approach as long ago as 1995. In other words, the management of the country’s land resource, as such, was not being perceived as the mandate of DoLR even as recently as a year ago.

 

 

Let us first note the enormity and the complexity of the task of keeping track of what is going on. At the time of writing there were estimated to be as many as 12000 watershed projects under implementation, spread over as many as 400 districts of the 27 states and 5 union territories of the country, and flowing out of the three major programmes of DoLR, namely IWDP, DPAP and DDP.

Monies are usually released to the respective DRDAs, in bulk either for all the projects sanctioned by DoLR (as is the case for IWDP), or for those expected to be sanctioned individually by the DRDA concerned. The releases are made in seven tranches, the first with the sanction, and the second after certain entry-point activities are satisfactorily concluded, such as the identification of the project implementation agency (PIA), constitution of the watershed team, formation of the watershed association and election of the watershed committee etc. The first of the remaining instalments is released after 50% of the funds earlier released have been utilised, and the remaining thereafter, in accordance with a pre-set schedule.

Many activities comprise the actual programme, including the construction of structures such as check dams or percolation tanks, the harvesting and optimum utilisation of water, and the conservation of soil, which are primary objectives, followed by appropriate on or off-farm activities. Quality aspects include the degree and nature of peoples’ participation, arrangements for ensuring sustainable management of the assets created, providing for equity in the access to the benefits of the investments made, and so on.

Given the massive funds flowing into the exercise (around 900 crore in the financial year 2000-2001), the geographical spread of interventions, the number of activities and the fact that the approach is regarded as a most favoured instrument – for addressing poverty and backwardness on the one hand, and concerning increased production and enhanced productivity of marginal lands on the other – monitoring the pace and quality of the projects as well as their impact, is indeed a daunting task.

The arrangements in place for tracking the dynamics of the implementation of the programme, even at the cutting-edge level, viz., the DRDA, are no different from those that have been described earlier as favoured by the usual departmental systems and, therefore, generate little by way of helpful information.

 

 

With the first round of watershed based programmes having completed their life-cycles in the year 2000, great interest was evinced in ascertaining the efficacy of the approach. Measures are called for which might improve the capacity of the institutions to keep abreast of ground-truths.

It was around this time that another major shift in paradigm also manifested itself in the outlook of DoLR, adopting the concept of management, rather than the mere use of the land resources as the focus of attention. Management was defined as a combination of dynamic conservation, sustainable development and ensuring equity in the access to the benefits of public intervention.

An effort began, to capture an image of the entire land mass of the country, attempt a multi-dimensional classification dividing it into A, B, and C categories requiring regionally differentiated approaches that factor in, among others, considerations relating to the varying lead-activities in different agro-ecological zones.

B-2-V Matrix: The first step, of course was to eliminate what needed no monitoring. The western portions of the Rann of Kutch and the Thar desert, and the northern parts of the Himalayan cold-wastes, are also part of the land resources of the country. No specific or immediate treatment of these is, however, within DoLR’s mandate. The other portions of these deserts, however, may need to be looked at, although in a manner different from the rest of the country.

 

 

In the rest of the country and at the other end of the spectrum, there are those areas where one round of development has taken place and second generation issues have surfaced, such as soil fatigue and water-logging. While dealing with those lands the approach will obviously have to be one of addressing issues relating to the sustainability of the cropping patterns and the application of state- of-the-art technologies of soil and water management (the emphasis on conservation of resources being relatively less).

It is, then, in the remaining part of the country (the ‘B’ category) that the classical watershed approach, emphasizing the virtues of natural re-source management through people-centred designs and supported by provision of inputs and arrange availability of back-up mechanisms in the shape of linkages (credit, extension, marketing, etc.), will assume a predominant role.

* The ‘B’ category can again be sub-divided into categories 1, 2 and 3 with reference to the levels of awareness of the user-communities, availability of inputs, existence of backward and forward linkages and the presence of institutional support (panchayati raj institutions, non-government organisations, academic and research bodies, etc.).

* It will be in the ‘B 2’ category that, again, the watershed approach, in the conventional sense, would appear the prime candidate amongst the forms of intervention for addressing the problems of poverty, backwardness, production and productivities with a feel for natural resources management and in a participatory mode.

* Many things can be done in a watershed – some vital and others either essential or only desirable. It will clearly help to choose a vital ‘lead activity’ (call it V) around which the design of the proposed intervention can be woven.

So we have a B-2-V matrix for the watershed approach and the programmes therefrom, while other methods are being identified for action elsewhere. Yes! the theatre is being prepared!

 

 

Other steps being taken to sharpen the edges of the watershed landscape (how else does one obtain a high resolution image?), include initiatives to shift from the normative mode to project formulation, introduce the concept of keeping a project on ‘probation’, use the plural PIA arrangement to combine the best features of NGOs and the line departments of the government, employ remote-sensing techniques to conduct a periodic land census and inventorize the land resources and install a back-ended exit-protocol that will focus on the sustainability and equity aspects of the projects.

Having done all this, the situation is to: Shift to a paradigm of ‘partnership’ with institutions at district/state level substantially enhancing the credibility and competence of agencies used; Use ‘observers’ instead of ‘monitors’.

‘Partnership initiatives’ will be undertaken at different levels of administrative hierarchy that deal with the implementation of programmes so that much like the food grocer that travels in a car in an outer circle as horses gallop in a race parallely creating external export and independent ‘observation’ of events takes place generating the sort of information that can assist the task of management in the true sense.

 

 

It is at this stage that, in a regionally differentiated ‘best-actor’ syndrome, partnerships will be struck, at the district level, with the most promising institution, from out of the existing ones such as line departments of the state governments, non-governmental organisations, farmers associations, research/academic institutions or krishi vigyan kendras, farmer’s training centres, etc. The selected institution will then assist, in the process of the design of the watershed programme as well as in its monitoring, apart from undertaking supervision of the newly evolved ‘exit protocol’.

Similarly, in each state a centre of excellence will be identified from among institutions such as the Indian Institutes of Technology, the Indian Institute of Management, the State Institutes of Rural Development, eminent academic/research institutions such as IRMA and NEERI, whose services will be enlisted to perform a similar role at the state-level, largely to coordinate the efforts of the district-level partners identified in that state.

Simple formats will be designed through which communication will then take place essentially between the district-level partner and the District Rural Development Agency (the hub of all activities connected with the watershed programme). Reports will emerge in a pre-set format and at specified points of time having regard to the rhythm of the life-cycle of the programme, resulting in the acquisition of signals recognised as crucial to effective monitoring.

 

 

In conclusion this paper will have more than served its purpose if it leads to recognition of the criticality of the relationship between the ‘observed’ phenomenon and the ‘observer’.

Without going into intricacies of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity or the snarls that arise when systems turn back upon themselves, we have seen that acts of observation, and, therefore, the discipline of monitoring are, contrary to common belief, substantially subjective tasks.

In other words, it is necessary to ‘prepare’, much as a surgeon prepares himself and his assistants and the equipment as well as the patient, the entire ‘information loop’ or the ‘theatre’ comprising the observer, the observed and the tools employed for the purpose, for the process of observation or monitoring.

After all, one must wear one’s glasses, dim the lights in the room, switch on the TV, tune into the required channel and twiddle with the controls relating to the brightness, colour, contrast etc. before a desired programme can be satisfactorily watched.

Not necessarily if as the only method, but even as the best among the available options, it suggests a different way of staying tuned to the rhythm of events stimulated by external interventions, that real-time and on-line engagement with happenings is possible.

It shows the way to the choice of a ‘decibel level’ somewhere in between the ear-splitting noise and the deafening silence that appear to be the only options offered by the system in place so that the spectre of uncertainty will no longer stalk our decision-making apparatus.

 

* Views expressed in the article are those of the author and do not reflect in any manner the views of the Department in which the author is currently posted or has previously worked with.

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