The IIC–EPIC team spoke to Principal Secretary Khullar about policy-making in the Indian government. We are thankful for his time. Here are key insights from the conversation.
The IIC–EPIC team works closely with Mr. Mukesh Khullar, Principal Secretary, Department of Energy, Government of Maharashtra. In his 31-year career, Mr. Khullar has held several key positions in government, including that of the Mission Director, National Food Security Mission, New Delhi; Joint Secretary, Department of Agriculture, Government of India; and Secretary to the Government of Maharashtra covering diverse fields such as e-governance, Agriculture and Energy.
Innovative Approach to Policy Implementation
In 1999, hot on the heels of the information technology revolution in India, as the Collector of the Thane district, Mr. Khullar initiated steps for laying the foundation for e-governance. He conceptualized and established a friendly front-end single point interaction between the citizens and the government through a Citizen Facilitation Centre, also called Setu (bridge).
The Setu initiative recognized that citizens required timely and professional services, and that at the time, unauthorised intermediaries filled that need by navigating through complex government procedures and regulations for the citizens, often by bribing officials. Setu aimed to provide convenient time-bound quality services in a digitized form to citizens at a nominal facilitation fee. The facility relied on standardized procedures, employed local housewives, streamlined internal government processes for efficient time utilization, remained open on weekends and was managed by an employees’ union. The revenue generated sustained the system as well as contributed to an employees’ union fund, which officials could have access to for medical emergencies, personal loans, scholarships, et cetera.
Therefore, the initiative was able to address the problem of unauthorized intermediaries liaising between uninformed citizens and corrupt government servants.
Interestingly, Mr. Khullar reveals that the Setu project was in part inspired by the time efficient and systematic service provided by a few multinational food chains opening up in India post liberalization. The initiative came to be awarded at the state and national levels, and was rolled out across Maharashtra after its initial success. The initiative also achieved the larger goal of demystifying technology and humanizing bureaucracy.
Incremental Development vs. Leapfrog Approaches
Mr. Khullar opines that the key to successful policy implementation is creating local ownership. Self-sustaining slow, incremental changes are the most assured path to progress. He noted how individuals often look at situations and policies in the United States or Western Europe, and have aspirations of seeing similarly advanced technologies and policies quickly implemented in India. Instead, he stressed the need for gradual value changes in society in which some individuals lead by example, while noting that such shifts generally take time.
Bringing together stakeholders to design policy
Mr. Khullar described how stakeholder management was the core of day-to-day policy-making. As a policy craftsman, he is required to devise ways to achieve seemingly unattainable milestones within short time frames. This requires an IAS officer to cut across silos that divide the experts, politicians, and beneficiaries in the field.
In his tenure at the National Food Security Mission, the challenge was to increase food grain production to self-sufficiency and surplus levels using lab accredited yield methods, even though scientists did not always take into account factors responsible for poor yield on the ground. He was able to address the problems of policy design by bringing researchers out to the field and through simple and inexpensive incentives for research that provided field-tested and effective results.
The result was an unprecedented increase in food grain production, as well as a repository of useful research highlighting best practices and indigenous sustainable solutions.
Indian Civil Services & Engaging Experts
Mr. Khullar spoke extensively about the unique opportunity the civil service has afforded him to work in diverse sectors and regional demographics. As an IAS officer, he has served at the district, state, and central levels. This wide-ranging regional experience informs the inputs of IAS officers in the central government policies. Even though there are the obvious challenges of working across cultural and language barriers with no field expertise, Mr. Khullar through his own experiences serves as an example of the sustainable impact that an aware policy-maker can bring.
Interview conducted by Kelsey Reid and Swati Narnaulia.