April 22, 2014

2014 : An Agenda for India

The month of May will ring out the old government and ring in the new. Irrespective of which party wins and who gets the right to address the nation from the ramparts of the Red Fort in August, what we need is a vision, a roadmap, a set tasks and milestones that will help chart the way to peace and prosperity of this nation. This post will define the contours of such an agenda by identifying three major areas and will then propose solutions based on available and cost-effective technology. There are many areas where India lags behind the rest of the world, for example gay rights, environmental hazards and so on, but here we will focus on some three key areas that, if addressed adequately, can lead to automatic improvement in all other areas.

Seal from Harappa 

First is education -- a nation consisting of people who can read, write and are aware of their surroundings can solve many of its problems on its own. Which is why our political classes, despite the much hyped RTE, has kept our children ignorant. Second is corruption -- because each and every step that we take gets bogged down by the rampant theft of money. Finally we need speed in our governance. Government processes must be made to move faster so that actions can move from contemplation to completion. Education, Corruption and Speed - that should be the new mantra.

Education :


The highest priority is primary education. There are 680 districts in India and we must set up 3 new schools in every district within the next 5 years. 2000 schools at Rs 25 crores each (estimated cost, actual will be less) means Rs 50,000 crores or Rs 10,000 crores per year. This is not a big sum of money -- the CWG cost us US$ 4.6 billion = US$ 4600 crores = Rs 2,76,000 or 5 times as much  for just a 12 day 'festival' -- but even this can be raised very easily through tax free bonds. However we need an ace engineer like "Metro Man" E Sreedharan to build an organisation ( for example, see  my post Shikshajaal)  to ensure that the project delivers 2000 schools in 5 years without delay and cost overruns. As a collateral, this will generate employment for teachers.

College education need to be freed from the tender mercies of pointless bureaucracies and corrupt license-sellers like the AICTE and UGC, who, in collusion with crony capitalists, have ensured that private entrepreneurs cannot deliver quality educational services to the population. Instead we must model the education sector on the corporate sector : strip the the AICTE / UGC of its role of accrediting colleges and convert them into the equivalent of a Registrar of Companies that enforce regular audit and mandatory disclosure. Based on this information, let the market, that is students and their parents, decide which college delivers value for money and they will flock there as in the case of the stock market or any service like banking.

Finally, existing government colleges can be linked in with digital technology and be converted into platforms for online education and distance learning. This will lead to better usage of scarce resources, like good teachers, and carry higher education to the distant corners of the country where it may be difficult to attract good teachers.

Corruption


Corruption is endemic to the government if not a pandemic across the nation itself. Years of cussed cynicism has made us, as a nation, willing participants in or helplessly indifferent to rampant theft of public money, goods and services. We have the Police, the CBI, the CAG, the Vigilance Commission and what not and yet each of these agencies are staffed by people like us and hence there is no guarantee of honesty. The medicine itself is fake and poisonous.  The Lokpal ( or JokePal ) will be no different. Instead, what we need is an utter, torrid, brutal and automatic transparency that is built into each and every financial transaction that involves government money.

First why wait for an RTI process. Why is it that the audited accounts of each and every organisation that deals with the disbursement of public money is not mandatorily placed in the public domain ( in XBRL format, on the internet ) so that anyone, including automated BOTS, can scan through the mountain of data and discover questionable deals. Taking this one step further, we can even bypass the formal audit part and mandate that any transaction that involves the transfer of money between public and private entities must ( after anonymising for privacy ) be made public on the web. As explained in an earlier post, such a task is far simpler that either the ill-fated UIDAI project or the reasonably successful Golden Quadrilateral project and can be executed with the minimum of fuss and effort. Using "big data" and other data analytics techniques, this huge mass of data can be analysed to show how every rupee of public money is moving through the system and then anyone -- not just the CBI, CAG, Vigilance -- can keep track of the money and detect and prevent theft and leakage.

Speed 


Our government agencies move with inexcusable slowness and nothing ever gets done on time. The core issue is of course antiquated business processes that are mostly manual and error prone. Any business process re-engineering consultant will be able to improve the efficiency of virtually any government process through some Extreme Konsulting but the process will take too long before we can see any results. Instead, let us begin with a quick-and-dirty solution : Let us abolish holidays in all government offices ! No, I am not suggesting that government employees work round the clock -- the employees will get all their leave but government offices will be open 365 days a year on two shifts from 6:00AM till 2:00PM and from 2:00 PM to 10:00 PM as is the case in any manufacturing or BPO sector or even in the railways !

Working extra shifts will not need extra people -- our sarkari offices are in any case over staffed and bloated with all kinds of people who sit and do virtually nothing throughout the day. Since they cannot be sacked, laid off or retrenched, let us make them work extra hours to clear papers as I have explained in my post Who needs holidays ?

The first area of government where this should be tried out is the courts, where we all know that there is a huge backlog of cases which will, in the normal course of events, take hundreds of years to clear. A quick look at our judicial system would show that most court infrastructure -- especially the lower and district level courts -- are grossly underutilized and a two shift approach can easily double the throughput. We could make things move along even faster by introducing clever business processes that limit the time to each litigant and make sure that there is no corruption in the fixing of dates so that the time it takes to resolve a litigation can be significantly reduced. What is possible with courts can then be extended to all other departments of the government.



We in India, as the proud descendants of the Sindhu Saraswati civilisation that was first discovered at Harappa and Mohenjodaro and which flourished on the banks of the now lost Saraswati river, have the duty and responsibility to ensure that this nation regains the capability to lead the world again in thought and deed. To do so we need education, we need to stamp out corruption and we need to make the government move faster. That is the agenda for India in 2014.

April 06, 2014

Time as a factor in Indian Jurisprudence

image borrowed from
http://integral-options.blogspot.com
The Indian judiciary in general and the judges of the Supreme Court in particular have been in the news for taking some spectacular action in certain high profile cases like Sahara / Subrata Roy, Srinivasan / IPL, 2G / CWG scams and now of late, after the Nirbhaya episode, in rape cases. However, for the vast majority of Indian citizens, the Ram, Shyam, Jadu, Madhu who sit outside numerous high courts and district courts sipping tea and waiting for their cases to be heard and disposed of, the great terror is delay ! In India, litigation never ends -- it goes on and on and on until litigants die or use money and muscle power to settle out of courts. The complex series of adjournments, non-availability of dates and legal skulduggery ensures that cases never end and the Indian judicial system must be the poster boy for the maxim that justice delayed is justice denied.

All this is well known, what is not known is what can we do about this. In earlier posts I have tried to articulate some ideas so let me recapitulate the same and then propose something new.

1. First and foremost, we need more judges and magistrates at all levels. Like all government agencies in India the judicial system is also overstaffed but it is overstaffed with the useless clerks, peons and other support staff, not actual judges. Given the large number of qualified lawyers floating around our courts, appointing new judges would be easy -- what is impossible is to find rooms where they will hold court. This is where I suggest, as I have done in my post Sweating Assets to Expedite Justice, that we operate the judicial system in three-shifts, in a 24 x 7 mode. This will double if not triple the throughput of judicial services in the country and be the first step.

2. While lawyers and some litigants have a vested interest in delaying cases, it should be the judge or the magistrate who should have, and own, the responsibility of expediting the delivery of judicial services. We in the corporate sector are used to the concept of Key Performance Indicators that are decided on by management and which have to be met by executives before they are promoted or otherwise incentivised. Such KPI's are of course alien to government employees like the judiciary but it is high time that such ideas should be implemented. In my earlier post on Measuring & Monitoring Judicial Efficiency, I have proposed a set of 4 simple metrics through which a judge can be measured on both (a) the speed and (b) quality of his work. These metrics may be debated, discussed and refined but we must accept the inevitability of measuring and monitoring judicial efficiency. This must be tied to appropriate rewards.

3. Third is the concept of time -- something that does not seem to exist in the minds of a judge in India. The simple assumption is a case must take as long a time as is required to dispose of and there is no upper limit on anything. This is perhaps the most dangerous concept so let me explain this greater detail.

In principle a litigant's lawyers can go on talking for hours, seek an endless number of adjournments and in general delay things quite a bit. We understand  that judges of late have woken up to this dilatory practices and have tried to curtail this by disallowing adjournments but the effect of all this is perhaps visible in the Supreme Court and some High Court cases but not so in the lower courts where the vast bulk of litigants and their cases are stuck.

In fact, the delays and the resultant disappointments are not simply because of adjournments -- there are other, more nefarious factors playing here. Consider the following :

  • When a case is adjourned or deferred, a next "date" is fixed. This is the first level of corruption. You need to pay a bribe to the clerk to get the next date within a reasonable amount of time..
  • But even if you get a "date", there is no guarantee that your case will be heard. Someone else will also pay money, perhaps more money, to have his or her case scheduled on the same date ahead of  you and the judge is generally under no obligation to hear your case just because you have been given a date. Without contempt, let me state that many, if not most judges in India have an arrogance dating back to feudal times, and it is beneath their dignity to treat litigants as customers of judicial services. So if they feel like it they, simply stop hearing cases on a particular date and walk out, unmindful of the hardship that they are imposing on the litigant waiting patiently in the courtroom.
  • And what is worst is if the litigant's case is not heard on the scheduled date, it is not that it is heard the next day -- it is postponed to another future date which has to be obtained again,  by paying more bribes. This is the what really kills the litigant.
So what we need is at transparent scheduling and time management mechanism in the judicial system. Let us see  how we can go around designing such a system.
  • First like chess players, we need to allocate a fixed amount of time to each litigant to have his case argued. The bench and the bar can sit down and decide upon the quantum of time to be allocated for different kinds of cases -- say civil, criminal, tenancy, income tax, and at different levels like district, High and Supreme courts. Once the time is fixed, there must be clock, just as in a chess game, that will measure the amount of time spent by a litigant and this will form a part of the court records. And like Twitter that simply would not allow a single character after 140, the judge must not allow a single minute more to be spoken or otherwise allotted to a litigant.
  • The entire block of time need not be consumed in one day. It may be spread across three or four days but the cumulative figure must be tracked and adhered to. Obviously this calls for creating a computer system to keep track of the cases being heard and the amount of time consumed in each. This is hardly a challenge for any software developer who are used to tracking hundreds and thousand of items in a retail store or thousands of airplane flights taking off and landing in airports around the world. Such a software can be built easily. What we need is the management ( or judicial ) will to implement it. This calls for education, change-management and finally good big stick to beat people who fail to fall in line.
  • What is important however is the scheduling of cases. When a case is adjourned, there must be an automatic system that will schedule the next hearing based on (a) the number of cases pending before the same judge and (b) the duration of time left for the case. Algorithms to create such schedules are easy to make and there can be a manual override to handle situations where the litigant, the lawyer or the judge has a problem or a schedule conflict.
  • The schedule that shows the cases listed and the time allocated to each case must be a public document that is freely accessible on the web. Schedules can slip because of exigencies and circumstances but the slippage must be reflected immediately on the public website along with all cascaded changes. So if the case for A cannot be heard on day D, then it must be heard on day D+1, not on some indefinite day D+n. If this means that the case for B scheduled for day D+1, cannot be heard then it should slide to day D+2 and not some distant date D+m. Since the modified schedule is in the public domain, B should keep track of his case and note that this case has been postponed from D+1 to D+2 and plan accordingly. If D+2 is a problem for B then he should be allowed seek a change and the scheduling software will create a new schedule not only for B but all others down the line.
  • Since the schedules and their change are always in the public domain, it will always be possible to have audit trails that will allow the senior management ( or the higher judiciary ) to make sure that all schedule changes are on the basis of genuine requirements and any aberration can be quickly spotted. Also litigants will have a clear visibility on the days their case will be heard and will be spared the immense harassment of going to the court and waiting and hoping for their case to be heard.
The technology to make all this happen is easy to design and build. Moreover this concept can be introduced with far less disruption than either (a) three shift courts and (b) metrics for judges because judicial staff will have no reason not to agree with this change. However this transparency will have a severe and crippling impact on the lower judicial staff from making a lot of money and hence it may be opposed tooth and nail. But if the higher judiciary can make this happen, then litigants in India will be forever grateful to their Lordships.

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