Forget the outlays, give us outcomes

Sushant SinghMy mum’s so pessimistic, that if there was an Olympics for pessimism she wouldn’t fancy her chances.” The tenth-best joke at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival best captures the sentiment of the country in the year gone by. Can 2013 be better? Each one of us has a long list of things that can be done to fix the country: from publicly hanging the rapists to getting a new constitution.

My wish on this first day of the new year is far humbler — neither as camera friendly as a public hanging nor as studio discussion friendly as a new constitution. The suggestion is simple: can we start focusing on outcomes instead of outlays please?

In 2005, the UPA government had made bold pronouncements in the union budget about linking outlays to outcomes. The then finance minister, P Chidambaram had even sought outcome budgets from various ministries and departments. The second term of the UPA government is about to end and like its most other promises, this one has also not translated into anything substantive so far.

P Chidambaram
Broken promises: In 2005, the UPA government had spoken of linking outlays to outcomes. P Chidambaram had even sought outcome budgets from various ministries and departments.

Some ministries and departments have prepared the so-called outcome budgets and presented them to the parliament. But they have been perfunctory. They convey so little that we do not find them being discussed anywhere. In any case, it is not the official outcome budgets that we should be looking at. Our focus should be on simpler global metrics. And many such metrics are available today. Even though they are not perfect, these metrics influence global perceptions and provide for tangible international benchmarking.

Where do we stand now? India is 132 out of 185 countries in World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Report; 134 out of 187 in UNDP’s Human Development Index; 78 out of 97 in Civil Justice in the World Justice Project; 65 out of 79 in IFPRI’s Global Hunger Index; 94 out of 141 in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index; 101 out of 142 in Legatum Institute’s Prosperity Index; 131 out of 179 in Freedom of the Press Index; and 125 out of 132 in Yale University’s Environmental Performance Index.

Now contrast these outcomes with outlays. Let us look at health where Indian government claims to spend 4.1% of its GDP on health (in comparison, the defence budget is 2% of the GDP). India is ranked 112 out of 190 in WHO’s Healthcare Index and its performance is below its regional average for South and South-East Asia in all the indicators. This is not to say that India has not made any progress in health since independence — infant mortality rates have declined and polio eradicated — but the quantum of expenditure gives you little idea about the ground India needs to traverse to reach even the regional average.

Education is even more contrastive. Our public expenditure on education is 3.1% of the GDP. India claims to have enrolled 95% of all children in the elementary school going age into school. Our literacy rate in 2011 was 74.04%. We now even have a Right to Education. But none of our universities is rated among the Top 200 in the world in the QS World University Ranking. The average period of schooling for adults is still only 4.4 years.

Most worryingly, the quality of that education remains questionable. India ranked second last among the 73 countries that participated in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), conducted annually to evaluate education systems worldwide. Comparing PISA scores, an Indian eighth grader is at the level of a South Korean third grader in math abilities or a second-year student from Shanghai when it comes to reading skills. We might skip further PISA tests to avoid embarrassment but Pratham’s ASER reports show similar results. We are mandating everything from the size of playground to teachers’ salaries but have no accountability on outcomes. Even if outlays are translating into infrastructure, they are not generating desired outcomes.

We don’t need to hear how much the government is spending in a particular sector. We want to know how much have we achieved and where we stand globally in that sector. Imagine a political party’s manifesto for 2014 Lok Sabha elections promising to bring India’s Ease of Doing Business ranking from 132 to 100 in two years, and to 60 in five years. Or India best in the region in healthcare rankings in three years. Wouldn’t that be great? It might even prompt our middle-class to go out and quickly get a voter identity card.

Sushant K Singh is a Fellow for National Security at the Takshashila Institution and editor of Pragati-The Indian National Interest Review 

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