Book Review – Through The Looking Glass: An Outsider-Insider’s Perspective on The Making of India by Akhilesh Tilotia

The author’s detailing of ‘private cost of public failure’ shows the fault lines of the public service delivery system in India (Express photo)

By Amitabha Bhattacharya

It is common knowledge, reinforced by our daily experiences, that even the best of governments are characterised by systemic limitations that render them inadequate to satisfy growing public expectations. Is it primarily owing to government’s preoccupation with balancing the conflicting needs of various stakeholders or to the inclination of those running the machinery to remain risk-averse and beholden to processes rather than to outcomes? What makes policy formulation at higher echelons and its implementation at the operating level so complex a process that, even with the loftiest intention and the brightest minds working for it, the results often end up as sub-optimal? To be able to pierce through the surface of reality and approximate towards deeper truth, one has to be endowed with empathy and a combination of knowledge and skill that is beyond the reach of many.

Akhilesh Tilotia, a product of IIM-Ahmedabad with an impressive record in the financial world, had the occasion to serve in the office of Jayant Sinha, minister of civil aviation. This dual experience in the private and the government sector made him an ‘outsider-insider’, having been both an observer of and a participant in the decision-making process. Interestingly, he displays the skill of a social scientist to problematise issues, and of a practicing manager to identify the key action points in order to resolve those issues. The result is this slim volume that packs within its covers an admirable range of information and fresh, sometime even original, insights.

Tilotia’s detailing of “private cost of public failure” shows the fault lines of the public service delivery system and the causes thereof, in the context of complex engagement between government, business and society. Defining features of these “three pillars” and their interfaces have been ably articulated, establishing ‘how’ to go about solving problems within the system is as important as ‘what’ requires to be achieved.

Tilotia ideates that the ladder of progress “builds upon the framework of public goods: Personal capital for basic needs (roti, kapda, makaan), Physical capital (bijli, sadak, paani) and Human capital (shiksha, swasthya, suraksha)” and defines development “as the act of building the probabilities of gaining access to public goods by transcending the existing fault lines.” And he explains his thesis with the help of clear examples.

Who should create this ladder of development and be the agents to usher in the changes in the desired directions? The politician, the bureaucrat, and you! Tilotia devotes a chapter to each of these three agents — starting with the first principles and then investing them with layers of complexity. He attempts to be simple, “but not simpler” or simplistic. The difficult life of a well-meaning politician — “many things are out of your control, but you are the face of all expectations. You will be surrounded with fake news, over-interpretation, outrage, and political uncertainty…” — has been portrayed with an objectivity, rarely visible in public space that seeks to paint all politicians with a crude brush.

Attempting to skilfully decode the guiding norms of the bureaucracy, Tilotia expands on how “Process compliance matters more than outcome!” A large part of that derives from the fact that eventually a bureaucrat gets judged on process compliance. “Outcomes are impacted by many factors, difficult to attribute…” The life of a civil servant, as a public-system manager with multiple goals to achieve during uncertain tenures, can be very rewarding, but is never shorn of frustrations or disappointments. How the oversight of the 4Cs — CVC, CBI, CAG, and the courts —requiring stringent focus on the process, and rules framed with good intentions can collectively ‘create filters’ that can vitiate or even obviate outcomes, have been discussed with remarkable clarity.

Finally, Tilotia shows why a conscientious citizen has to ‘check-in’ and work through the system to effect change —”checking-in is not just about paying taxes or voting regularly. It is about engaging in public discussion and debate and doing your bit to shape the destiny of the nation. You can pick projects you like or help shape policies that impact you…” How should one decide, for example, to move from the private sector to the government? An instructive read for the common man as also for those contemplating to be inducted through lateral entry into senior positions of the government.

Tilotia observes, in the context of the inviolate principle of equality, that the government should either become a ‘credible competitor’ or an ‘effective regulator’ in offering public goods, and that the “focus has to shift to outcomes supported by rules, policies and procedures, and not simply following rules, policies and procedures. This is a fundamental redesign of the system from the current one, where there is intense oversight on process and limited penalty for lack of delivery…” This prescription may sound as obvious like all truisms of life are, but what do not appear obvious are the intricate, often counter-intuitive, interplays between systems and procedures, institutions and individuals, woven densely through this work of love. There lies the real strength, and perhaps uniqueness, of the book.

Amitabha Bhattacharya is a former IAS officer who has also worked in the private sector and with the UNDP

Through The Looking Glass: An Outsider-Insider’s Perspective on The Making of India
Akhilesh Tilotia
Leadstart India
Pp 228, Rs 299

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