Dispersing the administration of various central government departments across the country will boost the regional economy and strengthen India’s federal democracy.
S Mervin Alexander
Delhi’s ranking as the 118th most liveable global city and continuing to top the list of most-polluted cities, in spite of heavy investment in infrastructure and public transport, is a matter of concern for all Indians.
Besides being the capital of the second-most populous country in the world, its strategic location in the ‘Ganga-Yamuna Doab’ region surrounded by predominantly agrarian and populous states with a well-connected and economical rail network has made migration for education, employment, and entertainment an attractive option.
With tier-II towns in larger states such as Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Haryana developing with quality educational and healthcare facilities coming up providing an attractive option over the huge real estate costs of Delhi, migration is bound to come down.
However, Delhi will continue to be a congested and polluted city owing to it being the location of various national institutions in a Centre- focused federal structure like ours. Given this, one of the solution seems to be moving a bulk of the central ministries and departments away from Delhi to non-metro locations, preferably tier-II towns across India.
The above proposal is similar to such experiments being tried out in many countries such as Norway, Finland, Denmark, Mexico, etc.. Even in our neighbourhood, Malaysia has moved its bureaucrats to Putrajaya and Indonesia is mulling a similar move out of Jakarta. Moving civil servants for a better life has been attempted in post-war England and the Netherlands.
The April edition of The Economist discusses this issue. It lists out the benefits of the move: such as dispersing the risk of terrorist attack(s) or natural calamity that could cripple the nation, new ideas in governance that may emerge in smaller places which in walled-up capitals may not happen. It even thinks that “unloved bureaucrats in smaller towns will become as popular as fire fighters once they mix with the locals”.
Nations consider dispersing government functions from a single place essentially with three specific aims: One, to improve the lives of civil servants; two, as an economically-prudent measure, and; three, to redress regional imbalances. In the Indian context, bringing down Delhi’s frightening levels of pollution and moving away (at least some parts of the government machinery) from our hostile western neighbour could be additional objectives.
Usually governments do not do this fearing attrition. This is unlikely to be a problem in India because a government job is much sort after. Another factor that weighs in in favour of dispersing is that real estate costs are lesser in smaller towns than in the national capital region.
Countries such as Norway treat federal jobs as a resource every region deserves to enjoy. It is but natural that wherever government jobs are created, private jobs (both direct and indirect) are bound to come up. Without doubt, such relocations will help fulfil the aspirations one comes across in tier-II and III cities across India.
This dispersal can also be with sound reasoning and better logic. For example, since Punjab and Haryana have played a salient role in India’s agricultural progress, it makes sense for the Union Ministry of Agriculture and the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) to shift to Hissar, Karnal or Ludhiana. In addition to giving policy makers a closer first hand access to ground realities, it will help in developing a better eco-system focusing on agriculture. Atlanta in the United States became a healthcare hub after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) was established there.
Similarly, the Ministry of Development of North Eastern Region could relocate to Guwahati and Shillong, the Ministry of Railways to Nagpur (as it is at the geographic centre of the country), the Ministry of Mines to Ranchi or Dhanbad, and, the Ministry of Culture to Bhopal.
This decentralisation of administration could be applied to states as well. In UP, the Department of Industries and other ancillary wings could be relocated to Kanpur, the Department of Tourism could be headquartered at Varanasi or Agra. In Tamil Nadu, the agricultural department could either move to it’s the agricultural hub of Thanjavur or to Coimbatore where the reputed agricultural university is located. The state tourism department would shine in the historical city of Madurai or even in Kanniyakumari.
Now, how do we implement this idea if found acceptable with the policy makers?
The biggest opponents of such a move will be the bureaucrats themselves. With a lot of interests intertwined in the capital, it will not be easy to convince them. Employees’ unions are also unlikely to welcome such a move. Another essential requirement for such a major decision is a strong political leadership is at the helm.
A technical objection that could be raised is that such a dispersal would make it difficult to convene inter-ministerial meetings where senior bureaucrats would have to be present at short notice. However, the growth in technological advancements over the decade, especially in the sphere of communications, has made working across multiple geographical locations a seamless experience.
States are sure to welcome the relocation of ministries/departments as it would lead to job creation and boosting the local economy. It’s important that this dispersal is done in an equitable manner with every state on board.
It is worth mentioning here that at present the headquarters of two central government departments are located outside Delhi: the Department of Atomic Energy in Mumbai, and the Department of Space and ISRO in Bengaluru—and over the decades both departments have done India proud.S Mervin Alexander is Joint Secretary, Department of Atomic Energy, Government of India. Views are personal.Get access to India's fastest growing financial subscriptions service Moneycontrol Pro for as little as Rs 599 for first year. Use the code "GETPRO". Moneycontrol Pro offers you all the information you need for wealth creation including actionable investment ideas, independent research and insights & analysis For more information, check out the Moneycontrol website or mobile app.