By Matthew Luchins —
When Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) swept to majority power in 2014, the new prime minister promised immediate and sweeping reforms to curb corruption. Translating those promises to actions has been more difficult than Prime Minister Modi might have expected. While India moved from 85th up to 76th on Transparency International’s latest Corruption Perceptions Index, interventions like the government’s massive Direct Benefit Transfer (DBTL) scheme for liquid petroleum gas subsidies have had limited impact. While the center credited the scheme with saving over $2 billion, independent analyses suggest that the real figure is much smaller, and that substantial implementation costs actually resulted in a net spend.
But early findings from an ongoing state-level initiative suggest that technology can indeed combat widespread, small-scale corruption. This example from Haryana, inadvertently, but decisively showed that erecting small technological barriers to corruption can significantly reduce its occurrence.
Proposed in late 2013, Haryana’s ambitious Quality Improvement Programme (QIP) aimed at transforming curriculum and management practices in an unwieldly organization of “15,000 government schools with 27 lakh [2.7 million] students.” The stated goal was to raise students’ test scores from the bottom half into the top five of India’s states. But QIP’s largest impact has been on an altogether different metric. As of February 17, 2016, the government’s new Management Information System, Parivartan (transformation), shows public school enrollment at just under 2.2 million students.
Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar of Haryana recently attributed the 500,000 fake enrollments to students who collected government scholarships while double-enrolled in superior private schools. This is probably too simplistic; with student information previously scattered across paper files, reporting enrollments was a monumental task, and some miscounting or estimation was inevitable. And, of course, it is likely that public officials took advantage of this uncertainty to report “ghost” students, either to justify their employment or to skim off the additional funds distributed to schools.
Regardless of the cause, the consequences of the over-enrollment are clear. Next year, the state and center will retain between $20-50 million of mandatory disbursements that previously went to feed, clothe, and educate non-existent children.
What is perhaps most interesting about the enrollment decrease is that it was so unexpected. Parivartan was developed to reduce the repeated requests for data that squandered teachers’ time, not to weed out corruption in student enrollment figures. The fact that administrators were not aware of the extent of over-enrollment suggests that low-level corruption is even worse than typically assumed. When stories of corruption make headlines, they tend to involve huge sums and well-known names: in Haryana itself, for instance, a shady $10 million land deal involving the son-in-law of Congress Party leader Sonia Gandhi. But Haryana’s bloated enrollment shows that small, widespread acts of corruption can be just as costly. It also demonstrates that this small-scale fiddling is susceptible to even modest technological barriers.
Parivartan provides a few lessons for bureaucrats and policymakers interested in recreating Haryana’s cost savings. First, perhaps the most important factor leading to Parivartan’s success was that no single person controlled the over-enrollment of students. The dramatic decrease represented the break-up of many small fiefdoms, rather than one large kingdom. Second, enrolling a student on Parivartan requires providing six unique fields of data and a seventh, a bank account number, is necessary to receive entitlements distributed by direct benefit transfer. Inputting this information is a manageable data entry task if the information is provided (or could be asked of a student), but a significant cognitive burden for anyone hoping to create dozens of dissimilar fake accounts. Lastly, the rollout of Parivartan showed that digital recordkeeping must be accompanied and confirmed by physical evidence. As enrollment numbers were reported, random spot checks were conducted to match enrollment with reality and to bring pressure on non-compliers. By the end of the process, the discrepancy between the inspectors’ numbers and the reported enrollment was within a few percentage points, suggesting that over-enrollment was curbed without denying benefits to large swathes of real students.
Despite being arguably a greater success, Parivartan will not receive the headlines dedicated to the costly DBTL. But as a much cheaper, state-level initiative — and one with other productive uses — Parivartan provides a useful model for combating corruption with technology, and a reminder that entrenched corruption still permeates public institutions.
Mr. Matthew Luchins is a Fellow of the International Innovation Corps, a program of the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago.