A certain share of all budgets need to be set aside to evaluate the effectiveness of the scheme, not just in terms of physical milestones, but in achieving the actual goals—the difference between toilets being built and people actually using them, or between schools being built and children learning.
Given the role poor sanitation plays in spreading disease, there can be little doubt that the Swachch Bharat Mission (SBM) was a force multiplier in the fight, apart from what it did to the self-esteem of people who no longer had to go out in the open to relieve themselves. Even so, the government’s data on districts and states that had become 100% open-defecation-free looked too good to be true. The latest National Family Health and Demographic Survey (NFHS) gives us data to show there is still a long way to go with nearly half the population without access to improved sanitation facilities in some states; indeed, Kerala and Lakshadweep are the only two states that are even close to the SBM target. None of this is to take away from the success of the mission, but getting an accurate picture of the ground reality helps policymakers to tweak the programme to ensure better delivery; it also reminds us that achieving physical goals is not the same thing as the scheme working, though it has to be acknowledged that achieving physical goals is no mean task either.
Indeed, in the case of education, while most governments tend to focus on the number of schools built or the number of children enrolled, it wasn’t till the Aser annual surveys that it became clear that schooling and learning were very different. And, it was a survey by Janaagraha on India’s underperformance in collecting property taxes that prompted the chief economic advisor to include a chapter on property tax collection in Economic Survey 2017-18. The Janaagraha study using satellite-imagery data had shown that cities like Bengaluru and Jaipur collect only 5-15% of the total property taxes. And, while many in the government—and outside of it—had been talking of how the leakages from the PDS had reduced some years ago, it was NSS data on the usage of PDS that busted the myth. More recently, in the context of the Punjab farmer agitation, it was survey data that pointed out that under six percent of farmers benefitted from MSP-based procurement.
All of which underscores the importance of having independent surveys—including those by the private sector—to cross-check the claims of line ministries/departments that are running various schemes/programmes. Indeed, a certain share of all budgets need to be set aside to evaluate the effectiveness of the scheme, not just in terms of physical milestones, but in achieving the actual goals—the difference between toilets being built and people actually using them, or between schools being built and children learning.