‘We believe in transparency for citizens…and zero tolerance for corruption’

We feature an exhaustive interview with the renowned Dr Jitendra Singh, a diabetes specialist of international repute, who has been with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Council of Ministers. He is the Minister of State (Independent Charge), in the Ministry of Development of North Eastern Region, besides Minister of State in the Prime Minister’s Office, Minister of State of Personnel Public Grievances & Pensions, Atomic Energy and Space.

Excerpts from the interview:

A lot of innovative changes have been made in the selection process in the recruitment that happens in the government. What are the key changes that have been implemented?
The single most important decision which is directly the result of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s intervention (and it wouldn’t have happened otherwise), is the decision to abolish the interviews for lower posts.

It is simply the conviction of the prime minister which made it possible. Why I am saying it wouldn’t have happened otherwise is because no elected government takes decisions like this because they find their own mediums to accommodate their own followers.
Here we were going in for absolute transparency and objectivity; so much so even for those posts which require special skills in the government, for example cooks and gardeners, the skill test was made qualifying.
For example, if you want to equip a cook then you will take his cooking test. If he passes, then good enough. We will not give him marks, because if we did so then a politician, leader or officer would allot 100 marks to his domestic servant and get him enrolled in the government.

Within a few months of the government taking over (on May 26 2014), there was a decision taken which should have been taken 70 years ago, relating to the practice of attesting certificates.
This was the legacy of the British empire. Young boys and girls had to run here and there to get their certificates attested. By starting this, the government could send out the message saying that it trusts the youth.
Besides this, at the same time, on one hand these new regulations were brought in for a fair opportunity to the youth with an equal level play; at the same time we also made sure that the officers and the employees were made comfortable in the job they were engaged in.
For example, the LTC terms were relaxed, GP Funds system was relaxed, and also the transfer policy – especially for those who have children which are specially-abled. At the same time there was a continuous pressure to check corruption.
The government follows transparency for citizens and intolerance or zero tolerance to corruption.

A remarkable point was made by the prime minister when he said that most governments take credit in bringing new laws, but this will be the government which will take credit for abolishing those obsolete laws. So far at least 1,500 such rules have been done away with.

Grievance addressal applications at the PMO have seen a seven-fold increase in recent times and the expectations are also high. The clearances have become faster. How do you think this has been achieved?
In the past set up of the government the grievance cell was never taken seriously, neither in the central government or in the state governments. Some of the state governments still don’t take it seriously.
In the last three years, applications have increased 4 or 5 times. For example, when we came in 2014, the number of complaints received was less than 200,000 per year. Suddenly it jumped to 300,000 or 400,000 and now we have around 700,000 or 800,000 complaints every year.
One of the media friends asked me if it is because people have started complaining against the Modi government? I said it is the other way round. We are responsive, and because of that people are encouraged to lodge complaints.

If there is no response people get discouraged and stop lodging complains. We are not only responding to complaints within the time line, we started a unique practice of calling out on telephone to the complainers at random just to check their level of satisfaction.

Some people at the beginning found it unbelievable and thought it was a farce that there was someone calling from the government.
We have formed a timeline. Every week we are calculating and every time our grievances redressal is almost 100%. In any given week, it is not less than 85 or 90%. Very often it is more than 90%.
Under the prime minister things are so innovative, sometimes I think that the country should be made aware to make use of these new provisions and the threshold level must be brought up.
For example, in the case of grievance, when I say I am addressing every grievance within a week, some young people on social media will say, ‘No sir, this is not true, my grievance has not been addressed in 6 months.’ I’ll tell you why, because we must make the masses distinguish between a grievance and an aspiration.

For instance: I lodge a grievance that I should be somewhere where say Mr X is; I am more learned, I am more capable, I have more journalist experience, and have been wrongly placed, put me in place of him. Now what I would do is that I would send that letter to the proprietor or the head of the department where one is working and make sure I get the reply in one week.
Mostly they would reply that, no we have appointed Mr X only after he has satisfied all the criteria of the position. When I send it back, the person who has lodged the complaint is not satisfied.
Grievance address does not always mean addressing someone’s aspiration or a subjective desire. My job is to act like a facilitator so that you get the response within the timeline.

The North East appears much closer to Delhi now than before, since in the past, the treatment it got was seen as step-motherly. How has this been achieved?

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For several decades the North East suffered from neglect, both in terms of development and in the terms of the personal or individual attention that could have been given.
I’m giving you a small example. In the first reshuffle, in November, when the Prime Minister assigned me the North East, I went to Shillong where people from all over came to see me because they had never seen a minister in the last 10 years.
This was the plight of the North East party headquarters. The last meeting of the council of the North East in Shillong had been attended 40 years ago by the then Prime Minister Morarji Desai.
We put in this request to the Prime Minister and immediately he gave us the dates. He spent two days; many people may have not noticed that significantly those two days were the second anniversary of the Modi Government.
This year he spent the three years of completion in Guwahati. He has travelled to the region almost 10 times. He also said that every fortnight we should have at least 8 ministers travelling, so that every state would get a feel of what is happening around them.
At my level, I hit upon an idea that since this is the only region-based ministry in the government, why not have some arrangements to make them reach out to the doorstep. So we started a practice of having a rotational camp secretariat in each of the different states.
For example, if this month it is in Mizoram, next month it will be in Manipur and subsequently it will be on rotation. Every month for 4/5 days our officers of the North-East ministry will camp there and have the opportunity to get direct information of the work happening. It sends a message that for your redressal of your grievances one need not come to Delhi, we can also come to your doorstep.
We are now going beyond our mandate. Before it was only to look after the development work, but now we are there otherwise also. Example: I visit Manipur around 3 or 4 times in a month. Once there was an earthquake, followed by flood and violence. Even though I don’t have to do anything there, they were expecting us to be there.
One major contribution of the prime minister is that these peripheral states, who felt they were not getting the kind of attention they should be getting, have suddenly become overwhelmed. Now they have a sense of belongingness.

What is your idea of development of the North East?
Peace and development share a reciprocal relationship. If you do not have peace the pace of development gets affected. If you don’t have development it leads to social unrest. With the open-minded approach of the government, there is by and large social peace in the North East, except for disturbances in small quarters.
Most of the places which were notorious before are comparatively at peace now. Secondly, the other part is to promote trade and business. To attract investors and have a different infrastructure, which mainly for the North-East would include connectivity.
When we came in there were states which had never seen a train, like Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh. Now within three years we have built vast number of tracks. Within the next two years we’ll have a double gauge rail track all over the region, except Sikkim perhaps because of the topographical barrier.

We did have some airports, but they were inadequate. We have planned to upgrade the air strip in Shillong, the Itanagar land has been rectified and the Gangtok airport would be ready in a few months.
We are going to have the first ever train to Bangladesh from Tripura. When it comes to roads, the North-East gave birth to a unique nomenclature called Orphan Roads, meaning roads between two states.
For the first time since Independence, the government of India has set up a region based road corporation called North-East Road Development Scheme.
We have also started looking at the possibility of inland water ways for the North East, from Brahmaputra to the Bay of Bengal. These will not only provide an alternative mode of transport, they are also cost effective, just about a fourth of the average cost in comparison to the other modes of transport.

Federations and associations of industries are now coming to us to inquire about how they can invest. Some have already started working on their projects over the last one year. Foreign collaborators have also shown interest.
With the improvement in connectivity and infrastructure, investors are themselves getting interested.
The prime minister’s Start Up India, Stand Up India campaign includes tax holidays. We have also started an Initial Venture Fund; any youth who wishes to establish a venture will be funded with the capital by the North East.
Recently, we launched a unique Hill Area Development Programme in Manipur recently.

Have you also used space technology to bring transparency in the allotment of funds for development of projects in the North East?
One main complaint which was put forward by the people was that the projects are getting delayed. I realised there were two reasons for this: one, the submission of the DPR’s was slow. We put it online so that no one has a reason for delay. When the DPR comes the acknowledgement letter goes out, and even if the subsequent documents are not submitted the reminder goes out. At the same time we set up Empower Committees in every state, who can send the DPR to the concerned ministry.
Second was in the utilisation certificate. Sometimes those were delayed or even forged. These are now being sped up, and it is cost effective and transparent.
Our project completion has been more than 4 or 5 times than it was last year. When we showed this data no one could believe. We have also started utilising our funds faster than before.

You have been a medical professional. Can you tell us about your personal life, your interests and hobbies?
I gave up my job when I had to join the party. I think my present role is an extension of my medical practice. I learnt early in my career that as a practioner shouldn’t run after the money. If you take your practice as a service then the money follows.
Back then we were treating all young diabetic patients free of cost. We would even provide free insulin to them. I used to think, if I do this then I don’t even need to visit a temple. This is equal to worship. I used to write quite a lot.
The nation must learn to draw its bottom lines. I don’t know why every morning they rise to debate about Kashmir and again every evening at 9 they hold the same debate. There is nothing debatable about this issue.
Jammu & Kashmir is a state of India very much like every other state so why create such a hype about it? When India became Independent there were two parts of it. One was British India and the other was Princely India.
This issue is raised time and again by those who have some political agenda and unfortunately some of our intellectuals also fall in the trap. But I have no hesitation to say that it is a wrong approach and it isn’t going to last long.
Maybe this is happening because India is an evolving democracy. Even in the US, nobody debates if they are Americans or not. I feel optimistic when I see the younger generation. So my father’s generation was the youth during the Independence time. Then when I came, I was seeing some of the feudal culture of my parents and now the third generation is absolutely liberated from the past package and they will be the one to draw the lines.
I have observed that the youth of Kashmir is like the youth of anywhere else in the country. They also wish to be a part of the development scheme brought in by the Prime Minister, they have seen the changes.
The tricks of the last election will not work on the younger generation these days. When I was given a chance to be a part of the election process of the party in the Delhi corporation, the youngsters were the decision makers.
Any message for our readers?
Whatever one should do, it should be done with clarity, conviction and confidence. If we ourselves are not convinced then we will not be able to convince others as well.