The 'last mile' is a term of trade in the telecom business - a metaphor to describe that difficult final link in the chain of communication needed to establish connectivity between each individual household and the network highway. Getting that link established can be difficult because it involves spanning real and often difficult terrain, cutting through highly local environments. It's the stretch of distance where the technological solutions, universal and context-free in form, must immerse themselves in the busy tangle of the actually existing world, the haphazard landscape of a real neighbourhood.

The 'last mile' is also a perfect and telling metaphor for the difficulties that face social policy initiatives. It identifies the most difficult step in turning a good policy idea, often invested with resources, into an effective social outcome.

For, our main problem in India today doesn't lie in a paucity of policy ideas or goals. Indeed, Delhi is thronged with people advocating policy fixes and solutions, and there is little real dispute about the goals we should be pursuing. Nor is the main problem the lack of funds: government revenues, made rich by steady growth, are now freely on tap, regularly released to fund large-scale social policy schemes.

The core problem, in domain after domain of social policy, lies in the inability to bridge that last mile - to translate intention, law and resources into outcomes that improve individual opportunities. Take for instance the case of primary education. We have fine legislation in place that establishes a right to basic education. We have quite reasonable levels of funding to build schools. We are even doing pretty well with getting children into the school buildings, and onto enrolment registers.

And yet, as we know from a series of recent reports, the gains across India's school-bound young in literacy and numeracy are shockingly poor and depressing. It's that last mile - delivering the actual classroom lessons that improve learning and the capacity to learn - which is the weakest link.

It would be easy to point to parallel examples in health, poli-cing, housing, where major initiatives, heralded not least because they promise to be scalable, are blunted by reality. Too often, policy elites respond to such blunting by resorting to belief in a single, 'silver bullet' fix. So some advocate transferable vouchers enabling parents to choose schools for their children, others public-private partnerships, while still others focus on e-governance or wish to generalise methods such as randomised trials in order to evaluate policy options.

But such affirmations of big policy principles can prompt commitments that have diverting consequences. Because what we really need to focus on is not the abstract design of our pet policies themselves - the clarity and consistency of their formulation, the resources put behind them, or even their 'all things being equal' evaluations - but rather the diverse, dense and often subversive ecologies of that last mile that stands between individual Indians and the policy promises of government. It's the social ecologies of the local habitats in which most Indians live that need more explication and understanding.

For it is over the space of that last mile that all the best policy ideas, the best legislation, the most generously funded schemes get altogether subverted. That's why we need to focus on what happens in the classroom, the hospital ward, the police interrogation desk, the courtroom. And we can only begin to gain that focus when we get more accurate, textured accounts and reports about what is actually happening in them.

Then we might see the precise ways in which money is sipho-ned off, offices misused, things covered up and disguised - accountability undermined, responsibility obfuscated. But sadly, few are interested in devoting the time and effort to finding out and tracking the precise details of how these subversions occur - and certainly not the policy brokers who would prefer to look at the world from on high.

Perhaps it is time to inflect - or at least supplement - the flow of policymaking, so that we view it less as a form of social truth handed down from above, which merely has to be propelled downwards to reach everyone. Better might be to experiment with tools and implements that, deployed at the local level, show for instance how thin accountability subverts fine policy. So the use of Right To Information legislation to yield documents that can show discrepancies between what was supposed to have been done by public officials and what actually was done helps to make people aware of the 'last mile' barrier - and such tools need to be spread more widely.

Here, experimentation is also needed, especially in a society where most cannot read or write. So, for instance, the use of documentary methods like participatory videos, where local people are given access to cheap video cameras in order to film interactions with officials, or between teachers and schoolchildren, can be a powerful tool in creating documents that reveal to people themselves why that 'last mile' is not closed up.

As one starts to look closer, one sees a range of obstructions and sources of disconnect which systematically keep citizens beyond the 'last mile'. Closing that gap in turn needs a range of micro-policies: to deal with corruption, impunity, abuse of power. It needs a culture of record and documentation by citizens as a critical defence against power.

Tags: Time

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