COVID-19

Mission mode ≠ mission accomplished in Indian governance

Kartik Akileswaran

I write this in the middle of May 2021, with India still in the throes of its worst crisis in recent memory. COVID-19 has laid bare the fundamental weaknesses of governance in India, not only in its health sector but also in the basic planning and decision making capabilities of the state apparatus. This has been a “mission” that called on the Indian government to leverage its utmost capability, which it has failed to do.

It is not clear yet what we should learn about governance in India from this episode, in part because the cause of this failure was not so much that the Indian state is “flailing” but that it has been “trailing”–persistently behind the spread of the virus–and “bailing”–excusing itself from taking responsibility in order to save political face. In other words, the crisis has resulted from active choices by political leaders and public officials. Where we should question our priors, however, is about whether the Indian state performs better when in “mission mode”, a catch-all for “activities that are episodic in delivery and accountability and where, therefore, exit is automatic once the activity is complete”.[1]

The pandemic is not the only example of a failed mission. Suffocating air pollution–regularly in the high triple digits on the AQI–in North India, has many of the hallmarks of a mission. It is seasonal and thus episodic. Although it occurs on an annual basis, many other activities held up as triumphs of mission mode governance take place on a regular time interval as well, such as elections. Governments in North Indian states, and to some extent the central government, have recognized the severity and urgency of the problem. Is this not another quintessential mission that requires the supposed at-will transformation of Indian governance? Don’t tell the residents of North India that, as they have experienced little improvement in air quality for the better part of two decades.

This and other examples suggest that whether an activity is a “mission” or not is a simplistic explanation for the substantial variation in governance quality across India. It is too coarse grained–an activity is either a mission or it is not–and does not enable us to understand the different capabilities that government needs to solve a particular problem, nor how these capabilities may be connected (or not).

Unbundling Missions

An alternative lens through which we can characterize Indian governance is to identify and categorize the different types of tasks governments are asked to do, and to see which ones they do better and worse. Any “mission” can be unbundled into its component tasks that government is likely to have differential capabilities in completing.

There are at least four dimensions along which we can classify any task that government needs to do:[2]

Is your activity…Does producing successful outcomes from your activity…
Transaction intensive?Require many agents to act or few?
Locally discretionary?Require that implementing agents make decisions based on hard to verify information?
A service or an imposition of an obligation?Entail people in direct contact with implementing agents wanting or not wanting the agents to succeed in their task?
Dependent on innovation?Rely on an accepted body of knowledge (i.e. best practices) or on innovation?

We can then categorize different types of tasks (and thus state capabilities required) by pulling out different combinations of these characteristics:

Type of taskTransaction intensive?Local discretion?Service or imposition?Requires innovation?
Policy making✔ or ✖
Logistics✔ or ✖
Implementation intensive service delivery
Implementation intensive imposition of obligations
Wicked hard

Applying this framework to the air pollution problem, we can identify examples for each task category that governments in India have attempted to carry out:

Type of taskExamples of government action on air pollution
Policy makingChange in rules about how much and when water can be withdrawn by farmers
LogisticsSetting up and tracking data from AQI meters
Implementation intensive service deliveryIncreasing the availability of public transport options
Implementation intensive imposition of obligationsBanning crackers, enforcing odd/even private vehicle policy  
Wicked hardReducing pollution from major local sources (e.g. local transport, industrial activity, construction)

What already becomes clearer through this example is that the Centre and state governments have a mixed record across these different categories of tasks. Policy changes around farmer water usage were enacted previously, so the question now is whether further changes can be made to address the harvest timing issue. Some measures have been tried, like odd/even vehicle policy and cracker bans, but have not been enforced well and have major loopholes that people are easily able to exploit (e.g. owning multiple cars with license plates ending in odd and even numbers). Government has even made some progress on the wicked problem, e.g. by converting public buses to CNG and LNG, but has yet to effectively tackle critical components of it (e.g. curbing the dirty fuel sources that commercial vehicles use).

We can further unpack the oft-cited examples of “mission mode” activities to gain a more fine-grained and accurate understanding of state capabilities in India. Elections have largely called on the government to set clear policies–around when elections will happen, who can vote, how elections will be held, etc.–and to carry out logistics, such as setting up polling sites, printing/distributing ballots, etc. The former capability was covered by the Constitution, and the latter capability has traditionally been strong–not a trivial feat when compared to recent election processes in places like the U.S. Elections in India even entail some element of service delivery on the part of the government, as evidenced by the many stories of election workers traveling long distances to remote locations to ensure access to the ballot box for all citizens. Yet elections do not require government to impose obligations on people or to discover a new way of doing things. Many other “mission mode” activities revolve even more around policy and logistics, such as the Delimitation Commission and the national census.

Build Capability instead of Relying on Missions

Hence, the argument that Indian governance does well in “mission mode” tells us little about what governments in India can actually do. The examples above illustrate that it is the logistical state, and to some extent the policymaking state, that is most effective in India. And even these capabilities fall down sometimes. The fact that as recently as 2009, India had the most polio cases in the world and finally eradicated the disease in 2016 is simultaneously a triumph of Indian governance and an underperformance in India’s logistical capabilities. Where state capability in India tails off substantially is in implementation-intensive tasks (especially those where incentives between implementers and clients are not aligned) and in tasks that require innovation. Look no further than the abysmal heath and education systems and the ample space for rent-seeking as a result of an overly burdensome and weakly enforced regulatory system.

These weaknesses in governance have persisted over many decades, alongside the relative strengths of policymaking and logistics. If lessons from the latter were portable to the former, we might expect to have seen much better policy implementation across the board by now. Furthermore, trying to convert implementation-intensive and wicked hard tasks into logistical ones, through the use of technology for example, is unlikely to be effective. What makes these tasks difficult to execute is precisely their irreducible human elements: the interests, incentives, and agency of implementers, and the organizational cultures in which they operate. If there were ever a grand mission for governance in India, building up these more elusive capabilities would be it.


[1] Kapur, Devesh. “Why Does the Indian State Both Fail and Succeed?” Journal of Economic Perspectives, vol. 34, no. 1, Winter 2020, pp. 31–54, https://pubs.aeaweb.org/doi/pdf/10.1257/jep.34.1.31.

[2] Andrews, Matt, Lant Pritchett, and Michael Woolcock. Building State Capability: Evidence, Analysis, Action. Oxford University Press, 2017, https://library.oapen.org/bitstream/id/bb540dab-9bbb-45ea-8ef1-4843b24dd432/624551.pdf.


Kartik Akileswaran is a policy advisor and researcher on inclusive growth and structural transformation, and has worked with state governments in India and with various African governments on these issues.