Column: Maximum governance for Delhi

Published: February 14, 2015 1:03 AM

How AAP rules for five years will ultimately be of greater interest than how it secured its sweeping victory

The Delhi Assembly election results are clearly important for the future of Indian governance. But what lessons should be drawn from the outcome? Much of the post-election analysis has focused on the minutiae of campaigning and personalities. A different strand, which has also received attention, is the expectations of voters. Clearly, voters want better governance. It is almost tautological that the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) won such a sweeping victory because it made a more convincing case that it could deliver on the promise of better governance for Delhi than the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The AAP election manifesto made many promises to voters, including reducing corruption (a cornerstone of the party from its origins), providing basic amenities such as clean water and electric power more readily and at lower cost. Of course, the challenges in delivering on these promises are enormous, because of the financial costs involved in improving infrastructure, or subsidising usage. One of the long-run weaknesses of the AAP package of governance may be its strong populist streak. The party also promised low taxes, making financial feasibility even more difficult. How AAP rules for five years will ultimately be of greater interest than how it secured its sweeping victory.

Aside from delivering on populist pledges, a major governance challenge will be working with the national government. Delhi has always been different, because it is the location of the national government as well as a major urban area. In many ways, it provides a test case for the idea of cooperative federalism. The BJP leadership was gracious in defeat—in a sense, it had no choice given the comprehensive nature of that defeat—but it will be interesting to see how it treats the AAP government in matters of day-to-day governance.

An important potential area for cooperation is air pollution. Just about the time that the AAP was crushing its political rivals in Delhi, the news was full of stories about Delhi having the most polluted air in the world—yes, even worse than Beijing. There was a cartoon of President Obama wearing a gas mask at the Republic Day parade, and reports that India has 13 of the world’s 20 most-polluted cities. Studies that calculated the enormous health and agricultural yield costs of air pollution have been highlighted.

The bottom line is that air pollution is costly for the nation as a whole, but citizens in cities like Delhi bear some of the highest costs. Yet, the issue is one which requires major actions at the national level. In the past, the Supreme Court has stepped in, with positive impacts, but it should be clear that judicial activism of this nature is inferior to well-formulated technical policies. Recent news stories have highlighted the ineffectiveness of the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), but without going deeper into the issues. Interestingly, a 125-page 2010 study of the CPCB commissioned from the Indian Institute of Management, Lucknow, included this plaintive, stand-alone paragraph: “In early 1990s, CPCB had also decided to control pollution in 25 critically polluted areas. The CPCB is still to find success in those areas.” The report did identify critical problems such as a lack of financial and human resources. It is amazing that an organisation that also provides knowledge support to its state-level counterparts is so poorly funded, when the benefit-cost ratio of marginal expenditure on the CPCB (with good leadership and hiring) might be many times that of programmes that dole out money across the country.

Of course, the political calculus is very different for transfer programmes versus improving regulatory knowledge and expertise. This is where the AAP has an opportunity, to shift the idea of maximum governance from populism to delivery of true public goods, like clean air. For example, the AAP could press for an acceleration of upgrading vehicle emission standards. Currently, weak national standards and weaker standards outside major cities create negative externalities for Delhi. Better quality fuels will help, but stricter emission standards will put pressure on upgrading fuel as well as vehicles. The AAP also has to be prepared to push for taxes to curb emissions, effective testing programs, and even some entry controls. Interestingly, studies show that air pollution regulations have been more effective than water pollution regulations, making Delhi’s poor air quality even more disheartening.

There are also issues of burning waste and of industrial polluters, so the list of sources of problems goes on. The point is that the new government of Delhi, not beholden to any national political masters, and with the threat of spreading its message and its success to other urban centres, has an opportunity to do two things. It can redefine what good governance means at the level of people’s daily lives, and it can redefine how to achieve good governance both by its own actions, and by seeking cooperation with the national government, which it hosts within its borders. The next five years, therefore, provide a unique opportunity for both levels of government to work together and give ‘maximum governance’ some real meaning.

The author is Professor of Economics

University of California, Santa Cruz

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