On July 8, professor Devesh Kapur, director of the Center for Advanced Study of India at University of Pennsylvania, gave a talk at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library on government in India, with the telling title of “The Suffocating Embrace.” The diagnosis behind this description was a familiar one, of India’s government trying to do too much, economically and societally (the “embrace” of the talk title), and as a result, not achieving what might otherwise have been feasible, especially with respect to basic objectives of governance, such as ensuring broad access to primary education and health care. Going beyond this, professor Kapur identified a major contributing factor to this relative failure as organisational weaknesses.
Some of these organisational weaknesses are familiar—there are problems in recruitment, motivation, training and exit. Putting aside those who are blatantly dishonest or incompetent, professor Kapur characterised two types of bureaucrats: one, honest and risk-averse; another, competent, effective and creative. Both these sets of traits are reasonable and not necessarily negative, but those who possess both sets of qualities are, he argued, very scarce. This is an important idea, because it focuses attention not on the enormous challenges of corruption, clientelism and patronage, but on potentially marginal changes in organisational structures that could have important cumulative positive effects.
In the talk, a stark illustration of the issue of organisational structures and capabilities was provided by pointing out that the dozens of government schemes and thousands of crores of expenditure allocations ultimately get implemented or spent through the actions of people like the block development officer and her/his subordinates. Modern organisation theory ideas of team-building, continuous learning, empowerment and so on are light years away from the reality in the field at the point of implementation. Aside from these problems of human and organisational capital, another illustration of the deficiencies of government came from the physical work environment, everything from the proverbial stacks of files to the sorry state of office washrooms. These deficiencies are a symptom of deeper underlying problems as well as a cause of poor performance.
During the discussion after the lecture, the issue of social hierarchies embodied in caste divisions and feudal relationships came up naturally and repeatedly. What is interesting here is that these attitudes are more entrenched than is sometimes acknowledged. Thus, reservations and other policy mechanisms to level the playing field for socially disadvantaged groups have helped to broaden entry into the elite ranks of administration, but they have not altered the steep gradients of status that apply in Indian society, including, but not limited to, government. These status gradients contribute to similarly steep gradients in skills and in work environments. Thus, Kapur’s strictures on the quality of government office washrooms do not really apply to what is accessible to the top ranks.
It is in this sort of context that I had lauded the PM’s highlighting of improving the quality of railway station infrastructure, using the benchmark of airports, which only serve the relatively well-off in India. Similarly, a focus on providing decent low-cost housing for India’s masses also tackles an important aspect of inequality in the conditions of life of the majority of Indians. These are examples outside of government itself. Is there a starting point for addressing the social structural issues that adversely affect India’s governance quality?
Interestingly, the answer may lie in local government, turning Dr. Ambedkar’s Independence-era concerns on their heads. Those concerns were that village governments would perpetuate and strengthen historical inequalities. This can certainly still happen. But modern communications and record-keeping are more likely to expose such problems than 7 decades ago. The key idea is that local government structures have fewer levels, and permit broader participation. With the right monitoring tools in place, they also permit more refined accountability mechanisms, since performance is more specific and easier to judge in many respects.
Currently, the problem is that local governments do not have enough autonomy or independent sources of revenue to prove their mettle. But now that state governments have been given more fiscal autonomy themselves, the onus is on them to stop making excuses, and push effective decentralisation down at least to cities and towns. This is the level at which the internal organisation of India’s governance most needs to be reinvented. In this process, the power of the central bureaucratic elite at the local level will also be reduced, and be one step in reforming that institution as well.
It is important to reform the central and state bureaucracies directly as well, but that will have to be a process of chipping away at certain aspects of privilege, and has to be done carefully to avoid weakening the system by increasing political interference in technical decision-making. Perhaps, the biggest challenge will come from state-level political leaders, who now function as regional power centres and wish to control the local level as well: the example of West Bengal under the CPM, mentioned by Kapur, illustrates how surface decentralisation is not enough to lead to effective governance in the form of improving people’s daily lives. True local autonomy and capacity building are needed.
The author is professor of economics, University of California, Santa Cruz