I am unabashedly borrowing my title for this blog from the characterisation of the Indian state by Lant Pritchett, a former World Bank economist who currently teaches at Harvard University. When he used the term ‘flailing state’ at a lecture to IAS officers at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, I must confess to a feeling of resentment in me and my colleagues about what we felt was a somewhat uncharitable comment. Six years down the line from that occurrence, I am strongly inclined, in the context of my experiences within and outside government, to endorse his view. In fact, I feel he has been rather charitable to public institutions in India, given the frustration and often anger one feels when observing their functioning today. Pritchett used the term “flailing” in the context of a situation where the head, that is, the elite institutions comprising the state, is not in control of the limbs, the field agencies, which operate without any accountability to the hierarchies above them. I would go further to say that elite institutions in India themselves do not function with any significant level of accountability. India is a nation where, as another researcher has put it, there is a yawning gap between laws, as they exist on the books, and laws, as they are actually implemented on the ground. It is here that I find the hypocrisy of the Indian elite especially galling: they take great pride in the theoretical superiority of their institutions, without pausing to introspect on the abysmal failures in implementation in area after area of governance.
Let me expand on this theme in an area I have been working in over the past twelve years or so. Undernutrition in children under five years of age is one of India’s biggest public health problems, contributing to unacceptably high infant and child mortality rates. In fact, India fares worse than nations in sub-Saharan Africa, as far as rates of stunted and underweight children are concerned. One of my colleagues, who has been working for over two decades on IT solutions for social sector issues, has developed a GIS-based software to monitor maternal and child malnutrition and mortality. The software uses mobile telephony to set up a two-way flow of information that updates the health and nutrition status of mothers and children on a real time basis while also providing alerts to frontline health workers on interventions to be made at appropriate times. Efforts are being made to introduce this software in different Indian states to enable tracking of individual mothers and children so that timely healthcare can be provided. What has been clear from the process of implementation over the past three years is that the initiative gets going in a state when there is enthusiasm and encouragement from the top of the civil service. There is also a heart-warming response from field level health workers, who have to actually deal with the problem and who welcome the introduction of information technology to help them perform their tasks far more effectively. The problem arises at two levels: the supervisory levels above the frontline health workers resent the imposition of accountability for their actions. At higher levels at the district and state levels, the availability of up to date data invites scrutiny from a host of actors: NGOs, the media and civil society. Once the initial supporters of the initiative at the highest rungs of the bureaucracy move out from their positions, the project suffers from an ‘apathy attack’. Successor bureaucrats in the concerned departments are either hostile to their predecessor’s efforts (the “successor-predecessor syndrome”) or fail to appreciate the logic and rationale for the launch of the initiative. In either case, the existing system ensures strangulation of the project by either choking off funds or making it clear to middle-level managers in the department that they are at liberty to pay no further attention to the project.
I wish I could say this malaise was restricted to a few departments. Unfortunately, this tendency operates right across the board in government. The UIDAI Aadhaar project to provide unique 12-digit identity numbers to every Indian citizen was beset with similar problems. First, other ministries, like the Ministry of Home Affairs, claimed ownership of this exercise and resented what they saw as the interference of another body in their legitimate function, never mind that the objective of the Aadhaar project was totally different from theirs. Thereafter, getting other Ministries at the national level to link their service functions with the UIDAI was another mammoth task, with not every Ministry too keen to use the Aadhaar number for their operations. Finally, there was (and still is) the issue of enlistment of state government agencies in linking their service functions with the Aadhaar number. At the national level, there was not even consensus on enacting legislation to give a formal legal backbone to the Aadhaar card. This led to the Supreme Court ruling that direct benefit transfers, like the subsidy on LPG through the linkage of the Aadhaar number to consumer bank accounts, could not be made mandatory, defeating one of the possible major benefits of the Aadhaar scheme.
There are three major reasons why reforms in India hit roadblocks ever so often, all linked to what I would term ‘myopic vision’ of the ruling elites. The first relates to the lack of any sort of political consensus on the direction reforms should take. Whether it is the auction of natural resources, the introduction of the goods and services tax (GST) or the issue of foreign direct investment in retail, we go around in circles rather than facing the challenge head on. One political group will stick to tired statements about the public sector having to retain the “commanding heights” of the economy, while another political formation will shed tears for India’s farmers and retail businessmen, without any detailed cost-benefit analysis of what a particular policy will entail. Ministers of Finance from the centre and states will meet year after year without resolving a taxation issue that Europe resolved in the nineteenth century. More and more, it is clear that political parties are held hostage by sectional vested interests, even though such relationships do not even appear to pay political dividends.
A second reason, and a major one, is the inbuilt resistance of the Indian bureaucratic class to change. Large sections of the bureaucracy have thrived on the status quo, with guaranteed lifelong returns from the government (in terms of salaries and pensions) and with no accountability for performance in their jobs. Recommendations of Pay Commissions on downsizing the bureaucracy have been blithely ignored: no prizes for guessing who did not let these suggestions see the light of day. A large part of the bureaucracy, especially (but not only) at the middle and lower levels does not have any commitment to change – the top level, after a few feeble attempts, goes back to ‘business as usual’. A massive report of the Second Commission on Administrative Reforms (the Veerappa Moily Commission) is gathering dust five years after final submission. Has any officers’ association (of any of the elite All-India and Central Services) attempted to advocate reforms based on the Committee’s recommendations or even sought to encourage public debate on the same?
The third reason lies in the inertia and intellectual confusion of the large group of academics, journalists and other eminences who jointly comprise the intelligentsia. Positions are taken on the basis of ideological leanings and a vague nostalgia for the past rather than on the merits of each issue. Concerns are brought up without analysing whether they apply to the Indian context. Two examples will suffice. I have seen a number of media articles some years back which questioned the use of electronic voting machines (EVMs) in elections in India. Examples were trotted out of some Western democracies where misuse of this technology had apparently been detected. No attempt was made by these ‘experts’ to actually see and describe the freedom that the Indian voter, especially the dispossessed and disadvantaged one, got from the exercise of his franchise through the dual combination of an election identity card and the EVM. Having personally overseen two elections in Bihar (the best test case for assessing the efficacy of this technology), I can testify to the change in atmosphere between the 1998 and 2005 elections and the newfound assertiveness of the voter. The same intelligentsia today raises questions about the Aadhaar card and the intrusion on the individual’s privacy. What price privacy, I would ask, when you are not able to get entitled benefits that the state has promised you, only because enabling technology to remove the pernicious influence of the ubiquitous middleman has not been introduced?
The essential problem lies in the Indian elite’s reluctance to experiment with innovation in different areas of governance. Whether it is policy reform, civil service recasting or technology use in governance, leadership, both in government and civil society, has been found wanting in giving a sense of purpose and direction : the same old debates and the same tired arguments seem to dominate all discussions. Any policy shift leads to some winners and some losers: what is required is reasoned debate on the benefits and costs of the proposed policy to arrive at a via media that is acceptable to most and looks at longer-term benefits to the country than a purely short-sighted approach that panders only to current (and sometimes unfounded) fears and insecurities. Someone desperately needs to cut the Gordian Knot. Can we hope that we have reached that stage at least in 2014?