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Visible government for invisible people

The last few weeks have seen a rash of national stock-taking as India turned 60. The country today has a strong, vibrant economy...

Written by Yaminiaiyar |
August 21, 2007 10:26:25 pm

The last few weeks have seen a rash of national stock-taking as India turned 60. The country today has a strong, vibrant economy with a confident middle class, but governance — especially the capacity to deliver basic amenities such as education and health — is its greatest weakness. For India’s burgeoning middle class, the solution seems to lie in the market, but what of the poor?

India’s poor depend largely on the government for essential services such as education, health, food, shelter and even employment. But when the poor access government services they are faced with chronic absenteeism, incompetence and corruption. Take education.

According to a recent study by the Public Affairs Centre, as many as 76 per cent of rural households send their children to government or government-aided schools. But once the child reaches school, chances are that there are no teachers. Absenteeism rate in India, at 25 per cent, is amongst the highest in the world. Worse still, the quality of teaching is abysmally low. According to a study by Kremer and Murlidharan, only one in four teachers present in government schools actually teach. Consequently, the typical school-going child in rural India is woefully undereducated.

The poor are no better off when they go to primary health care centres for treatment. Absenteeism rates here are even higher, at an

average of 40 per cent, with Bihar topping the list at 60 per cent. More shocking is the extremely poor quality of medical care provided.

According to a study on competence levels of doctors in public health centres in Delhi by Das and Hammer, there is an almost 50 per cent chance of an MBBS doctor in a public health centre recommending harmful therapy to patients. If this is the state of things in Delhi, one has only to imagine the reality in remote rural areas.

Similar problems exist for the poor when they reach out to the public distribution system for food grain. Approximately 72 per cent of rural households possess ration cards but food grains are rarely available at PDS stores. The story is no different for the provision of drinking water and other basic amenities.

Many hold the statist model of development responsible for creating spaces for patronage dispensation in India’s polity. The resulting nexus between the politician, bureaucrat and local elite has plagued government institutions with perverse incentives that make accountability to the citizen almost impossible. As a result, the government is too distant, too arrogant and too powerful. So when government teachers and doctors don’t show up at work, the poor have little recourse. Those who can afford it, move to the largely unregulated private sector but all that the vast majority can do is wait for the next election.

There is no doubt that India at 60 is in urgent need of serious, radical governance reform that pushes the state to be more accountable. On the positive side, since the 1990s,

India has witnessed the emergence of new initiatives that have the potential to transform the quality of government for the poor. The move to strengthen local governments through the enactment of the 73rd constitutional amendment is significant in bringing government closer to the people — both spatially and institutionally.

The mandatory conduct of social audits under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act is another example. Through the social audit, government documents are scrutinised and shared with the public through public hearings. Social audits are nowbeing held regularly across India with spectacular results. In Andhra Pradesh, the government, in collaboration with civil society, holds up to 54 audits a month. The results have been staggering. Between September 2006 and February 2007, some 50 field assistants and six computer assistants in the mandal office have been sacked. Moreover, the audits led to the recovery of Rs 5 lakh of misappropriated funds. Another path-breaking initiative is the enactment of the Right to Information Act. By making hitherto secret official government documents available to all, it has the potential to reduce the distance between citizens and the state.

India’s vibrant civil society is also making a significant contribution. Through the development of innovative tools such as citizen’s report cards tracking government spending, civil society organisations are working to spread information about the impact of government programmes on the poor.

These initiatives may be very small steps. However, together they hold the promise of transforming the nature of government from being a closed, imperial entity to a more open, transparent space. The challenge for India over the next 60 years will lie in sustaining this promise so that government finally delivers to the poor.

The writer is a freelance consultant working on issues of governance reform

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