Archive for March, 2016

Centralization – The bane of governance in India

Any newly born nation nurses a sense of insecurity, more so since the nation state is a relatively recent phenomenon in human history. There are also enough doomsayers hovering around with their dire prophecies. The Indian nation-state has had more than its fair share of such pessimistic prophets in the early decades after independence. It also had to contend with the aftermath of the Partition and the amalgamation into the Indian Union of over five hundred princely states, not all of them exactly ecstatic about the prospect. There was, therefore, an overwhelming opinion in the then leaders of the Indian government that, given the daunting challenges faced by the nascent Indian state on the economic, social and political fronts, a strong centre was a prerequisite for not just the development of, but even the survival of India as an independent nation. Not surprisingly, the Indian republic came to be categorised as “a unitary state with federal features.”

Interesting though it is as a subject, this article is not focusing on the political aspects of centralisation but rather on the impact on governance of such centralisation of powers. It needs to be made clear that concentration of powers is a vice that affects every political formation, indeed every organisation that operates in the public and private spheres in India. It is also an accepted axiom that each level of government is in favour of devolution of administrative and financial authority only upto its own level. Thus, while state governments, especially of different political persuasions from the government at the central level, have harped, right from Tamil Nadu in the late 1960s, on greater devolution of powers to them, they have been conspicuously silent when it comes to devolving powers to local governments. The three experiments in democratic decentralization in the states of Gujarat, Maharashtra and Karnataka have been aborted over time to protect the economic and political interests of state-level politicians. The implications for governance, especially at the level of the aam aurat/aadmi, have not been exactly salubrious.

There are both charitable and uncharitable explanations for the propensity to centralize economic and political powers. The “charitable” ones include:

  • the colonial mindset, prevalent to this day, that the natives are not fit to govern themselves. Politicians and bureaucrats, at central and state levels, never tire of relating horror stories about the misdemeanours of local governments;
  • the mistaken assumption that centralisation of financial powers and procurement decisions lead to savings;
  • the continuing faith in the efficacy of a Soviet-era centralized planning system, where the know-it-all bureaucrat sitting in a cubby hole in Mumbai/Delhi hands out schemes and money to the public.

There are also some “uncharitable” reasons for this love for centralisation:

  • the realisation of the state-level politician that his continued existence depends on justifying his utility to the system. This politician is aware that the emergence of powerful grass root leaders is a threat to his future in politics. This phenomenon, observed in the Indian National Congress since the 1970s, has since percolated to every political party. Devolution of powers to local governments would also obviate the need for top-heavy governments at the central and state levels, thus rendering many politicians jobless;
  • the bureaucracy being seen as a vehicle for guaranteed, lifelong employment, without any accountability for performance. There is the rather patronising belief that bureaucratic interventions can solve all problems, hence the operation of Parkinson’s Law with a vengeance in the Indian government system: staff expands to create more work, with, in fact, a diminution in efficiency. Increasingly, public service has also become a self-service system and a foolproof mechanism for rent-seeking, the stress being on kimbalam (illegal gratification) rather than sambalam (salary), to use Tamil terminology.

Centralisation can take the form of intervention in procurement contracts, discretionary distribution of scarce resources (land, public funds, primary schools, colleges, universities, etc.) and formulation of policies from above imposed on those whom schemes are intended to benefit, as well as the imposition of rigid guidelines which the “street-level bureaucracy” is expected to follow in letter and spirit. The damage resulting from such a system can be long-term, often resulting in serious misallocation of resources, with concomitant effects on economic development. Drawing on my three decades of experience in the civil services in India, I have identified six major consequences of centralized decision-making:

  • Corruption: Lord Acton rightly observed “…absolute power corrupts absolutely”. In the Indian context, we can safely say that absolute centralization corrupts absolutely. Primary education has been one major casualty; ministers deciding where and when schools are to be run, and by whom, have spawned a multi-million rupee black market in school education. The same pattern has been emulated in the case of higher education, with even more profitable results. Influential politicians and their backers run huge education empires today, often of extremely dubious quality. Maternal and child nutrition is another area where the Supreme Court Commissioners have documented a number of instances of state governments sidestepping the Supreme Court guidelines to award food supply contracts to monopoly contractors, ignoring local self-help groups. Recent actions of the central and most state governments indicate a tendency to favour individual contractors over local groups in food supply, ostensibly on the grounds of improved nutrition, although the evidence of years of centralized monopoly supply strongly indicate otherwise (as verified personally by yours truly at anganwadis (day care centres) in rural Maharashtra). It can always be argued that no corruption has been specifically established but then Caesar’s wife must be above suspicion: the antecedents of these contractors and their political connections leave ample room for suspicion.
  • Faulty policy design: Decisions in Delhi often do not work in the gallis (streets). The examples of three major policy initiatives of the previous government which continue under the present government show how top down policy making can stymie the best of intentions. Take the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee programme (MGNREGA). Designed to provide 100 days of employment to each member of the rural population who seeks work, the scheme drew on earlier examples such as the Employment Guarantee Scheme (EGS) of Maharashtra, which was intended to provide on-demand work at times when there were no work opportunities in agriculture. The problem with the MGNREGA lies in its design. Unlike the EGS, the MGNREGA is implemented across all districts in a state regardless of whether the prevailing economic conditions warrant such a wage programme. Common sense would dictate that there would be few takers for such a programme in a district like Kolhapur in Maharashtra with its extensive irrigation facilities and well developed agriculture and ancillary activities. It takes me back to 1989 when a precursor central programme, the National Rural Employment Programme (NREP), was implemented across all districts of Maharashtra. We found it almost impossible to get labour for this programme in a district like Parbhani in Maharashtra, where rural employment was abundantly available in the irrigated agricultural areas. In such a scenario, the local bureaucracy ends up subcontracting the entire programme to local contractors, who then use machinery to carry out the work, defeating the very purpose of the programme. Food security and education are again two areas where the ambitious universal thrust of the programmes does not take into account the glaring deficiencies in the public distribution and education systems in most states. Nor does it appear that the budgetary provisions the Government of India is making and that state governments are likely to make will enable universalisation of these two programmes.
  • Inefficiency: In my days as an IAS probationer, it was drilled into us that, as District Magistrates, we should assume a proactive role in firmly tackling violence between or directed against communities. The recent judicial commission report on the Muzaffarnagar violence of 2013 has faulted the district administration and the local police for inaction in preventing and subsequently containing violence during the riots. My surmise would be that the District Magistrate and the Superintendent of Police were looking over their shoulders for directions from their higher-ups on how to deal with elements that obviously had powerful political backing, instead of moving swiftly to nip the trouble in the bud through preventive arrests and a show of force. Centralisation in times of crises deters prompt, effective action. Yet another example comes to mind from a sector I am familiar with. The Directorate General of Hydrocarbons (DGH) was set up to regulate petroleum exploration and production activities in India. Over the years, a paranoid mindset in government agencies and the “intelligentsia” has led the DGH to refer every investment decision involving private operators to the Petroleum Ministry for approval. Contractual timelines for approval of proposals were blithely ignored while the mandarins in government wrestled with the decision process. That golden mantra of centralisation, referral to a committee, ensured that natural gas prices took years to be finalised. The final solution has satisfied neither the companies nor the command economy socialists in the intelligentsia, while the chimera of market-determined gas pricing recedes further into the future.
  • Demotivated street bureaucracy: Centralized programmes lay down rigid guidelines with almost no scope for exercise of innovation by those actually responsible for ground-level implementation of these programmes. Accompanying this is the tendency to distrust the lower bureaucracy, doubt their commitment and make scapegoats of them for faulty policy design. Complex and arduous reporting requirements tie up field staff in paperwork, not giving them time to attend to their clientele. It is no wonder then that there appears to be little enthusiasm for meaningful programme implementation with a specific focus on outcomes. The sense of a larger purpose in their professional life and of engaging in a noble mission is never inculcated in grass root workers. We observe this in the large majority of teachers and health and nutrition workers. No encouragement is given to primary level workers to use their initiative to resolve local problems, nor are small amounts of money made available to them to meet their basic infrastructure requirements or to experiment with ideas that can contribute to the success of the programme.
  • Disempowered communities and individuals: Programmes handed down from above almost never draw on the problem solving abilities of local communities. It is evident in the very designation of the recipient of the scheme as a “beneficiary”, effectively ruling out her participation in the design and implementation of the scheme meant for her. An overburdened, often disinterested bureaucracy is largely concerned with delivering the inputs and completing its targets, with no emphasis on either the processes of implementation or the desired outcomes.
  • Damage to democracy: The process of centralized decision making is, in the final instance, detrimental to the development of an aware, active citizenry that can contribute to the democratic process. As passive recipients, people are deprived of the capacity to participate in decisions that significantly impact their lives. When programmes fail to deliver the desired results, the consequent disenchantment often drives the disempowered into the clutches of demagogues who promise them the earth and capitalise on their fears to undermine the democratic framework of society.

Recent trends in the pattern of budgetary transfers from the central government to the states give more cause for concern. Devolving more untied funds to states will place more unbridled discretion for patronage in the hands of unscrupulous politicians and bureaucrats. State governments have, in any case, never been enthusiastic promoters of democratic decentralization. With little accountability for the manner in which public money is spent (or rather, misspent) and with little fear of being brought to book for their misdeeds, it looks as though, in the words of the Harvard University economist Lant Pritchett, India’s “flailing” governments will continue to flail away.


Intolerance…for the rule of law

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” (S.G. Tallentyre)

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines tolerance as “willingness to accept feelings, habits or beliefs that are different from your own.” A related definition is “the ability to accept, experience or survive something harmful or unpleasant.” Acceptance is the word common to both definitions: this implies accommodation by the individual of the acts or thoughts of another, even though they may conflict with his deepest convictions, indeed with his very way of life. The limits of such tolerance are set by the legal framework; the Constitution of India, while enunciating the inalienable freedoms available to every resident of India, has also circumscribed these to the extent necessary to protect the rights of other individuals and to preserve the essential social fabric of the country. All other laws are subordinate to the Constitution; over the past almost seven decades the superior courts have struck down a number of legislative enactments which were deemed to violate the basic structure of the Constitution. Implicit in this process is the recognition that a democracy is run by the rule of law and the final arbiter of any act, whether by word or deed, is the judiciary.

It is, therefore, with a sinking feeling that one observes the steadily growing tendency of different groups to ignore and often show their contempt for the rule of law. Indian society has, like any other society, displayed strains of intolerance towards socially disadvantaged sections, based on caste, religion and gender, to name just three categories. In recent times, the shabby treatment of the noted artist, M. F. Hussain, and the politically motivated attacks in Maharashtra on newspaper editors and academic institutions that were deemed to have insulted the memory of the warrior king Shivaji were instances of intolerance that made headlines. What is disturbing in India’s history over the past many decades is the resort to violence against helpless individuals and the perceived failure of the law and order machinery to protect them or bring the perpetrators of violence to book. Most recently, the mob violence in Muzaffarnagar in 2013 and the lynching of a man in Dadri, Uttar Pradesh, in 2015 for allegedly consuming beef have been followed by the execrable act of lawyers indulging in violence against a student leader accused of the crime of sedition. What these three incidents starkly bring out is the brazen disregard for the operation of the rule of law. In all three cases, apologists belonging to the currently ruling dispensation have sought to ex post facto justify the perpetration of violence. More dangerous even than the display of intolerance towards fellow human beings is the utter contempt for the rule of law that these actions reveal.

Democracy is traditionally believed to rest on four pillars: the executive, legislature, judiciary and the press. With the spread of representative democracy and the growth of the internet, many commentators add a fifth pillar in the form of civil society. The 2011 Arab Spring is a vivid reminder of the power of public opinion and social media in shaping the course of events in a country. How has India fared in terms of the performance of these pillars and what are the lessons to be learnt if the tender plant of democracy is to take firm root in Indian soil?

Organs of the government, especially the police, have often displayed distressing levels of partisanship in handling conflicts between different communities and in protecting life and property. Indira Gandhi’s “committed bureaucracy” has been a spectator to, if not a participant in, India’s worst communal conflagrations — Delhi (1984), Mumbai (1993) and Gujarat (2002). The executive arm of the state is generally intolerant of criticism and the Indian executive is certainly no exception to this rule. But what marked out the latest incident in the public eye, the JNU case, is the extraordinary interest shown by the highest levels of the government in what were statements by youth in its usual phase of excited fervour. What could have been handled as a local incident and dealt with (if at all necessary) as a disciplinary matter by the University has been allowed to blow up into a controversy which has attracted national and international attention. Having committed one error of judgment, the executive compounded its problems by failing to act firmly against those who attempted to browbeat judicial institutions and interfered with the course of justice.

The second arm, the legislature, exemplified by Parliament at the national level, has, in recent years, often generated more heat than light. It has also dragged its feet on crucial legislation over the past decade, with parliamentarians more interested in winning battles of lung power than contributing to legislation that will promote economic growth and development. Over the years, legislations on a unified indirect tax system for the entire country, rationalization of archaic land laws and establishment of anti-corruption watchdogs have languished. A colonial era sedition provision, introduced in India after the 1857 mutiny, is still extant, although the mother country, the United Kingdom, dispensed with this statute over five years ago. Although no less a person than Jawaharlal Nehru espoused the sentiment (as far back as 1950) that this obnoxious provision should vanish from the statute books, independent India still retains this pernicious law that is freely available for abuse by insecure governments. To my knowledge, no honourable Member of Parliament has made any attempt to get this section in the Indian Penal Code repealed.

The one bright spot in the firmament of democratic institutions has been the legal system, though there is, obviously, the issue of the interminable judicial delays which frustrate the delivery of justice and tend to make the ordinary citizen cynical about the rule of law. This has to be qualified by the caveat that, while the judiciary, especially the higher judiciary, has been the one beacon of hope for the common man, the fraternity of lawyers has sometimes conducted itself with an appalling lack of dignity. Jokes about lawyers’ habits are commonplace in all democracies but the legal fraternity in India has, in recent years, besmirched its reputation with behaviour that is more suited to a beer hall than to a bar association, as witnessed in recent incidents on court precincts in Chennai and Delhi. In the recent case involving the production of the student leader arrested for sedition in the magistrate’s court, the nation and the world were witness to ugly scenes of alleged assault by “lawyers” on the student leader (a matter which is still under investigation), with the police apparently standing by as mute witnesses. Surely, lawyers, if the assailants were indeed lawyers, ought to be aware that the law must take its course.

The fourth pillar, the press, has been an increasing cause of concern in recent times. The print media, under threat from the electronic media and now social media, has generally tended to focus on avenues like advertising revenue, with lesser concern for factual reporting and issues of social concern. The electronic media, with almost no exceptions, is engrossed with sensationalism and “breaking news.” Even more disturbing is the tendency for news channels to act as adjudicators of legal issues, especially cases currently under investigation by the law enforcement authorities. Judgments have virtually been passed on most news channels in the high profile case involving Indrani Mukerjea. In the JNU student leader case, unverified audiovisual evidence has been casually bandied about by certain news channels. Value judgments on the patriotism of individuals and their actions have been passed without leaving the matter to be decided by the appropriate judicial forum. If the press was felt to be compliant during the Emergency years of 1975-77, there is now reason to worry whether it is complicit today with certain segments of society that seek to impose their narrow sectarian, nationalistic view on the country.

The biggest hope for a healthy, flourishing democracy lies in a questioning, independent civil society that accommodates a diversity of views and encourages discussion and dissent. No less a person than Raghuram Rajan, the present Governor of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) observed in a lecture in October 2015 at the Indian Institute of Technology, Mumbai that societal self-interest lies in the protection of the right to question and challenge, for only through encouraging the challenge of innovative rebels does society develop.  The growing partisan shrillness of discourse and the recourse to vituperative, often libellous language in the social media is a sad reflection on the deteriorating standards of public debate in a country that has produced outstanding thinkers like Ambedkar, Nehru and Rajaji. It should occasion no surprise when we have commentators in recent days opining that students should go to universities to study, forgetting the important role of universities and other institutions of higher learning in fostering the spirit of questioning in individuals and equipping them to contribute to political and social development in their future lives. While it has been heartening to see the large number of those who have taken a stand against the attempts to straitjacket thinking and debate, there is no denying the growing numbers who refuse to use hard facts to bolster their viewpoint, relying instead on emotion and unverified information to push their worldview as the only acceptable one. When they lose out in the battle of words, as is bound to happen when reason does not inform argument, they descend to the use of swords.

Democracy in India, like the nation state, is a concept that has been put together since 1947 and has (despite various gloomy prognostications) lasted over nearly seventy years, in contrast to most other countries that achieved independence around the middle of the twentieth century. The people of India have chosen their governments at the national level sixteen times since independence and have ushered out the incumbents on eight of these occasions. But the right to bloodlessly change governments (Karl Popper’s fundamental classification of a democracy) is hardly the only characteristic of a democracy. It is the rule of law which guides the functioning of a democracy in the interregnum between elections. Seen from this viewpoint, the “five pillars” of Indian democracy can be said to have secured barely passing grades. Nor, regretfully, do most Indians show tolerance for the words and actions of their fellow humans, whether from India or outside. The rule of law apparently applies only when one is wronged, not when one wrongs one’s fellow human. Two examples will suffice: progressive writers in Bengaluru choosing to boycott the Literature Festival because one of the organisers had differing views on the Award Wapsi controversy and the intolerance shown by Left parties to political dissent in Bengal over their 34-year rule. Respect for the individual’s right to freedom of expression, consumption and decision (three freedoms which are being questioned at various levels today) is still to be ingrained in the Indian democratic psyche. Till this tolerance becomes a matter of habit, we cannot claim that our country functions on the principle of the rule of law.