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Saturday, May 1, 2004

For the first time in nearly five decades, political parties are fighting the general elections almost entirely on the basis of developmental and governance issues.   It is therefore not surprising that the role of politicians and the government in providing public services became the focus of electoral debate.  This is definitely a good development and indicates the maturing of Indian political process.  At the same time, we should also understand the relative roles of the citizens and the governmental service providers.

There are low-priority (or even, no-priority) service areas, which the State has no business getting involved in, except in a regulatory role and that too, only if necessary.   Making feature films for mass entertainment or manufacturing cosmetic goods are typical examples of services falling in this category.  Then, there are areas where the State could choose to get involved but only if this involvement does not affect the delivery of more high-priority services.  Maintaining a mass transport system is one example of this intermediate category.  Finally, there are service delivery areas where the role of the State (and therefore, the Government) is absolutely irreducible:  public order and rule of law, justice, school education, primary healthcare, basic infrastructure, natural resource development and social security.   At a minimum, any functioning government must deliver (at least) these services to its citizens.  If the State fails to provide quality service in these top-priority areas, its very existence could be threatened.

In India, successive governments since the licence-permit-quota socialist days functioned without having a clear grasp of this rather basic conceptual scheme of service delivery and role of the State.  As a result, over the decades, we have witnessed the diversion of valuable public resources into several non-priority or low-priority areas.   Even today there is not much clarity, both inside the Government and outside it, on the issue of providing versus provisioning a particular public service.  For that matter, until recently, our government was literally baking bread and selling cakes!  This lack of prioritizing has greatly eroded the quality of service provided by the government in the ‘absolute-must’ priority areas.

We only have to look at our justice-delivery system for illustration.   There are 250 lakh pending cases in courts all over the country that would take at least another century to be processed, going by the present rate.  Getting justice is painfully slow and enormously expensive; in the end, there is still no assurance of securing justice.  For millions of ordinary citizens, going to the courts is not even an option.   The quality of service provided by our governments is equally dismal when it comes to areas like providing basic universal healthcare or free-and-compulsory school education.

Surprisingly, the scope and quality of State-provided services bear little relation to the issue of resource scarcity.    Our governments spend more than 1800 crore rupees of taxpayer money, in our name, each and every day!  Had these public resources been appropriately deployed, significant improvements could have been made in the service delivery by the government.  Consider this:  ensuring basic sanitation across India would need about 140 million toilets, costing a one-time investment of around 35,000 crore rupees.  While it might seem a huge figure, it merely equals 20 days worth of our governmental expenditure.  Similarly, 16 lakh classrooms can be built across the entire country with just 9 days of governmental expenditure.

Vital public services are consistently delivered at below-acceptable-standards mostly because of the biased relationship between the service provider (government agencies or departments, in this case) and the client (i.e. the citizen).  This systemic bias arises because of the monopoly of the service-provider, high degree of centralization, lack of accountability and transparency in the functioning of the concerned government agencies.  These factors result in bureaucratic inertia or corruption and more commonly, both.  Added to this, the ordinary citizen has to live under the socialist mindset where the government employee is a ‘benefactor’ while the client/citizen is a ‘recipient’ of largesse.

So, how can we ensure that vital public services are delivered in a more efficient manner?  Only when the State-service provider adopts key reform measures:  introduction of easy accessibility, simpler procedures, greater transparency, increased accountability and delegation of power to local governments.  In order to ensure that these reform measures are initiated and then implemented, the citizens themselves need to assert themselves in a collective and informed manner.

It may not come as a surprise that these fundamental reform measures are almost entirely non-monetary.

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