The battle of the Indian bulge -- II

By Sunita Narain
Published: Thursday 30 September 2004

I never thought I would write in defence of the Indian state. But I am. The de-construction of the notion of public space and the practice of public service is evident and will cripple us enormously. But I am also clear that re-construction will demand considerable innovation. We will be fooling ourselves if we believe that merely doing more of what we do now serves any purpose. The state is vital. But today it is too full of blubber. It is this bulge which needs to be revamped and re-strengthened, so that the state can play its role effectively. In this dog-eat-dog world, function as a true custodian of the public interest.

But let me first recapitulate what I wrote last fortnight. One, the state stands increasingly compromised, indeed decimated, in terms of its capacities. Two, the state is abdicating its role in favour of a growing and powerful private sector, which now is expected to provide everything from water to health security. Three, even as the state hands over its productive functions, it ensures its perpetuation, for its own sake or for the sake of the crumbs it doles out in the form of jobs to the poor. Four, the weakened system profits the rich, continuing to subsidise them in the name of the poor. And fifth, in all this state functionaries are ironically the single-largest beneficiaries of dissipation as they gain by having more, even as they do less. Their perks and powers are intact. The state's stateliness is preserved with a pomp it does not deserve.

If we accept this, then it really means that the enemy is within. So any reform that seeks to strengthen its institutional fabric will have to be driven by its real political and public masters. In other words, the state will have to be driven to work.

How should this be done? First, I would argue we need to ascertain, quite literally, the role of government. This issue cannot be taken for granted anymore. We need to clarify what its role will be, so far as basic services, education and health and basic needs, water and food are concerned. We also must clarify government's role as the public interest regulator. This clarity of purpose is vital. For today, most government action is taken in a mindless and heartless manner. Government agencies have turned into paper pushers; they fiddle with procedures and budgets, without knowing why or what it is that they are doing. Government has become one-large bloated clerkdom.

Then, we need to plug its weaknesses. We need to critique its failures. Not so that we move to paralysis by analysis, but for the sake of catharsis by analysis. For instance, we must accept that public agencies today seriously lack expertise to manage change. Take water services. Everyone will agree that clean and safe water is a must for all. Yet, everyone will also agree that public institutions are not delivering this basic need. Therefore as the state falters, the private sector steps in. Today, large parts of rich urban India drinks bottled water. Remember, this is water the private entrepreneur does not pay for but simply rips off the aquifer, cleans (to some extent) and then bottles to deliver to homes. It's a rip off. But it services a need. The health costs of unsafe water are deadly for the poor. And in all this, the battered public services continue to provide subsidy to the water and sewage of the rich. Everyone will agree this is unacceptable.

But what everyone will not agree upon is the way ahead. Some will argue for public-private partnership, for them a euphemism for private takeover of the publicly created facility. Others will argue for control of the public institution: there should be no talk of private capital and certainly no talk of capitalist tools like pricing of water or fiscal regulations.

As I see it, both are right, to an extent. The public-proponents are right in saying that the public purpose of the service must be maintained. But the private-proponents are also right when they say the public institution is weak in capacity and expertise. The Delhi Jal Board, for instance, has roughly 25,000 employees, far in excess of what it needs to discharge its functions as a public water utility. Even worse, this is a workforce without expertise. Therefore, to do anything at all technical or innovative, it needs to call in external consultants. Because it cannot fix from within, and it is easier to bypass than to reform.

Such a lack of expertise is a serious problem because it forces a silent takeover by parties that possess some knowledge but lots of vested interest. In all this, the role of the state as public regulator is grossly compromised because it just does not possess the ability to negotiate on behalf of public policy. And so it happens that state institutions can work for private and sectoral interests in the guise of public interest. The system does not demand any performance or merit. It only demands complacency. Roll over and play dead. Let the competing private interests slug it out. Slugfest over, profit again by declaring the temporary winner. In all this, arrogance and the stench of power covers up the incompetence.

In other words, the reform of public institutions will demand strengthening of its knowledge capacities. How will this be done? It is often mistakenly said, given the chimera of our software business, that we are a knowledge society. In fact, we must realise that we are increasingly a knowledge-proof society. Public institutions are immune to knowledge. In fact, I would say, they are insured against it. And it is precisely this insurance against change that must be dismantled. The chinks in the armour must become a hole. How? The mandate of the people, the very one our politicians love to boast about, must become our insurance for change.

-- Sunita Narain

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