I recently tried to pay property tax I owed the city of Bangalore .
Go online, and get a 5% discount, the advertisements urged. Over 10 days, I tried constantly. Though it said I could, the government website did not let me use either my debit or credit card.
The second option was to take a demand draft to a local citizen help centre, or Bangalore One, where you can pay bills for government services — electricity, water, telephone, local taxes — and find help.
“You cannot pay property tax here, saar,” the young man said.
“Why not?” I asked.
“No operator, saar.”
“What about you and the lady next to you?”
They were apparently “not trained” in accepting property tax. This in a city with crumbling public serves and a fast emptying treasury, a city that is, predominantly, India’s face to the world.
My increasing irritation got nowhere.
“We are temporary staff, saar, what to do?”
I visited another Bangalore One centre. There was an operator here, but he scrutinised the demand draft and triumphantly said it needed an accompanying form. Of course, he did not have the form and said it was best to go to a “proper” municipal office.
Bangalore One, like many public services in India’s cities, is gradually turning to outsourcing. A random pan-India search of public-service outsourced jobs revealed workers on limited-period contracts sweeping streets and cleaning sewers (many cities), gathering data (all India), providing child-nutrition (all India) and ambulance services (Bangalore), landscaping (Ahmedabad) and running MRI machines in civic hospitals (Mumbai).
Equity, governance and growth (EGG for short) will be priorities for any government — Centre or state — this decade. The growing anger in fast-urbanising India indicates these battles will be determined in the trenches, by a vast army of almost invisible, semi-competent and increasingly disgruntled public-service workers, either paid directly by the state or — increasingly — outsourced.
For instance, more than 2.6 million women workers and “helpers” comprise the frontline of India’s struggle against malnutrition. They run crèches or anganwadis, weigh and immunise children, administer polio drops and high-protein powders. If these children get to school, they are given midday meals — the world’s largest school-feeding effort — by 2.6 million “cook-cum-helpers”. The education, such as it is, is done by more than 3 million elementary school teachers and more than half a million temporary “para” teachers, drawn from local communities.
In rural India, the first responder is likely to be one of 900,000 female volunteer community health worker, or ASHA (accredited social health activist). Adults in farming, still the biggest employer of Indians, are served by a $60-million agricultural-extension programme with more than 100,000 workers (unlike the others I mentioned, they are mostly state employees) to give them a helping hand.
There are millions of such frontline workers. More than half work outside the large cities. Those directly employed by the State comprise 95% of government employees (non-gazetted), says a ministry of labour and employment study. These employees — and their compatriots on contract — are vital to public services that deal with the EGG imperative. The chicken that delivers it, whether a Modi or a Gandhi; fertilised by varying ideologies, whether Sen and Drèze or Bhagwati and Panagariya; ultimately depends on this vast army.
The under-trained, often understaffed, army’s ranks are frayed, unprepared for the India its citizens demand.
In rural India, suggests one study, less than 5.7% of farmers report using agricultural-extension services. India has a shortage of 2.6 million health workers, according to a report from Save the Children, an NGO. This means Indian children are five times more likely to die before their fifth birthday.
Up to 50% of eight-year-olds in Mumbai state schools cannot “write or read a paragraph,” says a study from Dasra, a philanthropic organisation that works with the city.
Strikes are routine, stuck on the inside pages of newspapers or ignored. A recent protest by ASHAs and other grassroot workers in Rajasthan was illuminating. Each ASHA is paid Rs. 1,100 a month, barely 30% above the rural poverty line of an already poor state. They have no pensions or job security, a quality they share with anganwadi workers, sewer cleaners and data-entry operators, of the type I encounter when I try to pay my tax.
I asked Abhijit Banerjee, an MIT economist and co-author of Poor Economics, what he would do with the great army of health workers if he ran India . “If I were the prime minister, which, thankfully, I am not, I would shut down the bottom two tiers of the healthcare system…in most of north India (where less than a quarter of all health-related visits are to a primary health centre or subcentre),” said Banerjee.
His solution: Use the money on better ambulance services to district hospitals, which are "not great" but have doctors, working machines and experts on call. MIT studies show that fewer babies die in villages with new roads.
Karnataka did just that. Its ambulance services - some of India's most responsive and well-equipped - are outsourced to the GVK group, builders of airports and power plants. But earlier this month, ambulance drivers and paramedics struck work, protesting 12-hour days, a monthly salary of R7,000 and no job security.
Elsewhere in Bangalore , the Unique Identity (UID) project, the cornerstone of India's next-generation reform effort, faces allegations of bribe demands from some of its outsourced data-entry operators.
Here's the transcript of a video reproduced in Bangalore Mirror:
Enroller: Pay Rs. 20 per application.
Applicant: What for?
Enroller: "You have to pay. Rs. 5,000 is what the government gives us. Is it sufficient?"
Is it? If this salary has to be increased, who must pay, the state or the private sector? Should we cut back on numbers and focus on quality?
While India mulls these questions, let me take another crack at paying my property tax.
Samar Halarnkar is a Bangalore-based journalist
The views expressed by the author are personal