Last month India celebrated the twenty fifth anniversary of the economic reforms which have so obviously brought about change in the lives of Indians and the face of India. But at the same time India was reminded of what hasn’t changed over the last quarter century, the need to reform the institutions of governance and the attitude of politicians which undermines those institutions.
Take two examples. There were the floods in Gurgaon, or Gurugram, and the resultant chaos which prompted the Dainik Bhaskar headline Gurujam, and the joke on social media — property prices in Gurgaon have gone up because every building now has a lakeside view. The minister for Urban Development Venkaiah Naidu admitted that the water-logging was caused by “unplanned urbanisation and encroachments” , that is to say the government’ s impotence, its inability to curb the rampant corruption in real estate development. Then there was the social justice minister Thawar Chand Gehlot telling parliament gau rakshaks were entitled to enforce the law against cow slaughter provided they first checked the veracity of an incident reported to them — an example of politicians’ assumption that they and their supporters have the right to interfere in the working of the police and undermine their authority.
During the celebrations of the economic reforms a book was launched by one of India’s most respected civil servants NN Vohra, who although long past his retirement from the IAS is still governor of Jammu and Kashmir. His book is called Safeguarding India which he is far from certain India’s unreformed institutions can do. He has warned that India could face “chaos, turbulence and serious unrest ... unless public administration systems become efficient, responsive, productive, honest and accountable.” He describes the crucial All India Services as “politicised, communalised, and exploited.”
Vohra blames “political and extra-legal interference” in administration systems for their sorry state. This has been acknowledged for a long time. After the blatant misuse of the police during the Emergency a study commissioned by the Home Ministry warned, “excessive control of the political executive ... has the inherent danger of making the police a tool of subverting the process of law, promoting the growth of authoritarianism and shaking the very foundation of democracy.” When she returned to power Indira Gandhi put that report on the shelf where it has remained. Other reports have suffered the same fate.
When the need for reforms which will guarantee the police and other institutions the autonomy they need to prevent politicisation is so widely recognised why is NN Vohra still a voice crying in the wilderness? Vohra has suggested it might be the euphoria created by the economic reforms. Their successes have created an impression that it’s only the lack of further economic reforms which is holding India back. So the limitations that the incapacity and inefficiency of the Indian State put on spreading the benefits of economic growth are ignored.
Even India’s period of fastest economic growth between 1998-99 and 2005-2006 did not reduce the number of stunted children. That was in part due to administrative incapacity — the inability to provide sanitation. Modi has now declared that India will be clean. It has to be seen whether he creates the administrative muscle necessary to achieve that happy state.
Then there are advocates of technology who claim IT will by-pass India’s administrative weaknesses — smart phones, Aadhar Cards, Jan Dhan bank accounts will render the corrupt local official redundant. But the local official is cunning as well as corrupt and he may well find ways of staying in business. Technology will make matters worse if cash payments are given in place of ration and vouchers for education or health care instead of the government reforming the ration system, and providing schools and health centres that educate and heal. The economist Ashoka Mody is surely right when he says “technology without new institutions and incentives will never renew water or deliver core education, health services and public services”. This is not to deny that IT has much to contribute to better governance but it will create problems too which only reformed institutions can overcome. Can India’s ramshackle police hope to combat cyber crime without being modernised? Is the IPS as it now stands an institution which is fit to battle technology savvy terrorism?
But there is a more fundamental reason than the achievements of economic reforms or the potential of technology for the failure to reform the institutions which govern India and defend its national security. The reason has been well put by the retired senior IPS officer Kirpal Dhillon in his history of the Indian Police between 1947 and 2002. He says reforms are impossible because those who have the power to grant the police “functional autonomy” don’t want to loose their control over the force and those who do see the urgent need for reforms don’t have the power to reform. So until voters become aware of the dangers of unreformed administrative institutions and force reforms onto the political agenda India will face the threat of chaos, turbulence, and serious unrest.