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Put the government house in order

One of the things frequently cited as a reason for India not being able to achieve its full potential is that governance is not keeping pace with changing times. Inclusive growth in the federal context would mean the centre’s efforts must include a voluntary process of cooperation, says Dr Balveer Arora. Leaders at the summit

delhi Updated: Oct 26, 2009 18:36 IST

Inclusive growth in the federal context would mean the centre’s efforts must include a voluntary process of cooperation...

One of the things frequently cited as a reason for India not being able to achieve its full potential is that governance is not keeping pace with changing times. The feudal culture of governance, reinforced by a colonial mindset, is a prime factor. In no other country do you have a police force where the officers are recruited as officers and the rest remain a separate cadre.

It’s just a replica of how officers were British and constables Indian. It is this legacy that has to be modified.

Lance Pritchett, a Harvard scholar, called India a “flailing state”. He was essentially referring to the gap between thinking and implementation, between conception and delivery, between the calibre of those who are imagining India’s future and that of those who are entrusted with the task of delivering the goods. It is corruption at the delivery level that Rajiv Gandhi had raised at the centenary meeting of the Congress in December 1985.

The first task is to reform in such a way that the points of human contact are reduced, and that will curb human error and corruption. Information technology (IT) would be an important tool to eliminate corruption. Take the example of railway booking. It was very corrupt but today one can do it easily with the help of IT.

If governance is to improve, accountability mechanisms like the Right to Information Act (RTI) have to be strengthened. But in the name of reform there is an attempt to dilute this Act.

It has been a powerful tool for improving governance as they are linked to civil society agencies, which have been able to bring in reform in the structures of governance.

At the level of the political leadership, the old formula says, the example must come from the top. But it’s not necessarily so. Another old belief that multiple levels of governance lead to corruption has been discredited to a large extent.

Elinor Ostrom, the Nobel winner for economics this year, clearly showed that the commons are better managed by those who have higher stakes in good governance. Reform from below is the way to combat the elements that are holding the country back with over-bureaucratised higher levels of governance, steeped in the feudal postcolonial culture.

Another obstacle delaying progress is litigation. In bulk of the cases, government is the biggest litigant. The delay in administering justice can be reduced by taking it to the third tier of panchayati nyayalayas (courts at panchayat level). Reform here will make a huge difference in terms of governance.

In a country like India, achieving growth objectives is an enormous challenge. Reconciling low growth and poverty with the high-growth sectors is quite a task. No economy can achieve its potential unless governance manages this enormous gap. Hence governance reform has to consider the need for immediate redistribution of fruits of growth to ensure conditions of political stability. The government must take immediate steps without waiting for the trickle-down effect of the market to do the job.

We have the huge tribal belt where the Maoist problem is currently the major preoccupation. Inclusive growth in the federal context would mean that the efforts of the Centre must include a voluntary process of cooperation and collaboration with the states. The consultation through a process where the states feel party to the decision will make them more involved in the decision.

There are many issues that have cropped up in the last two decades like terrorism, drug trafficking, etc. So, federal reform is an important element in inculcating a new culture of federal governance. It implies that policies are formulated keeping in mind the federal principle and that India can’t be run as a unitary state.

Federal reforms are necessary for a more ‘perfect union’. While a ‘perfect union’ is being created, one mustn’t lose sight of the fact that it is a federal society. It can only remain united if its federal character is protected.

Majoritarian democracy is incompatible with federalism. There can’t be an equitable framework of good governance without institutions for protecting minority rights. It is a good point to strengthen good governance.

Reforming the education system is important in the overall framework of governance. Unless you are producing the right values and approaches to national goals in university campuses, it is not going to be easy. There is a dire need to strengthen the secondary level schooling.

The tripod of reform: grassroots democracy, information technology and civil society organisations using RTI to create an accountable government will give us the spark, if not the bigbang, that can bring in required momentum to change governance.

(As told to Praveen Dhonti)

Dr. Arora is a professor of political science in Jawaharlal Nehru University