In the nineties I travelled widely across India. From these travels emerged a conviction that India would soon rise economically, and for the first time in history Indians would emerge from a struggle against want into an age when a large majority would be at ease.
Prosperity has indeed begun to spread. During a quarter century of high growth, the middle class has quadrupled to around 250 million, while 1 per cent of the poor have been crossing the poverty line each year since 1980, and this has added up to almost 200 million people. If our economy continues to grow rapidly over the next two to three decades — and there is no reason why it should not — then large parts of India should turn middle class in the first quarter of this century. At that point poverty will not vanish, but the poor will come down to a manageable level, and the politics of the country will also change.
That is the good news.
The bad news is that prosperity is spreading alongside the most appalling governance. It is an amazing spectacle — in the midst of a booming private economy, Indians despair over the simplest public services.
It used to be the other way around.
During our socialist days we despaired over economic growth but we were proud of our institutions.
The Indian state is in steady decline today. Where it is desperately needed — in providing education, health, drinking water — it continues to perform dismally. Where it is not needed, it is hyperactive. According to the Centre for Civil Society, it requires 11 licences to start a school in Delhi, including an ‘Essentiality Certificate’, and most of these come with a bribe.
When I speak of governance failure, I am not thinking of corruption in its usual sense — of the politician who is caught with a bribe. I feel anguish that one in four teachers in a government primary school is absent and one in four is not teaching. Two out of five doctors do not show up at a state primary health centre; a cycle rickshaw driver routinely pays a sixth of his daily earnings as bribe to the police. A farmer in an Indian village cannot hope to get a clear title to his land without bribing the patwari. One out of five members of the Indian Parliament elected in 2004 had criminal charges against him; one in twelve had been accused of murder or rape.
This raises an uncomfortable question: Is India rising despite the state? Indians are being forced to depend on themselves for the basic services that people take for granted in civilised societies. The poor, for example, are removing their children from government schools and placing them in indifferent private schools that are opening in the slums and villages of India. The same is true for health and water. The Indian state is so riddled with perverse incentives that accountability is impossible.
What is eroding at our moral fabric is not the big news on which the media focuses attention — Jehadi terrorism, Gujarat 2002, Naxalism — but these quiet, everyday failures. When a school teacher does not show up for duty, she wounds the dharma of our society, which has always regarded the guru as a model of behaviour. She also leaves her students with a terrible example in civic virtue. Every transaction of the citizen with the state, it seems, is morally ambiguous. As my driving licence is expiring soon, what nags me is this question — will I have to bribe to renew it?
The reform of the Indian state is today more important than even economic reform. We desperately need police, judicial, administrative and political reform. Many societies we admire today — for example, Scandinavian countries, the UK— also suffered from poor governance. But they threw up leaders — Gladstone, Disraeli, Thatcher — who had the courage to fight vested interests and bring accountability to the state. Shouldn’t this be or ought to be at the top of the mind of UPA leaders and on this government’s agenda?
This essay has been specially prepared for Hindustan Times by the author based on his new book, The Difficulty of Being Good: On the subtle art of dharma, Allen Lane/Penguin, 2009. Das is also the author of India Unbound and a former CEO of Procter & Gamble