Its time to be the change
Today in New Delhi, India
Feb 24, 2019-Sunday
New Delhi
  • Humidity
  • Wind

Its time to be the change

India has conceived and legislated fine policies but that doesn’t mean that things actually get done. The state is dysfunctional. In the current atmosphere of pessimism, what is the best way forward? Aakar Patel writes.

india Updated: Aug 14, 2013 20:32 IST
Aakar Patel
Aakar Patel
Hindustan Times

A few weeks ago there was a talk by Harvard University’s Lant Pritchett, author of the thesis that India is a flailing state. Pritchett means that the head (central government and its policy apparatus) is improperly connected to its limbs (execution on the ground), and so instead of coordinated motion, India flails about.

We could get a most convincing view of how things are progressing well in India, if we got a briefing from the Union government and its senior bureaucracy. An inspection on the ground would reveal a reality that was otherwise. Conceiving and legislating fine policies didn’t mean that these things actually got done.

To illustrate his thesis, Pritchett used material from some academics, among them Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee, authors of the book Poor Economics. There were three stories Pritchett recounted. First, that in a test group it was learnt that unless you paid a tout, you would likely fail your driver’s test in Delhi. If you paid, you didn’t have to take the test at all. Meaning that if you chose to follow the law, you would be penalised, and you would be free to drive even if you couldn’t, if you paid up.

So organised was this bribery that none of the Road Transport Office’s staff were paid directly. So efficient was it, that almost without exception potential drivers were compelled to submit.

The second example was a test where Duflo and Banerjee sent actors to government doctors with classic symptoms of five major diseases. The doctors did not diagnose the patients correctly an astonishing 97 % of the time because they weren’t bothered. They did not spend more than 60 seconds with patients on average. If you are going to be diagnosed by your doctor correctly only three per cent of the time, Pritchett said quite rightly, you may as well just stay home.

His third example was about research that found Rajasthan’s nurses don’t turn up for work. Half of them collected salaries for staying at home or doing something else. A well meaning non-profit tried to change this through a system of attendance monitoring. It failed. Nurses continued to stay away from their work, but this time they were equipped, each time they were checked, with an official excuse for their absence.

None of this surprises those who are familiar with things in India. The state has collapsed. Certainly it is dysfunctional. The most charitable view we can take is that it is flailing about.

Little seems to work properly in India. Government is ineffectual and even parliament is effete. I don’t disagree and government in India has never been good. But is that the root of our problem?

Less than three per cent of this nation pays any income tax. We could blame the state for its inability to enforce collections, but what if we look inwards instead?

Pritchett presented a theoretical framework locating the level of dysfunction in each instance. He thought the failings in all the examples could be corrected by the state through working with and reforming the institutions involved: the RTO and the health services and the rest. What was needed he said, if I understood him correctly, was for the government to build a sense of ownership and pride in its institutions. This would help it claw back from the brink by building its capacity.

I asked him if the problem was actually in civil society, not the state. When doctors could not be bothered to even observe patients properly, if nurses took money for staying at home, was that not indicative of a problem that was deeper than just a lack of motivation and supervision?
Pritchett disagreed, saying that culture was not to blame, and he may be right.

Middle class demands more

The rise of an angry and vocal middle class certainly suggests that a large number of Indians and perhaps the majority agrees with the idea that the state is bringing down India and it must improve. The demonstrations led by Anna Hazare and against the Delhi rape took the same view.

But when Indian teachers cannot be bothered to show up to teach or to even properly wash the utensils used to cook food for schoolchildren in. When their response to the deaths of these kids is to refuse supervising meals because it isn’t their job, the state is only partly to blame.

We cannot behave in traffic in any city or state of India. I’m not exaggerating and you know what I mean. Here again, it is possible to say, like Arvind Kejriwal does: police Indians firmly. Watch over them and penalize them and they will behave, as they do abroad or on the Delhi Metro. Are other nations functional only because their populations fear punishment? This is not the conclusion one would draw when observing the West.

Fifty million Indians out of 1.2 billion have passports, which means 95 %of Indians have no experience of the world outside India. But as more people travel and notice how developed nations function they are troubled by the state of their home.

This will only increase and we must anticipate more anger and demonstrations against the state in India as the media expands, as rural reporting improves and as the middle class becomes larger and more demanding.

This is happening though in every other way, politics have ceased to become about the big things. They have turned so local that the 2014 election looks likely to be our first when the first two parties together will not have a majority.

It is happening because across India, no matter what state you are in, the findings of researchers will throw up something similar to the studies Pritchett cited.

One explanation for the sudden and dramatic rise in the popularity across India of Gujarat’s Narendra Modi is that he promises to transform the state. Whether or not he can or will be able to, this promise of his absolves the citizen. It reassures him that what is wrong in India has nothing to do with him. It is government and its functionaries who must improve themselves if India is to be different.

As I said, this thinking is only increasing, and if we look around, the anecdotal evidence is around us. The language used against the government online, in particular, is more vicious in India than it is in any other English-speaking nation. As the anger increases, there is a sort of pulling apart, a suspicion that something is going awfully wrong and needs to be immediately corrected. The government must change itself else things will get worse.

Be the change

To me this is the minor aspect of change. The major one must come from within. India will change only when we change. Each of us must contribute to this, by being conscientious in our work and, though this is an old-fashioned word, moral with one another, even when we are inconvenienced. For that to happen no politician is needed. No new government can or will bring it about. Indeed, tinkering with the externals will only take us away from the real problem.

And it isn’t as if India needs some sort of revolution in government. We already have a start and a base unlike most of the countries around us.
The large and the important things -- the civilisational and indigenous idea of a secular and pluralist nation; the beautiful, world-class constitution (over which there is no dispute) – are in place.

These are the things that we should turn to repeatedly when in despair over the awful reports the morning’s newspapers inevitably bring. They give us reassurance that the major things are pointed in the right direction.

The minor things, nurses in Rajasthan not showing up for work, drivers’ licenses in Delhi being given against cash, doctors across India not attending to patients, are in our control and will fall into place easier than we think.

Aakar Patel is a former Gujarati newspaper editor and a columnist for Hindustan Times and Mint

First Published: Aug 14, 2013 20:24 IST