Monday, August 22, 2005

The Tunnel Goes Both Ways

At first sight, you will say, it is somewhat perverse on our part to take up the case of India and a new index of failed states published in the Foreign Policy magazine. We are at the 76th position, the last on the list that is headed by Ivory Coast and clutch of African countries-- Congo, Sudan, Iraq, Somalia, Sierra Leone, Chad, Yemen, Liberia-- where the state exists only in name. Occupying the 75th slot is China.

With all the talk of China and India becoming the dominant power in the century, it is difficult to escape a hubristic sense when you read the checklist of criteria that have been used to make up the index: uneven development and inequality within states; criminalization or delegitimization of the state, demographic factors, especially population pressures stemming from refugees, internal displacement, human rights violation, environmental degradation, progressive deterioration of public services, rogue internal security forces and intervention by external actors. India’s weak points, according to the analysis, are its mounting demographic pressures, uneven economic development, poor public services, influx of refugees. India and China may be holding their own for now, but in many of these areas, they could be subject rapid negative change.

Our strongest point remains our democratic culture and it scores low on areas like the delegitimisation of state institutions, human rights or misuse of internal security forces. The ability of the system to apply a corrective was most visibly manifest last year when a right-of-centre government that had allowed the rule of law to be flagrantly violated in Gujarat was voted out, and a secularist coalition promising to end the growing rural-urban divide came to power. Yet, across the vast country there are areas where the writ of the state no longer runs, or where human rights violations go unpunished. Clearly the assessment is an average and not too much cause for comfort.

India’s second strong point is its economy. The reason for the optimism are all there in front of you— industrial output is rising, agriculture is doing reasonably well, savings rate has grown significantly and inflation remains low. In a recent article in the bulletin of ICRA, Saumitra Chaudhuri, has argued that the rise in India’s domestic savings to 28 per cent of the GDP has eliminated the third and last major macro-economic constraint to the Indian economy. (The other two being food and foreign exchange.) But Chaudhuri, who is a member of the Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Council has pointed to ‘institutional and administrative difficulties’ that prevent the growth tide from lifting all the boats in the Indian harbour.

But prudence would suggest that we look at the problem areas, rather than pat ourselves on the back over our successes and our allegedly glorious future. There is a glaring and growing imbalance between the peninsular and coastal India, and its central, northern and eastern parts. The former region with its better public services, educational and job opportunities has reached or will soon reach a zero population growth rate, while in the latter it will happen only by mid-century, and as for its economic turnaround, it is right now not even a work-in-progress.

In part this has to do with the ‘institutional’ weaknesses ranging from a political culture based on social divisions that has created an administrative gridlock. Between Delhi and Dibrugarh, the university system has simply collapsed, as indeed has the public health or the agricultural extension infrastructure. In such circumstances the physical infrastructure of electricity, roads, urban centers has failed to come up or is a state of precipitous decline. These are also states that have seen a large-scale criminalisation of politics. From criminalisation to delegitimisation is but a small step and it is not surprising that some of these states are witnessing the growth of Naxalism and other forms of extremism.

But there is another infrastructural weakness that remains unaddressed and has the potential of becoming a check on the entire country —the failure of the administrative system. Across the country, the major successes of the economy, whether in software or services, the key input has come from the private sector. Government managers have been failures, whether it is in managing India’s villages or its cities, in delivering social welfare services like education or public health, or in upholding the law or maintaining public order. This is evident from the state of even premier cities like Mumbai and Delhi whose governmental structures are impossible to unravel. Who really runs Delhi-- its Chief Minister, Lt. Governor or Mayor ? The answer is neither or all. The result is that the nation’s capital finds it hard to rid its streets of stray cattle or garbage. Its housing districts have become slums because venal politicians, municipal officials and the police refuse to block contractors from flouting building rules, cementing over drains and commercializing residential localities. The roads are encroached and the traffic chaotic because the traffic police has certain ‘arrangements’ with transporters and shop-owners.

It is only when something the politician- police-contractor nexus cannot control happens, such as heavy rainfall or an earthquake, that the situation gets exposed. But the slow collapse is now having a cumulative effect, such as the one we witnessed in Mumbai during the flood, or the public health emergency that is underway currently. But then, no one is in-charge of Mumbai either, because the Chief Minister and his colleagues say they have to look after the whole state ! This pattern of urban management, or lack of it, is being replicated in every Indian kasba or town. There is no potable water and sewerage systems, there is unregulated construction, chaotic traffic and no one seems to know who is in-charge or what is to be done.

Yet India’s still retains strength in the vigour of its institutions like the Election Commission which continues to relentlessly fight those who are trying to undermine the integrity of India’s political culture. Despite major problems, the Indian higher judiciary provides the necessary corrective from a lemming-like tendency to competitive populism of politicians. And despite constraints, India’s political system, at least at the centre and in some states, too, remains largely effective, despite the splintered nature of its electorate. The massive rural employment and infrastructure building programme that the Congress-led coalition is instituting, for example, is a manifestation of the responsiveness of the system.

But there are other larger problems that continue to defy solution, such as the spillover of migrants from failing Nepal and Bangladesh, or internal divisions in the North-east. The problem of the fragmentation of the polity, too, cannot be resolved because no one can will the Congress to power in UP and Bihar, or help the BJP overcome its confusion. But there are things that the system can do to set right what Chaudhuri referred to as ‘institutional and administrative’ problems. Some amount of leadership is needed to thoroughly overhaul the administrative and police services in the country. The government needs to get out of a mindset that has thwarted reform of the CBI and the CVC that was suggested by the Supreme Court. We need a system that weeds out the corrupt and the criminal—possibly through a fast-track court system with laws that will mandate stiffer punishments for officials and policemen who break the law. If honesty and integrity can be bred into our police and administrative services, there will be a cascading effect on other areas of life as well. But this is not so much a matter of ‘character’ as many believe, but of adequately architected institutions such as the EC with its statutory status, which are able to deliver the goods.

We may stand on the threshold of success, but we are not that far from failure, as the year 1991 may remind us. Self-preservation, if not prudence suggests that we need to take measure of our faultlines, if we are to move ahead.

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