A Quiet Revolution In Governance

                                                   Pulapre Balakrishnan

As heirs to one of history’s all-time-great mass movements we understandably bristle at the reminder that India was once a colony. And naturally, as that was perhaps our finest hour, when our forebears displayed selflessness on a scale that is unlikely to be ever repeated. But as the colonial power withdrew, unforeseen, the rhinoceros remained in the room. This was the machinery of government. Despite the change in the political regime the protocols of the executive were left unaltered. Whether this was intentional or due to plain absent-mindedness matters little as its consequences have been crippling of India.

                Nehru alone among India’s politicians dared question the rationale of the so-called steel frame. During the national movement he had quipped that the Indian Civil Service was neither Indian nor pre-disposed to serve the interests of the country. He was far too much of a man of the world to imagine that a change in the complexion of the beast was enough to usher in a change in the attitudes and capability of those who would now manage the machinery of government. However, he refused to be cowed down by the thought that his project of taking forward a moribund economy was dependent  upon them in any way. He set up the Planning Commission and built up a large body of public sector enterprises. Most of this archipelago was relatively free of the machinery of government even though the units were answerable to their parent ministries. This plan had spectacular initial success . By the early 1960s HMT had generated enough of a surplus to build a second factory. Air India was in surplus for well after nationalisation of the extant Tata airline, and the public-sector enterprises increasing their savings faster than the private corporate sector.

                After Nehru no politician has had the gall to remind the public sec tor that its raison d’etre is the public interest alone and that it must continuously prove itself by delivering on its mandate.  Indira Gandhi altered the equation by striking a compact with the public sector employees and the bureaucracy. This entailed a solicitiousness to their welfare for which they were to give unbridled support to her political manouvres. The reluctance of the political class to rein-in the hands that man the machinery of government has meant that it now acquired a relative autonomy. This has constituted a barrier to the progress of democracy and development for fifty years.

                But now a silent spring appears to be in evidence with respect to governance in the country. The green shoots may be slight and sparsely distributed, but they are there nevertheless. Two instances experienced by this author have been corroborated by that of others and are therefore worth highlighting for their significance. The first concerns the process of applying for a passport, something that has undergone a sea change in the direction of simplification of procedures and the speed and efficiency with which the service is delivered. The brief ‘interview’ after the application is taken in is actually a pleasure as one is received by a young and educated staff. This stage of the process has been outsourced to Tata Consultancy Services in a PPP arrangement. But this is only the start of the process, for a Police Verification is required which remains the sole preserve of the police. This can be a tricky affair as the citizen is faced with an iron curtain and in her interaction with the police, in true colonial form, all rights reside firmly with the latter. This author’s experience is worth recounting as it is in the public interest to do so. Due to a temporary absence from the address given in the application the police submitted an “adverse report” and a show cause notice issued with summons to the Passport Office. The meeting however turned out to be an eye opener. A superintendent, displaying trust and a high sense of sense of public spiritedness recommended to his superior that the applicant’s case was genuine and that a passport may be issued. Subsequently SMS followed SMS informing the applicant that the response to the show cause notice had been received, reviewed and accepted, and the passport was being dispatched that very day.  It would be difficult to imagine a more citizen-friendly response from the state anywhere else in the world. Another example of greater access to public services and their better delivery comes from an encounter with the election commission. The whole process of enrolling yourself as a voter has been simplified so much as to deter only the least citizen-minded. On the Commission’s website you can first check whether your registration is yet active and then, in principle at least, track your name down to the voter’s list for the concerned polling booth. In this author’s experience the latter was not possible, but a mere phone call to the office of the Chief Electoral Officer elicited a phone number to which one’s Voter Card Number registration electoral number may be sent by SMS. Within seconds a response was received giving details of the polling booth and serial number on the voter’s list. After such service received from an organ of the state if one remains at home on polling day one may be accused of derilection of duty as a citizen. But in practical terms the improved governance is a palpable change from the sheer chaos at the polling booth in the past and an absence of uncertainty as you head out to vote on election day.

                Of course a fundamental change in the environment is the emergence of information technology as an enabling factor. However, it must be acknowledged that to have leveraged it effectively to provide a service reflects a rare shift in the rationale of governance in India. In the very limited spheres that we have looked at here, the government agencies concerned have adopted as their mandate the expeditious delivery of service. Without this change in rationale, no development of high-tech could have resulted in the improved outcomes that we were able to observe in the Passport Office or at the Election Commissioner’s.

                However, while nothing could get more sacrosanct in a democracy than enabling an individual to vote, in a country with so much poverty we cannot be faulted for aspiring to a public sector equally devoted to improvement of our  material conditions, for which read ‘the economy’. Often in our concern for the poor we assume that we must poverty directly in order to eliminate it, as if it has some independent existence. This is somewhat sentimental. Our aim should be to multiply manifold the livelihood opportunities of the poor. In a market economy the demand for labour is a derived demand. To raise the demand for labour we must render potential activity viable and the worker more productive. These tasks require the provision of physical infrastructure to firms and social infrastructure for workers. Currently much of both the opportunities and the responsibility for providing these services are with public agencies. It should not be difficult to imagine how much better India’s economy will perform were these to be provided with far greater efficiency. This consideration merits a place in the  agenda for the coming elections.