Shankkar Aiyar’s ‘Gated Republic’ Is The Story Of Expectations And Reality Of Public Services
The Gated Republic is a thought provoking book, which nudges the citizens into demanding more from their governments and set higher bar for governance.
Shankkar Aiyar. The Gated Republic: India’s Public Policy Failures and Private Solutions. 2020. Harper Collins. Rs 699.
The Gated Republic: India’s Public Policy Failures and Private Solutions is a book by veteran journalist and author Shankkar Aiyar, published by Harper Collins in India earlier this year. This book is based on a remarkably interesting yet poignant premise of how basic citizen needs in India have been fulfilled by private players due to the delivery gaps or total failure of successive governments since the Independence.
The author covers five areas which can be considered basic necessities in any society — water, healthcare, education, power and security. For each of these areas, he explains meticulously how government programmes have routinely fallen short of the constantly growing needs of Indian citizens. This need has then been fulfilled by private players — sometimes to create excellent social enterprises and sometimes to simply profiteer.
On the subject of water availability, the author describes how millions of households do not get tap water even for basic consumption. Worse still, the water table in India has been falling and without the full value chain integration of rainfall, river water storage and its availability where required in the quantities required can create social turbulence in the future.
On healthcare, Aiyar covers the abysmal ratio of doctors to patients, something which has been known well before Independence but hasn’t changed a lot since. He brings out the stark contrast between the urban and rural prevalence of medical facilities. Some of the issues he raises are currently playing out during the Covid-19 pandemic, though the book itself was written before the full force of the pandemic hit India.
On education, the author’s focus is more on quality than access, which in itself is still a problem, but at least a known and a recognised one. The quality of primary and secondary education has been falling progressively and that does not bode well for the country. Aiyar explains how the Right to Education Act, largely a rehash of a 1944 proposal made by the British, has not achieved the state goals of access and quality.
In both healthcare and education, the private players who have stepped in to fill the gaps left open due to the failure of government delivery have largely been extortionary. Given that these are basic needs of the society, citizens have been forced to spend more without options.
Access to power for millions of Indians has remained a problem over the years. Even when the rural electrification programme ran, the household electrification was a challenge. When household electrification was addressed, the actual power availability remains an issue due to the nature of state government-run power distribution businesses. Both in urban and rural India, reliable round-the-clock power still remains a chimera due to these implementation issues.
The most stark commentary is however in the area of security. The author points that in India, the ratio of private individuals or firms paid for providing security to that of state-paid forces is almost 83 per cent to 17 per cent. This huge disconnect points to understaffed and unreformed policing system over the years.
Like his previous two books The Accidental India (Aleph, 2012) and Aadhar: A Biometric History of India’s 12-Digit Revolution (Westland, 2017), The Gated Republic too is full of hard facts and figures. Painstakingly researched, a hallmark of Aiyar’s books as well as columns, each of the five chapters is a mini-history of the availability of the said service in India.
The history being traced is not recent or anecdotal. The author starts on each topic from before Independence on what systems British did or did not create. He then explains the vision at the time of Independence to establish a baseline of expectations. The appraisal of the actual picture 73 years later is against this baseline. In between, the progress is traced through parliamentary debates, government plans and policies, their implementation or lack thereof, academic studies and revelations obtained via Right to Information queries.
In this journey, what stands out is the general consistency of the language of ambition spoken by successive governments over the past decades. Although the intent has directionally been there and mostly a continuity of intent has also been there, there has been a big disconnect on the implementation front. Either the implementation has been missing altogether or the pace has been inadequate to achieve the stated ambitions.
Although the author talks about private sector filling the void left by the government shortcomings, the book does not demonise the private sector. This is not a story of reckless allegations of private sector trying to create leverage. On the contrary, the author identifies several interesting examples of committed individuals, who stepped forward to do what ideally the governments should have done. They, of course, still ran their businesses, but in many cases, it was done with a sense of social responsibility and wellbeing.
The Gated Republic is a thought provoking book, which nudges the citizens to demand more from their governments and set higher bar for governance. Water, healthcare, education, power and security are five areas where any state has a big role to play and unless citizens are more aware and demanding of the politicians, the government provision of these amenities may continue to experience lag.
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