Indian patients share a bed in a dengue ward of Hindu Rao hospital in New Delhi. Photo credit: PRAKASH SINGH/AFP/GettyImages
Snapshot
  • And this has little to do with their income status. The truth is that the delivery system of our most basic civic services is falling apart.

Dana Majhi, the Odisha tribal, who came into the news for having to walk carrying his wife’s body, is now the recipient of handsome donations from people moved by his plight, the most famous being the Prime Minister of Bahrain.

The donors clearly have their hearts in the right place, but they miss a basic point. Majhi was a victim of his poverty, certainly, but was the situation he was caught in solely because of his income status? Or was it because of the complete collapse of the delivery of basic public services by the state, which does not discriminate between the poor and the better-off?

Take the example of two stories from the cremation ground. One is from Madhya Pradesh and it hit the headlines weeks after Majhi’s case. A tribal was forced to cremate his wife with garbage because he could not pay for wood at the crematorium. The second story is about the cremation of a well-off retired professor in Gurgaon. The family, which could have paid for wood, was shocked when they found the crematorium staff stacking pieces of broken wooden furniture on his pyre.



Majhi carrying his wife’s body. Photo credit: YouTube Majhi carrying his wife’s body. Photo credit: YouTube

There is no getting away from this bare truth enunciated by Shailaja Chandra, former chief secretary of Delhi: “The citizen is at the receiving end of very little governance.”

And this has little to do with his income status. The well-off may have the ability to bypass the state, but even they cannot escape it completely. Often they too have to suffer the consequences of what Jayaprakash Narayan, a former bureaucrat, who started the Loksatta movement that later became a political party, calls the tremendous asymmetry of power. “There is no other democracy of significance where the lowliest public official is more powerful than 90 per cent of the people. The citizen is a mendicant, the public servant is the master and our socialist baggage has made it worse,” he notes.

Mahatma Gandhi spoke about su-raaj before Independence. When he first became chief minister of Bihar in 2004, Nitish Kumar promised su-raaj to replace the goonda raj of the earlier government. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Independence Day speech in 2016 had su-raaj as its theme.

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But the fact that there is still talk about bringing in su-raaj 70 years after Independence shows that there is something seriously rotten with governance in India.

The explanation about how things have come to this pass is well-known: an administrative machinery designed to maintain law and order under colonial rule was never re-oriented to play a developmental role; the steel frame has become too rigid. There is also the lack of effective decentralisation, despite the 73rd and 74th amendments to the Constitution making rural and urban local bodies the third tier of government. It is these bodies that are responsible for most of the cutting-edge-level services. The quality of these services can be much better, says Narayan, if local governments are truly empowered and given adequate resources.

Lack of funds is another reason for poor delivery of services. There are reports of cash crunch from municipalities across the country; often there is no money even for salaries. In such a situation, routine maintenance becomes a casualty and so stormwater drains are not unclogged, broken down X-ray machines are not repaired, missing manhole covers are not replaced, certificates cannot be issued because computers don’t work — the list is endless.

Indian commuters struggle through floodwaters beside a
partially constructed highway in Gurgaon south of New Delhi. Photo credit: STR/AFP/GettyImages       Indian commuters struggle through floodwaters beside a partially constructed highway in Gurgaon south of New Delhi. Photo credit: STR/AFP/GettyImages      

Narayan, however, thinks this is a lame excuse. “It is never about funds; it is just that people don’t know how to prioritise.”

That brings us to the nub of the problem: services to the ordinary citizen are way down in the priority list. Former cabinet secretary T S R Subramaniam sums it up aptly: “In a democracy, governance has to be citizen-centric. But it has becomes bureaucrat, politician and businessman-centric. The citizen doesn’t matter. He is just not on the radar. As a vote bank maybe, but definitely not as a citizen.”

Nothing brings this out more than this story highlighted by The Times of India on 18 September. Delhi’s Ram Manohar Lohia hospital has an ex-prime minister cell, meant to attend to former prime ministers. It has one room and one doctor with a technician, ambulance driver and paramedical staff dedicated to him. The hospital has been overrun with patients following the dengue and chikunguniya outbreak in Delhi, but this cell cannot help out. It has to be on stand-by duty 24X7, never mind that no former prime minister has ever used that facility in the past 20 years.

It is not as if course corrections were not attempted. Successive administrative reforms commissions have grappled with this. In 1997, the central and state governments adopted an Action Plan for Effective and Responsive Government. It had four planks: grievance redressal, citizens’ charters, amendment of laws and making justice delivery swift. What was the progress on these? “Absolutely nothing,” says Subramaniam, who was cabinet secretary at that time. “On all these counts, compared to the 1990s, we have slid back,” he laments.

The insistence on proper grievance redressal mechanisms and citizens’ charters were designed to make the bureaucracy more accountable. All departments, especially public-facing ones, had to draw up and widely publicise citizens’ charters setting out the services they offered, the timelines within which they would be offered, procedures to be followed and whom to approach for grievances, among other things.

This has not gone beyond a mere formality. According to the Second Administrative Reforms Commission’s 12th report on “Citizen Centric Administration — The Heart of Governance”, the citizens’ charters system was reviewed several times and ultimately led to a quality management standard being drawn up in 2005 as was a new assessment-improvement model called Sevottam.

Narayan feels such initiatives will taper off without legal backing, and laments that the central government has done nothing to revive the Right of Citizens for Time Bound Delivery of Goods and Services and Redressal of their Grievances Bill. Introduced in 2011, the bill lapsed with the dissolution of the Lok Sabha.

But will that really help? Twenty states have either notified or enacted a law on the delivery of public services. On the ground, however, nothing has changed.

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Who is to blame for this state of affairs? “Our system has no accountability from the top downwards,” says Subramaniam. “People only want scapegoats.” What ensues is an elaborate ritual of finger-pointing and passing the buck.

It is not as if there are no rules and processes to enforce accountability. There are. They are just not used. Government employees know this and are quite blatant now about their inefficiency and negligence.

It was not always like this. Chandra recalls a time when “even a justified reason couldn’t be justified beyond a point”.

But then there were clear signals coming from the top. The politicians knew, Chandra says, that they were elected to do something for the citizens. Union ministers, state chief ministers and ministers would pick up the phone and ask what went wrong when something happened and who was responsible.

That message got communicated through the senior bureaucracy down to the lower levels. “Down the line there was a feeling that the minister cares, the secretary cares, I must not let people down, I must not be seen as not having done my duty.”

Action was also taken against erring and negligent officials and the fear of opprobrium within the service kept people on their toes. But today, one only gets political bosses trivialising issues, when they do bother to react. “When political bosses stop caring, the bureaucracy becomes slack and also partisan and impervious to the public,” says Chandra.

Indeed, as Narayan points out, the same bureaucracy delivers very efficiently during elections when it functions under a clear chain of command, with a clear mandate and is fully accountable, with no political interference. It also delivers when political bosses make it clear that they want a pet programme to succeed.

Indian men carry an elderly woman on a flooded street
following heavy rain in Chennai. Photo credit:  STR/AFP/GettyImages Indian men carry an elderly woman on a flooded street following heavy rain in Chennai. Photo credit: STR/AFP/GettyImages

The flip side is that it also delivers when it comes to facilitating transgressions of politicians. Behind almost every flooded city, Subramaniam points out, will be a saga of reckless construction throwing all norms to the wind. This is possible because both politicians and bureaucrats have joined ranks. “Corruption has become organised crime; it is nothing short of thuggery”.

With top levels of the bureaucracy compromised, duty-conscious officials are caught in a bind. If they do take action against an errant staffer, there is fear about becoming the target of an anonymous complaint or the action backfiring in some way. There is also political interference in what are really routine matters. So many bureaucrats now prefer to play it safe, trying not to ruffle feathers and turning a blind eye to laxity.

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Can things change? How? Chandra says a mature approach is required. “There should be acceptance of the fact that one cannot transgress systems and processes. That is what governance is all about.” Narayan roots for a convergence of a clear mandate, accountability and resources.

Subramaniam, however, is less optimistic. “The system will implode at some point,” he says. Perhaps a more citizen-friendly system may emerge from the debris of the old one.

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