a compellingly uncomfortable book – The Gold Standard

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I finished reading ‘The Gated Republic’ yesterday. Before I begin reviewing the book, I must confess that I could not help contrasting it with ‘Accidental India’. ‘Accidental India’ was strangely uplifting. It was about India stumbling upon the right answers. It left the readers with the hope that India might eventually land up with answers to vexing problems even as it muddles through.

I enjoyed reading ‘Accidental India’. I did not enjoy reading ‘The Gated Republic’ because the content is not for enjoyment but for reflection. ‘Accidental India’ too provided fodder for reflection but the underlying optimism made us overlook the case for reflection. Clearly, ‘The Gated Republic’ is not about such happy accidents. ‘The Gated Republic’ is in your face. There is no escaping the stark reality when one reads about a patient with a head injury getting his healthy leg removed.

It is about public policy failures and how Indians are forced to find their own answers. It is a relentless documentation of systematic failure. It appears that there are no accidents waiting to happen – in a good way. Does it mean that Shankkar Aiyar himself is becoming more pessimistic on India? I hope not. If so, that is worrisome. I hope the book is not a hint or signal that Shankkar is giving up hope for a better India.

To be fair to Shankkar, he does preface his stories with the two or three examples of perfect execution by the Government or government agencies in India – whether it is the Mars Orbiter or the conduct of elections or building the world’s highest bridge. But, they are soon eclipsed by the powerful stories of failures.

The book features many things that one has to come to associate with Shankkar Aiyar. There is the amazing depth and breadth of amazing research. Shankkar-isms are plenty to find. There is wry humour. The attention to detail. There are the delightful turns of phrases. Then, there are delightful stories. Stories that amuse, make us think and inspire. We know the origins of the name, ‘Bisleri’. We read about a man who got treated for ankle injury through ‘Doctor on demand’ getting the idea to start ‘Doctor Insta’ in India, the story of Sintex water tank, water ATMs, Sunil Bharti Mittal’s schools, the ‘Avasara’ schools of Roopa Purushottaman and her husband and the rickshaw puller Ahmed Ali (who is now 82) who sold his land to start schools and was shy of naming even one school after himself and so on. We also become aware of how the Indian households got their inverters.

It is also good to note that the Brits did not think too poorly of the knowledge and literature of the natives:

a sum of not less than one lakh of rupees in each year shall be set apart and applied to the revival and improvement of literature and the encouragement of the learned natives of India and for introduction and promotion of a knowledge of the science among the inhabitations of the British territories in India.’

The statistics and the data presented can be dizzying. Perhaps, in future editions of the book, Shankkar should also present them as an appendix in tables with attribution to sources so that they could aid research scholars too.

Even though we are now very used to public sector failures in India, three things made for particularly disappointing reading. The abolition of the anti-copying legislation or Ordinance by Mulayam Singh Yadav; the controversial Enron project in Maharashtra that got India’s private sector generation off to a bad start and Punjab offering free electricity to farmers in 1997 setting off a chain reaction with Maharashtra politicians breaking their unwritten agreement not to offer free power to farmers. The country is paying a big price for all of these until now and may continue to do for years to come. Shankkar lets us know that when the anti-copying law was passed, the pass percentage came down to 14% in the Class X exams in 1992. When Mulayam Singh Yadav abolished the anti-copying law, the pass percentage went up to over 85%.

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The book is about how public sector failures have forced Indians to seek private solutions even if it means paying for those services that they are entitled to demand from their governments. In other words, private solutions, innovative though they may be, are the other side of the coin of public failures. That said, many of the non-accountability of the public sector is traced to the private sector criminality or apathy or both.

Whether it is letting pollutants into our rivers, whether it is defaulting on bank loans, whether it is diverting the loans taken for personal purposes, whether it is underbidding and then re-contracting for providing services or goods to the public sector or evading taxes, the private sector feeds into and reinforces public sector apathy. Trust breaks down at both ends. Accountability is weakened all around.

It is not that the citizens of India have retreated into their Gated Republics. Not many of them can afford it. Several millions of them are spending their meagre incomes on educating their children in private schools; in getting treated at private hospitals and paying for safe drinking water or paying for the lack of it with diseases.

We should note that Indian citizens would not have had to seek their gated republics had the public servants themselves not exited first. If only they taste, ‘enjoy’ or experience the government services or the lack of them, there is a very good chance that they would improve dramatically in short time. We can start with something simpler. Forget about government officials taking treatment from government hospitals or sending their children to government-run schools. If they fill in the forms they create online or try complying with the procedures they create to see how ordinary citizens experience them, things will change. Right now, they have exited even these. Their secretaries and assistants take care of their interaction with other government services.

The experience of nominating someone for Padma Awards 2021

An experience that I encountered illustrates the point very well. Take the ‘Padma Awards 2021’. Nominations are now open for January 2021 awards. It has moved online. Someone can nominate themselves and they can also request many distinguished Indians and non-Indians to second them. But, the problem is devilishly complicated. The ‘sponsor’ or the ‘referee’ must register themselves and get themselves a login name and password which will have to go through a OTP hoop on their phone. Then, they will have to upload the personal particulars of the nominee and the nominee’s photo – each and every sponsor has to do it! Then, they have to upload all information about the nominee – their career accomplishments, their awards and recognition, their state and national level awards, their awards at the international level, etc., in seven windows online. They have to ‘copy and paste’ seven different paragraphs at least into each of these windows. Since these are likely to be the same information, every sponsor will be uploading the same information on the nominee. Then, finally, they have to upload a PDF document with their recommendation.

If they want to check if everything they had done had been uploaded correctly before they finally SUBMIT their nominations and click on ‘Print Priview’ (it was misspelt), what they see is a dump. They would be momentarily shocked that all they had done so far had become garbled and mangled. If they recover from that shock and want to go back to the final page, they are in for another surprise. ‘Back’ button takes them back to the very first page. They may be crestfallen thinking that they have to re-enter the information all over again. They have to ‘forward’ the screen at least five times to come to the final submission page which they were on, before they opted to preview their submission.

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Moving something online is not about replacing the paper filing with its exact electronic equivalent. The power and advantage of technology can be harnessed to make the process simpler and efficient. Once the nominee uploads all the information about himself/herself and gets some identification number for the nomination, the same can be shared with all the referees and they should simply be required to upload one personal statement about the nominee, give a few personal details about themselves and the matter should be over in a few minutes.

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With this kind of needless complexity arising out of unthinking application of technology, how does India hope to attract global enterprises wanting to relocate from China?! Without public servants experiencing public service, redemption for Indian citizens and for India may have to wait. Put differently, if there is no systemic accountability in public service, there is no redemption for India. But, before we delve into the delicate topic of accountability, there is some time and room for optimism.

Is there an answer? Cue Devesh Kapur

Before I even attempt, bravely and yet foolishly, to provide answers, let me offer a different perspective from Devesh Kapur. Devesh Kapur, in his paper in the ‘Journal of Economic Perspectives’ (‘Why does the Indian state both fail and succeed?’) notes,

In this decade, India’s state has successfully opened bank accounts for over 350 million people, delivered gas connections to more than 80 million households, built around 100 million toilets reaching 600 million people, and has begun implementing direct cash transfer schemes that are reaching tens of millions of farmers. While each of these programs has exaggerated numbers and challenges of quality, timeliness, and exclusion, there is little doubt that the Indian state is now developing the capacity to transform inputs into outputs.

In his view,

The Indian state performs better in activities that are episodic in delivery and accountability and where, therefore, exit is automatic once the activity is complete.

In fact, his optimistic conclusions extend further:

The frontline implementation capacity of the Indian state is improving markedly and is manifest in its ability to scale up programs rapidly to reach tens and even hundreds of millions of people. …… there is little doubt that the Indian state is now developing the capacity to transform inputs into outputs.

Where does the Indian state fail?

It does less well where rents and social cleavages overlap. It does least well on issues that require behavioural changes at the micro level. The reasons, we argue, lie in the understaffing of local government, the precocious democracy of India and its anomalous sequencing of universal franchise, and India’s “societal failures” manifest in caste and gender discrimination.

The answer, according to Devesh Kapur, lies in numbers, especially at the local administration:

For all of these, India will need a more effective state, one that is better resourced especially at the local level and whose accountability is more “downward” directed towards citizens, rather than “upward” directed towards the state-level bureaucracy and politicians.

His paper has a chart depicting declining public sector employees per million individuals over time. Public sector comprising local bodies, central government, state governments and quasi-government entities.

At the material plane, it requires that we start somewhere. Ricardo Hausmann and others say that we identify the binding constraints and start working on them. Other things would follow. One starting point could be primary education and then following that thread or using it to figure out the whole fabric or create one, as Shankkar hints at, in the epilogue. After all, government-run Kendriya Vidyalayas were and are a relative success story. There is a model to emulate. Once we focus on issue, getting it right might automatically result in other problems getting attention – such as provision of water, electricity and toilets in schools (and then to the neighbourhoods where the schools are located) and safety of children on the streets (law & order), etc.

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But, any implementation would run into the issue of accountability that Devesh Kapur identifies and Shankkar had mentioned in several places. To emulate Shankkar’s penchant for numbers and his frequent references to internet searches and the number of hits, a search for ‘accountability’ yields 32 results in the book.

Enforcing accountability too requires that the political leadership starts somewhere. According to the veteran journalist cum commentator cum economist, TCA Srinivasa Raghavan (TCAS), the source of the problem is Article 311 (1) and (2) of the Constitution of India. Clause (1) says that no civil servant (of the Union or a State or an all-India service) could be removed from office by an authority subordinate to the one that appointed him/her.

Clause (2) says that no such person shall be removed or reduced in rank except after an inquiry…

TCAS writes that the Article 311 was taken from the Government of India Act 1935 which, in turn, drew heavily from the Government of India Act of 1919 which, in turn, was the result of Montagu-Chelmsford reforms of 1918. It was meant to ensure that no ‘white’ officer was removed from office by any ‘brown’ Indian who might be administratively senior or superior to him. But, since the ‘white’ officer was appointed by the Governor/Viceroy, only they could remove him/her! TCAS proposed an amendment to clause (2) which was the equivalent of “Three strikes and you are out.”

I do not know enough if this is the root cause or it is something else. But, I do know that Ms. J. Jayalalitha, the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, during her second term between 2001 and 2006 tried to enforce accountability among teachers in government-run schools. She appeared to succeed but it did cost her the election in 2006. Of course, there were other factors including the manner in which the protests by teachers were handled, etc. But, clearly, enforcing accountability carries political risks even though Ms. Jayalalitha reversed her decisions and tried appeasement.

So, how does one bell the cat? 

At the spiritual plane, it is about ‘letting go’. It is the same as not making policy from the wrong end – i.e., from the analysis of political consequences. Letting go of political consequences is possible. After all, even with current approaches to decision making, political (election) outcomes are not guaranteed. Why not try something different? That is, why not make decisions with nary a thought for outcomes? There may even be pleasant surprises in terms of political outcomes. As far as I know, there is no tried, tested and guaranteed formula for winning elections or for box-office success for films.

A similar ‘letting go’ applies for the private sector too: putting the long-term horizon ahead of the short-term and putting the collective ahead of the individual interests. The payoff is the larger pie and collective pride. Even a smaller share of the larger pie might be wealthier than the current large share of a small pie.

That is the possibility – the rainbow at the end of the horizon. But, who will grasp it and what will make them grasp it?

I do not think Shankkar Aiyar should be expected to provide the answer. That is not fair. Shankkar has posed compellingly uncomfortable questions. It is for the rest of India to ponder over them and come up with the answers.

Both ‘The Accidental India’ and ‘The Gated Republic’ should be compulsory reading at the Lal Bahadur Sastri Academy at Mussouri, at all schools teaching public policy in the country and for civil servants and for politicians all over the country, in all political parties, who still harbour a secret desire to leave the country a better place than they found it.

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