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Governance in India

Governance in India

Contemporary India: Society and Governance by A Premchand (New Brunswick (USA) and London (UK): Transaction Publishers), 2010; pp xiii + 346, price not indicated.

Governance in India

S K Rao

A
Premchand has written an incisive and insightful book on society and governance in India based on both his personal observations and field studies, drawing on his scholarship of ancient and modern texts. It touches on a wide range of themes such as the basis of social formations and the laws governing society, the influence of diverse beliefs and religious texts, the contacts with the west, and the Constitution of India that forms the basis of law and governance in presentday India. It is a book that contains much original observation and thought. As it is difficult to adequately cover such a vast ground in any meaningful way in a book review, I do not propose to comment on all the themes of the book – for space prohibits such an ambition. Rather, in this review I propose to highlight and comment on some of the interesting insights and a rguments that Premchand puts forward.

Religion, Caste and Reservations

After tracing the religious and historical basis of many of the social formations such as castes, tribes, backward classes and religious minorities, and the recognition given to them in the Constitution and the reservation system that has developed around these categories, Premchand discusses their workings and impact on the social processes. Why have these identities like caste proved to be so enduring and stubborn? Has the recognition given in our Constitution to caste and other s ocial formations provided them a life far b eyond what social evolution might have determined? In this context, Premchand rightly quotes Ronald Niebuhr (1932), who argued that “as individuals men believe that they ought to love and serve each o ther and establish justice between each other. As racial, economic and national groups they take for themselves whatever their power can command.” This is an interesting perception, and it is worth discussing whether in India we are perpetuating

book review

Contemporary India: Society and Governance

by A Premchand (New Brunswick (USA) and London (UK): Transaction Publishers), 2010; pp xiii + 346, price not indicated.

these identities by enshrining these social/ religious identities in the Constitution and legislation. As Premchand seems to believe, the Constitution may have a ttempted to do too much without regard to what can be achieved. And there is the question whether by attempting to use legislation as a tool for social change

– but not followed up by implementation – one weakens the respect for government and the rule of law, sowing seeds for anarchy.

Urban-Rural Divide

In an insightful chapter that is based on his personal observation of developments largely in coastal Andhra Pradesh (from where Premchand hailed), the a uthor makes many interesting observations on the rural-urban divide, and how the rural economy and society are evolving. (Premchand’s acute observations and his style of reporting are reminiscent of Daniel Thorner’s reports on India during the 1960s.) He observes that the hegemony exercised by the landed class in rural a reas continues, and it is a many-layered one – benign, benevolent or aggressively selfish, as the case may be – with some lower castes taking to arms and the landed classes organising themselves into well-equipped militias. He does observe, however, that the emigration of lower castes to urban areas to escape from both caste discrimination and poverty is leading to labour scarcity, with farmers relying more and more on machines for agricultural operations. It is also leading to intra-state seasonal migration – from dry land to irrigated areas. Most village households now have television sets, providing entertainment and news, and the mobile phone has become “the best equaliser”. The coverage of events in rural areas by television channels is also having a significant impact on administration. And class differentiation is on the decline.

The author observes many other positive changes of great purport: family planning has become commonplace, with two children becoming the norm though there is still a desire to have a male child. Many villages in coastal Andhra Pradesh (much of which is irrigated) have a high rate of saving “and are flush with cash from the sale of milk, vegetables, coconuts and

o ther produce” (p 88). But, as the author observes: “Caste is still a dominant factor and has emerged as perhaps the most dominant factor defining the identity of an individual in the rural society. Partly, this is a consequence of the protective discrimination measures taken by the central and state governments, and partly of the political factors that continue to be played out in caste terms but are frequently obscured by the so-called political ideology” (p 88). He also notes the growing consumption of l iquor in urban and rural areas that has gone upscale – resulting in loss of health, fortune and harmony in family. I believe these observations are accurate.

Education and Health

As the author points out, while there is a growing recognition that the only way out of poverty is education, there continues to be a large number of small villages (44,000, as estimated by a Government of India report of 2006), including 1,000 Muslim concentration villages in West Bengal and Bihar with no educational facilities; the standards in government managed schools have in general been declining, and those parents who can afford to are sending their children to commercially-run private schools. As Premchand notes, there are three striking features about trends in education: (a) a persistent gap in the facilities between the rural and urban areas; (b) a gap in educational attainments between the northern (Uttar Pradesh and Bihar in particular) and western and southern states of India; and the emergence of even primary education

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BOOK REVIEW

as a commercial product rather than re-apples); growing labour shortages; and maining a public good. corporatisation of agricultural farming

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In regard to health, the author is right in highlighting four salient features: almost total elimination of polio and a reduction in the incidence of HIV/AIDS to manageable levels; second, spread of f acilities for prenatal and postnatal care; third, greater availability of mobile medical services, particularly ambulance services; and fourth, greater availability of specialist services such as eye-care and dental care. However, despite these positive features, there remains a huge urban-rural gap, with concentrations of population in both the areas that go without adequate access to medical care and, where available, handicapped by shortage of trained staff. While these observations by Premchand capture some major developments in healthcare and the burden of disease in India, one should add that the commercialisation of medical care and the absence of effective primary health centres accessible to the low-income groups in rural and urban areas is clearly a great lacuna.

Economic Inequalities

An interesting observation that the author makes is the stagnation in agricultural growth (2.3% in the Tenth Five-Year Plan), stagnation in productivity and the decline in the terms of trade for the farm sector as a whole, primarily as a result of public policies aimed at keeping food prices low. Premchand captures the many risks farmers face in which there is no assurance of a steady income – in significant contrast to urban-based activities. The farmer, he believes, “might prefer the alternative [to the present situation] of a crop insurance scheme, a minimum support price that would be triggered in the event of a calamitous fall in the price level, and a free market where there is an unhindered national market for his produce”. But there seems to be considerable pessimism in I ndia on the feasibility of introducing an effective agricultural insurance scheme. And at the same time, as he argues, the farmer confronts several developments in the economy that also have had contingent and unintended consequences for the rural area: the development of a real estate sector; acquisition of land for special economic zones; globalisation (e g, garlic, (e g, production of sugar cane). Lack of storage and marketing facilities is another.

NRI: The Neo-Change Agent

In an interesting chapter on the impact of Indian migration abroad, the author considers the macroeconomic implications of it – highlighting the magnitude of transfers migrants make (exceeding the levels of foreign direct investment in some years), in helping to improve the sustainability of government [foreign] debt by r educing risk associated with it. And, as Premchand observes, the Indian migrants abroad are also helping to change “the attitudes, mindsets and the outlook for Indian society”. The migrants from Krishna district were doctors or software e ngineers, with at least one migrant from each village in west Krishna! There is no doubt that this phenomenon has raised the aspirations of the rural child for better education – rather than look to making a living from land-based feudal e xploitation of labour.

Political Involvement

An interesting phenomenon that the author comments on is the emergence of “political families” in India following independence. They are given vast amounts of finance and physical facilities for political campaigns by the upper class (UC) that has grown up under the licence raj in the period of early planning and industrialisation. For the UC, “it is not the individual or the political label but a functioning relationship with the political family that is important” (p 143). Money in politics and a culture of patronage based on links with political families has thus become a deeply embedded feature of the Indian polity. Premchand’s understanding in this regard is indeed very astute.

Resurgence of Religion

Premchand notices a resurgence of religion in Andhra Pradesh – as in several other parts of the world. He asks why? He believes that the growing migration from the rural to urban areas is contributing to a “new kind of stress and anxieties, with religion providing relief”. He also notes that the level of governmental funding for

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faith-based educational institutions is also high – with half of the educational budgets of state governments supporting the educational activities of faith-based institutions in India (p 161) – implying in turn a growing partnership between the government and the others. Is this good or bad? Difficult to say: insofar as the public institutions are failing to deliver education, reliance on privately-funded schools – even those founded by religious trusts – may have something good about it. On the other hand, insofar as the religious trusts are fanning religion-based division of s ociety and undermining rational outlook, it is a negative development!

While explaining the resurgence of religion, Premchand, however, recognises that “an escape into religion to avoid the personal insecurities and social chaos may very well contribute, beyond a point, to political upheaval and greater social anarchy” (p 168). This chapter contains an interesting table on pathology of ethnic conflict that traces the immediate causes for religious conflict, its form, and its immediate and medium-term impact – a most fascinating table indeed!

Governance

The second part of the book traces the evolution of governance in India since I ndependence – the establishment of the Planning Commission that acted as a collective brains trust for the government, the emergence of autonomous agencies, institutional reform, among others. Decentralisation, regulation, civil service r eform, delivery of services and transparency (e g, Right to Information Act) were some of the other developments that marked the evolution of governance in post-independent India. Performance budgeting and now results-based management have been introduced. The author provides an able and succinct review of decentralisation, regulation, and measures that were aimed at empowerment of the people (e g, Lok Ayukt and Lokpal) and civil service reform. As the author says, many of these efforts failed to give attention to the structural factors and problems embedded in the governmental system – the need to attract good talent, build up adequate career streams, and job tenure as against frequent transfers, and the relationship between ministers and the civil servants, among other things.

There are, however, improvements in delivery of services by governments in selected areas where information technology was brought into play – for example, railway ticketing, registration of sale deeds, tax and pension payments, the processing and d elivery of passports, among others. The author, however, points to defence management, building adequate capacities for enforcement of change, lack of coordination in government, among others, that are areas where success seems to have eluded governments.

There is also a dysfunction between the tasks transferred and the financial powers delegated between national and subnational governments. And corruption seems to have become pervasive – except in those areas where information technology has cut out the middle-men: as Premchand says, “In daily life government and corruption are used interchangeably, both by the urban middle classes and the rural peasants” (p 218). The recent spate of scandals involving corruption in India has taken this perception to new heights, with few people believing in the honesty of government except, perhaps, in a few pockets of India.

Administrative Structures at the Centre and the States

An important theme that Premchand covers in his book is the administrative structures and the states (pp 220-26). As he observes, the heavier involvement of the central government in the design of development programmes and their financing, and regular oversight and evaluation including in areas that are essentially in the state list in the Constitution raise questions of autonomy of states and the federal nature of the Indian polity. It also raises questions of efficiency insofar as long chains of command, the design of programmes and delivery capacities at the local level are not adequately taken into account. This is an area that requires close attention.

Premchand also reviews the changing relationship between the Prime Minister’s Office and the ministries, and the growing dysfunctionality of government, based on coalition politics with patronage and money power playing a significant role. As the author says: “Indeed, it can be said that ‘public service’ ceases to be a dominant concern and serving the sectional interests may end up as the primary motivating force” (p 230). The author reviews and comments on the loss of prestige and the functionality of legislatures, the Standing Committees

– with many of them becoming ritualistic and their work becoming evanescent – setting back democratic procedures and public accountability as envisaged by the Constitution makers of India.

Corruption

If there is one issue that is troubling contemporary India, it is corruption in public life. In an insightful and interesting chapter (Chapter 7) on this theme, Premchand brings his vast knowledge to deal with this issue by starting with a quotation from Kautilya’s Arthashastra: “Just as it impossible not to taste honey or poison that one may find at the tip of one’s tongue, so it is impossible for one dealing with government funds not to taste, at least a little bit, of the King’s wealth”!

The author ably traces the evolution of the mores of our society from the post-independence years when corruption was abhorred

– e g, resignation of T T Krishnamachari in 1957, taking moral responsibility and not because he was culpable – and the uprightness of most of the civil servants and the citizens – to the present day when “corruption is accepted as part of daily life”. Most try to cope with – rather than oppose – it in one way or another.

Why did this happen? There is no doubt that as our private sector was weak and a large responsibility for action fell on the shoulders of government to transform our fortunes, “government activities grew and an extensive system of licensing and controls were brought into force to address the issues of industrial development and management of highly centralised and controlled foreign exchange regime” putting honey at the tip of the tongue of government servants! Various attempts were made to combat this – establishment of Ombudsmen, vigilance commissions, removal of licensing and administrative controls in many areas (e g, allocation of scarce foreign exchange), etc – but, while corruption has been eliminated or reduced in some areas, the perception today

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is that corruption has reached new heights in India reaching all corners of the government. We have now reached a stage where citizens expect bribes to vote for particular political parties, and they in turn believe that nothing can move unless ministers and other servants of the government are bribed to get any paper moving, even if by law they are entitled to receive what they are demanding! As Premchand says, “purchasing political influence has become an integral part of political lie” (p 279).

But what can be done to arrest and reverse this trend? We should perhaps take some lessons from Kautilya’s insight – r emove opportunities for corruption in the first place. Acknowledgedly, the reduction in trade and exchange restrictions and removal of licensing in many areas had the effect of reducing space for corruption. So has the use of IT in many areas of service delivery. The free press and the media are also playing a huge role in combating corruption. The ombudsmen system (e g, in banking) is also contributing well, thanks largely to the independence of the Reserve Bank of India from day to day interference of the government in its operations. But we have a long way to go.

The Myth of Law and Order

In an interesting chapter on law and order, Premchand starts by distinguishing the business of “making laws” from the “enforcement of laws” drawing an analogy of the distinction between “tool makers” and “tool users” from A C Pigou, a British economist of early 20th century. Clearly, law enforcement depends on how well the laws are drafted – leaving little ambiguity, easy to enforce, and reflect the collective will of the citizens. And if a government fails in the basic task of “tool making” then the laws cannot be enforced well – leading to disrespect for law over time. As Premchand says, “respect for law is largely a matter of tradition. Today’s habit becomes tomorrow’s tradition” (p 291). In India, we are in the unfortunate position that respect for law is at a low ebb, partly on account of corruption – but also because the “tools” are poorly made without regard to whether they can be brought into use or not.

Clearly, the law enforcement agencies – e g, the judiciary and the police – are as important as the laws themselves in maintaining the rule of law – and Premchand discusses the issues related to the functioning of the police in a thoughtful section (pp 296-308). Clearly, the police have a vital role to play in the enforcement of law

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– but how well are they equipped for it? Premchand reviews the present capacity and modalities of the police in a thoughtful section in combating crime. In discussing crime registration, he points to issues such as the polticisation of crime registration, harassment through arrest, use of profane language in addressing the alleged criminals, and the extensive use of bruta lity during and after the arrest of an individual, with many crimes going unreported. And when crime was reported the procedures followed by the police in getting evidence – with many under-trial remaining behind bars – reminding one of Franz Kafka’s The Trial!

While the forensic technology is coming in handy as an effective tool, the burdens falling on the police – in regard to crowd control – escorting the VIPs (absorbing considerable energy of the police), combating terrorism – make the tasks of police complex. His discussion on how the police are dealing with terrorism, and the

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june 11, 2011 vol xlvi no 24

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problems they face in this regard is particularly valuable (pp 303-08).

Confrontation Politics

The last two chapters of the book deal with confrontation politics and policymaking by the public (Chapter 9), and trusteeship: the case of public lands (Chapter 10).

The former surveys methods of struggle and protest such as “hunger strikes” (inherited from the pre-independence days) and street protests – affecting the nature and process of decision-making beyond the normal parliamentary procedures. The latter deals with the issue of trusteeship and ownership of land – an issue that has assumed great importance in recent years, in the face of governments granting lands for industrial plants and for the setting up of export processing zones. Premchand, in an enlightening survey of the issues, sets out the historical background to landownership rights – whether the ultimate ownership was v ested in the Crown or in the citizen – and the provisions of the Constitution of India in this regard. He points to the ambiguity in regard to the provisions relating to the sale or grant of land by the government. He says, “the issue whether government has the right to dispose of lands either through sale, lease or grant or whether such a task was to be performed within the broad ambit of legislation to be enacted by the legislature was not clarified” (p 326). After tracing successive practices and legislation in regard to grant or sale of land (for public purpose), he ably traces the non-transparent processes followed by governments – partly in aid of the corporate sector – and the murkiness that has developed as a result. He suggests various steps to combat and reverse this – including the issue of an annual statement to the legislature of the disposal of public lands. It is a commendable suggestion.

Concluding Remarks

As the present review indicates, Premchand’s Contemporary India: Society and Governance, is a thoughtful contribution based both on scholarship and personal observation by a civil servant – national and international – known for his integrity

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and acumen. The empirical evidence he reports on what is happening in rural I ndia based on his personal observations in the coastal districts of Andhra Pradesh bring valuable insights, and his observations on the resurgence of religion make a original contribution. His observations and analysis of governance in India (Part II of the book) are insightful and deserve close discussion. The last chapter (Chapter 10) on “Trusteeship: The Case of Lands” is an important and, I believe, original contribution to discussion of an issue that is occupying our attention following the many “land scams” that are being reported in the media. Premchand’s book merits close and wide reading by policymakers and scholars concerned with the future of India.

S K Rao (skrao@asci.org.in) is at the Administrative Staff College of India, Hyderabad.

Reference

Niebuhr, Ronald (1932): Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics, 1932/2001, p 9.

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Economic Political Weekly

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