Sunday, February 15, 2009

Towards ‘good’ governance in India

At a time when the world has seen never-the-before violence in terms of terrorist attacks on innocent victims, State aggression on poor people, children and women, and high incidence of chronic poverty and increasing inequality, it is essential for a citizen to assess how his or her country has advanced during the last 5 years. This is vital since the parliamentary elections are approaching and every political party would like to woo voters on its side. From the perspective of economic development at the grassroot level so as to emancipate and empower the poorer and marginal sections of the society, India during the recent past pursued the following major goals:

a. Right to Information Act, 2005 for ensuring transparency and accountability at governance level.
b. Right to Compulsory and Basic Education by implementation of Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) and Mid Day Meal (MDM) schemes.
c. Right to Food by proper running of the Public Distribution System (PDS) and the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS).
d. Right to Employment by enacting the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA).
e. Right to Self-governance by empowering the process of decentralization and strengthening of the Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs) and Urban Local Bodies (ULBs).
f. Right to Health by effective implementation of National Rural Health Mission (NRHM).

This brief article is a general one, and its purpose is to understand how governance and inclusive development are inter-related. The aim is not to produce facts and figures but to ponder upon some of the basic changes required that can bring the country far-fetched results.

The Right to Information Act, 2005 was essential to check corruption and ensure transparency in the implementation of various development related schemes and programmes that are directly or indirectly intended to reduce poverty, ensure employment and expand livelihood opportunities. Such programmes and schemes, which are supported and funded by government, had often seen leakages and lacunae, and hence the need for RTI Act emerged. However, there are exceptions too. For example, matters related to India’s internal security and defence cannot be brought within the purview of this Act. Even the Chief Justice of India (CJI) is exempted from this Act. In order to make the RTI Act more encompassing and functional, there is thus the need to make amendments to it. This is to mention that judicial and administrative reforms too are essential to attain the objectives of transparency, and they are on their ways. The RTI Act was enacted to help the poor and marginalized who are often exploited at the hands of the rulers. India ranked 72 among 180 nations in the year 2007 in terms of corruption index, according to Transparency International (TI). TI India’s ‘India Corruption Study 2005’ found that water was one of the public services, which is ridden with corrupt practices. Many have claimed that the RTI Act has failed to cater the citizens. Apart from the RTI Act, there are other mechanisms and institutions too, which are aimed at enhancing transparency such as: public interest litigation (PIL), Central Vigilance Commission (CVC), Election Commission (EC), Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), Crime Investigation Department (CID) et al. There is increasing demand for voluntary disclosure of assets not only by elected political class but also the bureaucracy and the judiciary. The right to know about the assets and liabilities of candidates contesting elections was part of the fundamental right of citizens under Article 19(1)(a). The Supreme Court of India earlier held that the fundamental right to freedom of speech guaranteed under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution was based on the foundation of the freedom of right to know and all citizens have the right to know about the activities of the State. The Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT) is the nodal agency for the implementation of RTI Act. Even ‘file notings’ can be disclosed to the general public under this Act. One can recall that Central and State Information Commissions can disclose the information held by public authorities under section 19(8)(a)(iii). The RTI Act is useful to ensure freedom of expression, too. The importance of e-governance for speedy, efficient and transparent delivery of services at the doorsteps of citizens has grown over time. Computerisation of government offices has become part of e-governance. Booking of railway tickets has become easier due to e-governance. Social and public auditing of muster rolls in development related schemes and programmes has become an empowering practice in some parts of the country.

The Right to Compulsory and Basic Education is yet to become a full-fledged Act. This right can be ensured by imparting good quality education by well-educated and trained teaching staff to children below 14 years of age. The 86th amendment to the Constitution requires the State to determine by law the manner in which the Right to Free and Compulsory Education shall be provided to the children. The Fundamental Right to Life (Article 21) of the Constitution should be read in “harmonious construction” with the Directive in Article 45 to provide Free and Compulsory Education to children belonging to the age group 0-14 years, including those below six years of age. Right to Education is related to the Common School System founded on the principle of ‘neighbourhood schools’. It was the Kothari Commission way back in 1966 that emphasized upon the Common School System. The importance of MDM scheme lies in reducing drop-out rates especially among girl students, reducing the number of out-of-school children, providing employment to women cooks who would serve meal to students, increasing cohesiveness among students who would be eating together (via MDM scheme) despite coming from diverse backgrounds, and preventing the curse of child labour when their poor parents do not have to worry about the cost of sending their children for school education. Employment of child labour in hazardous industries is quite prevalent in India. The Government of India’s Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) is seen as a positive intervention to change the fabric of Indian education. Yet there are hurdles that include: lack of infrastructure facilities in schools, lagging state of professionalism among teachers, lack of training, opportunities and incentives for good teachers, discrimination against students coming from weaker sex and oppressed communities, redundant course content etc. It is difficult to implement the SSA and the MDM schemes effectively in such a big and diverse country like India unless there is co-operation coming from the government and public at large. India is still lagging in terms of basic literacy and education, which is shameful. Literacy rate for men has increased from 24.95 percent in 1951 to 75.85 percent in 2001, while literacy rate for female has increased from 7.93 percent in 1951 to 54.16 percent in 2001. Gross enrolment ratios of girls have stayed below boys in the primary, upper primary and elementary level of education. There is grossly under-representation of women in the science and technology frontier of education. The RTI Act might play a decisive role when it comes to checking leakages of foodgrain meant for MDM scheme. Moreover, there is need to prevent crooks from becoming teachers through bogus certificates and degrees. The SSA has been criticized from the perspective of quality education. Education, which is a basic human right, has often been ignored in India. Primary and basic education has suffered from regional inequality, income inequality, inter-caste disparity, and what not. In fact, children have become victims at the hands of the policy-makers. The task of providing education for all with concrete plans of action gained greater momentum after the drafting of the National Policy on Education (NPE) 1986, which got revised in 1992. Investment in education is considered essential for human capital formation that can boost economic growth in the long run. Seldom this aspect was accepted. There is a public appeal for ‘education for all’ at this stage.

Enhancing quality of life is an important objective of human development. Yet India has to enact its own Right to Food despite having a public distribution system (PDS). The importance of Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS) to combat malnutrition and undernutrition among women and children cannot be undermined. However, in the recent times, one could observe the decay of the PDS, and the transition from universal to targeted PDS could not help in reaching out to the poorest of the poor. There have been numerous studies pertaining to the PDS, and it is difficult to capture various elements of such studies in such a brief essay. The PDS, which was a major institution to ensure food, nutrition and livelihood security, has eroded overtime due to corruption, inefficiency, adoption of wrong policy choices etc. Article 47 of the Constitution of India states that “the State shall regard raising the level of nutrition and standard of living of its people and improvement in public health among its primary duties”. At the international level, although India has become self-sufficient in food production, yet a large section of the poverty-stricken masses remain unfed. The Right to Food movement/ campaign, which grew after the hearing by the Supreme Court of a writ petition filed by the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (Rajasthan), not only provided the Indian citizens with information about the food security situation but also made a serious attempt to draw the attention of Supreme Court to consider ‘Right to Food’ as a fundamental right. Indian women suffer from gender-based norms and discrimination, which adversely affect their nutritional status. Due to early weaning-out, children in the 0-6 years of age-group suffer from wasting and stunting. According to the National Family Health Survey-III (NFHS III), more than a third (36%) of women have a BMI below 18.5, indicating a high prevalence of nutritional deficiency. The anaemia situation has worsened over time for Indian women. Signing of various declarations at numerous conferences could not help India to make Right to Food a binding right. Need for proper institutions to guide India for ensuring Right to Food for all cannot be ignored at any cost. Leakages from ration shops owing to differences between administered and market prices can be tackled by RTI activism. However, the lackadaisical attitude of the officialdom may not help India to reduce hunger by half by the year 2015, which is one of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). It hardly matters to understand that a hunger free society can give birth to a more efficient, equitable and vibrant India. The Right to Food would ensure Right to Life, which is constitutionally guaranteed under Article 21.

The United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, which started with the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) by implementing it initially in 200 districts, faced criticisms that included: leakages and corruption in the scheme, a large chunk of the expenses being siphoned off for meeting material cost instead of labour cost, lack of co-ordination among Centre and states for regular release of funds, presence of corrupt actors at the village-level etc. India had seen failure of food-for-work programmes in the past too before the enactment of the NREGA. It was earlier thought that by providing 100 days of work to a person (one each from a single household), during the lean seasons (i.e. between rabi and kharif), the livelihood security of those who are willing to do manual labour can be ensured. It was speculated that the NREGA would help in stopping distress migration of labouring communities during lean seasons. The NREGA was supposed to solve the problem of unemployment amidst income-poor groups. However, in many states of India, the labourers are not getting employment under NREGA despite demanding for it, presently. Minimum wages are often not paid to the labourers. The snobbish attitude of the upper strata of the Indian society was always critical about the NREGA. Non-payment of unemployment compensation has become a regular feature of this scheme. In its performance auditing draft report presented in 2007, the Comptroller and Auditor-General of India has criticized dilution of the scheme under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act due to poor record maintenance, delayed payment of wages and non-payment of unemployment allowance. In many parts of India, there are complaints of non-issuance of job cards. Economists too played a negative role during enactment of NREGA in the name of fiscal austerity and prudence. One of the noticeable things was that both NREGA and RTI Act came into being almost concurrently. But the ground reality is quite different than what was envisioned when the Acts were put into place for the first time. NREGA envisaged that rural infrastructure such as water bodies, schools, roads etc. could be constructed and maintained by employing the toiling labouring classes, which would raise their purchasing power. This, in turn, would lead to creation of ‘effective demand’ in rural India. Our ‘shining’ India is yet to recognize this aspect. At a time, when India is facing economic downturn, infusion of Rs. 25,000 crore a year in a scheme like NREGA might be fruitful. Social auditing that was started by the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) in Devdungri, Rajasthan (India), by going through the muster rolls of food-for-work programmes, can play a decisive role in empowering the poor and working classes. Employment-for-all, in this respect, can become a development-oriented motto for grassroot activism.

The Right to Self-governance was essential to escape from bureaucratic controls and shackles, whereby villages would have more autonomy and power in decision-making than before. The creation of proper rules and institutions for further decentralization came into being in the early 1990s in the form of 73rd and 74th amendments to the Constitution of India. Indeed, the dream for a decentralised India is not only Gandhian but also socialist in a sense that both the ideologies give emphasis on equitable rural development, where the masses would be more powerful compared to the rulers. For some, decentralization has weakened the Indian State in the age of globalisation. In fact, decentralization was a result of the decay of centralized planning system that existed during the Nehruvian era. Empowering the PRIs and ULBs is considered essential for proper implementation of government funded programmes and schemes so that villagers and elected panchayat members have the right to cross-check the official documents, which used to be under the control of sarkari babus earlier. Decentralised political structure would overthrow the unnecessary burden of monolithic centralised authority, which can give birth to a ‘new’ social order and provide a platform to people’s voice. Local issues and problems could be heard and solved effectively due to self-governance. Strengthening of PRIs and ULBs can help in release of people’s dissenting voices. The State in that case would then be leaning more towards listening to short creative stories rather than meta and grand narratives. Giving power to the local and elected bodies is now seen as a major policy instrument for ensuring grassroot democracy. The rise of regional political parties and the evolution of political and fiscal decentralization are now essential features of Indian democracy. But it does not mean that decentralization has been all the way a positive experience. The elected members of the local bodies turned out to be corrupt individuals in many cases. Women’s and oppressed classes’ representation in the elected local bodies have not been upto the mark. Many panchayats in India practiced caste-based ostracism, and some even directly got involved into honour killings, particularly from the North Indian belt.

The National Rural Health Mission (NRHM) is another flagship programme of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) to assure right to health for the Indian citizens. After liberalization of the Indian economy, one could observe privatization of health service delivery, which used to be costly and hence excluded the poor. The accountability of the private sector to their clients has been low. According to the Report of the Independent Commission on Development and Health in India (ICDHI), there exist regional disparities in outcome indicators for health. India does not have enough doctors to cater the need of its rural population. Medical colleges are unevenly spread throughout India, which affect access to health care. Public health security is lacking in India. Out-of-pocket expenses are too high, which adversely affect the poor. Expenditure on provision of public health is meager. There is a need to think whether there can be alternative affordable mechanisms for delivery of good quality health services for the public at large. The National Health Policy (NHP) 2002 in principle ‘welcomes the participation of the private sector in all areas of health activities’—primary, secondary or tertiary. This stand contradicts the basic goal of NHP-1983, which aimed at providing ‘universal, comprehensive primary health care services, relevant to actual needs and priorities of the community’. Directive principles of State policy has provisions that touch on the subject of health and one can refer to the text of Articles 39(e), 39(f), 42 and 47. Although health insurance schemes have cropped up in recent times, yet majority of the population have little or no access to such schemes. The condition of public hospitals and health care centres is pitiable. Prevalence of life style diseases is on the rise. Despite the Government of India’s commitment in providing Health to All as mentioned in the Articles 21 and 47, it has been alleged that increased private expenditure as compared to the public expenditure has adversely affected the poorer section’s access to basic health services.

The ground reality is extremely harsh, and whatever India could achieve during the last 5 years in terms of human and social development is inadequate. By looking at the day-to-day unfolding of events in the life of a common man, one can never boast that India has developed. The last 5 years of the UPA government has been crucial in the sense that it wanted to prepare and implement a people-centric policy. How far the government has been able to deliver good governance is a moot question. The major goals pursued by India, as discussed above, have been selected subjectively, keeping in mind what the government did for the poor and marginalized sections of the Indian society. But not much could be conferred in terms of outcomes for pursuing these goals. May be the results of the forthcoming parliamentary elections would provide a better answer to our inquiry.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

your article is very use full .can you please mail something on the
" initiatives / action plan adopted by the GOI for the proper implementation of good governance in India " in Hindi.