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India’s State institutions are failing citizens because they were built to control, not govern

While centralising elements are necessary at times, the problem is that India’s institutions have not evolved along with the country’s growth.

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More than 70 years after Independence, most of India’s institutions continue to act predominantly as forces of control rather than governance and administration. While centralising elements are necessary at times, the problem largely lies in the fact that these institutions, which stemmed from colonial structures, have not evolved along with the country’s growth, thereby obstructing State capacity. This was perhaps understandable in the initial post-colonial decades given the magnitude of the nation-building project and existential threats. That time, however, is long gone. When we talk about State capacity in India, we are not referring to specific governments or political parties, but rather, the ability of the State to provide for and support the aspirations of its 135 crore people. Why are institutions failing citizens and how they can be improved?

Daron Acemoglu, Simon Johnson, and James A. Robinson, in a seminal paper titled ‘The Colonial Origins of Comparative Development’, argue that two types of institutions were established in erstwhile colonies – extractive institutions, primarily located in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia where colonists did not intend to settle and created institutions to extract resources, and “Neo-Europes”, formed to replicate European institutions in settler colonies such as in Australia and Canada, encompassing the protection of property rights and rule of law.

In India, depending on where you look, institutions fall into both categories. Consider the Government of India Act (1935): India had some semblance of provincial autonomy, with elected chief ministers and state assemblies, albeit with limited concessions; at the same time, a cornerstone of the Act enabled unelected, centrally-appointed governors to centralise power by dismissing state legislatures, blocking legislations, and curtailing the voice of elected representatives. Such centralisation carried on after Independence. It was supported in the Constituent Assembly as a way to ensure stability, given the prevalent communal violence and integration of princely states. In 1950, the Constitution conferred to the central government significant powers to take charge of states’ affairs through President’s Rule, the concurrent list, and the office of the governor. Since then, despite evolution in the country’s growth trajectory, the nature of institutions has largely failed to keep up with them. For instance, since Independence, President’s Rule has been invoked 121 times, with the most under Prime Minister Indira Gandhi (50 times between 1966-1977 and 1980-1984), and the Janata Party (20 times between 1977-1980), often for reasons of political expediency rather than crisis resolution. Similarly, excessive fiscal power held by the Centre undermines the notions of cooperative federalism that India was built on and has led to bungled policies and decision-making.

The scale of this problem has not gone completely unnoticed. In recent years, bureaucratic and governance reforms have been instituted to address challenges of State capacity; however, most of them urgently need to be scaled up. For instance, a few weeks ago, the Narendra Modi government announced that it, under the current lateral entry scheme, aims to make 30 senior hires from outside the bureaucracy. While this is a positive step forward, it pales in comparison to the 1,500+ vacant IAS officer posts. Another example of welcome initiatives includes the Digital India project, which aims to move online a host of paper-based documents, thereby providing policymakers the tools and resources to make quick and informed governance decisions, with significantly less paperwork. Moreover, there has been heightened attention to improving training for bureaucrats, such as via the upcoming iGOT platform, equipping them with the necessary skills to carry out tasks more efficiently.

Also read: India now as autocratic as Pakistan, worse than Bangladesh: Sweden institute’s Democracy Report

Centre vs states – constant power play

At the local level, it was not until the 1990s that local government bodies in urban and rural areas were constitutionally recognised through the 73rd and 74th constitutional amendments; even then, their powers and autonomy are limited. An analysis of local government provisions reveals that the appointment and dismissal of municipal commissioners and district collectors across different states, barring Kerala, is at the discretion of the state government, not the citizens in the districts they administer and represent. This mismatch between authority and agency is reflected in the poor condition of welfare services. Thus, the post nation-building political establishment has failed to transform institutions from agents of control to those of governance.

More recently, the rapidity with which centralisation occurred during the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic was evident through the use of the Disaster Management Act (2005), even though health and family welfare is a state subject. In times of crises, the centralisation of power is not egregious; moreover, it can be argued that the pandemic is a black swan event where, especially at the beginning, citizens and the State were acting with pretty much the same information. However, the challenge arises when the crafting and implementation of policies at the state level is restricted. For example, the infamous plight of migrant workers did not necessarily mandate a central response. With northern states supplying migrant labour and western and southern states demanding it, states should have been permitted to deploy their own emergency responses depending on their individual situations. Fiscal centralisation and states’ reliance on the Centre’s patronage for funding and resources—revealed by delayed devolution of GST revenue and states’ subsequent scrambling to provide services—underscores the limitations of India’s federal structure.

Also read: Coronavirus has given India two choices: Increase state power or state capacity

Matching State capacity to people’s needs

This is not to say that India has not made advancements in creating new institutions that are efficient, well-resourced, and underpin aspects of its State capacity. The Election Commission of India (ECI), Reserve Bank of India (RBI), and the Comptroller and Auditor General’s (CAG) office, are such examples that have been strengthened in the post-Independence era. For instance, the ECI was created in 1950 with the aim of implementing universal franchise, following the limited franchise available to Indian citizens pre-Independence. It continues to carry out free and fair elections and has a history of staying its ground in the face of executive pressure.

India can also learn from international measures to build a more capable State. Under the UK’s Tony Blair administration, Sir Michael Barber popularised the concept of state delivery units, which are temporary, small groups set up within government bodies to solve specific delivery challenges and build capacity from the outside. India has experimented with delivery units in the past, but formalising and growing this ecosystem could prove beneficial to the country’s long-run growth trajectory. Other global success stories of building State capacity that India’s institutions could gain insights from include labour market redesign and personnel management in Kenya, and information sharing and financial management platforms in Indonesia and Uruguay.

The year 2020 exposed fissures in India’s State capacity. The fault lines were present before Covid-19 struck, with lack of investment in infrastructure and inadequate public service delivery plaguing various parts of the country, but the pandemic pushed them to prominence. Further, 40 crore Indians are predicted to become poorer as a result of the novel coronavirus, a significant blow to decades of headway lifting people out of poverty. Strong, effective, and agile institutions can cater to changing demands of the country and its citizens. As 2021 progresses, we need to rethink some of our public institutions and their role in building State capacity, modifying their functioning to meet the needs of 135 crore Indians.

Vibhav Mariwala and Kadambari Shah are, respectively, Senior Analyst and Senior Associate at IDFC Institute, a think and do tank in Mumbai.

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  1. The methods adopted by corrupt to sustain corruption is either by way of an autocratic rule as we we have seen in most of the countries which got independence after the second world war.
    India adopted a different technic, we corrupted the entire country systematically. It is now so easy to go after anyone because the spread is complete. This was a perfect democracy for all the beneficiaries.
    The correction could only have come from someone like MODI, so the beneficiaries with their collective financial muscle and friends all over the world are putting up the resistance.
    The colonial rulers established devices to rule with an iron fist, the subsequent rulers put a velvet glove on it to fool the population, the purpose changed from ruling to money making even co-opting the opposition instead of crushing it like in the neighbouring countries.

  2. It is very easy to say that State institutions are failing the citizens because they are. But those responsible for this are the citizens themselves.

    Sample this

    The other day while driving on a road I saw a vehicle parked right in the middle of the road, unloading some stuff. I pulled up, walked over to the driver who was at the wheel, possibly waiting for the unloading to finish, and politely requested him to move the vehicle to the side of the road so that traffic is not held up. He looked at me with an air of ownership and quipped in Hindi “Tera baap ka road hain kya, side se Nikal” (translated: “Does this road belong to your father, get past from the side”). He was right. Obviously, the road did not belong to my father. But then….
    One more…
    The media always stands up for the rights of its citizens and touts freedom of every kind at the drop of a hat. So, it is intriguing why does not the media come out vehemently against those who willfully and repeatedly violate the constitutional rights of millions of citizens by blocking and disrupting public conveniences in the name of protests? Even the judiciary is against such “protests” which by its nature results in injuries and fatalities. Whose freedom is it anyway?
    One more…
    In older democratic countries, one is taken to the cleaners for not mowing the lawn or not using a baby seat in the car or spitting on the road….you may argue that people here don’t have houses (for a lawn) or cars but only babies…the point is not that, it is about responsibilities that come with freedom.
    Well, who really cares as long as we are able to discuss “freedom” of every shade,” liberalism”, “progressive ideas”, “secularism” (???), college politics, “expert” opinions and propped up authors.
    Recently our media has gone gaga on a couple of Western, self-styled donation based (money talks?), biased organisations criticizing our Nation. Yes the institution of the media too have not come out from the colonial syndrome.
    The cry of “freedom” is just a façade to deflect criticism so that the media can continue to be a marketplace for trading “spicy” materials to influence rather than inform. E.g. dissent of dissent is presented as strangulating!!!!! How absurd!
    Tail piece: So come up with what a vast majority of the citizens are not doing right to enjoy freedom. Once this happens, the State institutions will correct themselves. Get real.

  3. True… Culturally these institutions have borrowed from the manner in which the British officers spoke and interacted with the public. Their interactions is often contemptuous and condescending. They lack empathy and a view that people that they interact are their fellow citizens and it is their job to respect them and help them. The prime example is the Police force. They want to beat you up and lock you in prison. They want to enforce their Authority. Authority is a term of control. We need radical changes in our bureaucratic training.

  4. Excellent write-up. I fully agree. The problem is misuse of our RESPONSIBILITIES. We hold the authority for the wrong reasons than using them for CITIZEN SERVICES. The moment you have this attitude of GOVERNMENT WORK IS GOD’s work, things will change.

  5. Very true. With the continuation of the laws and administrative system created by the British Raj, India has replaced one set of rulers with another. GOI despite lacking capacity for governance wants to run temples, businesses, banks etc. thus controlling every facet of social and economic life of it’s subjects. Added to this, the belief that only denizens of one particular family are entitled to rule over and control the destinies of India’s multitudes makes India a pseudo-democracy.

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