Governance in India: A dismal report card

By Rahul Goswami

Social Watch India's second Citizens Report on Governance and Development examines the sensitivity, efficiency and efficacy of the institutions of governance in ensuring the fundamental right to health, education and livelihood. It comes up with some startling findings

Social Watch India - Citizens Report on Governance and Development 2004
By John Samuel, Yogesh Kumar and Amitabh Behar (eds)
Published by the National Social Watch Coalition, Rs 400 (suggested contribution), pp 191 http://www.socialwatchindia.com/

 "Our world is not for sale, my friend,
Just to keep you satisfied.
You say you'll bring us health and wealth,
Well, we know that you just lied."

To the tune of 'Can't Buy Me Love', that old Beatles hit, this chorus was sung in September 2003 by activists to World Trade Organisation delegates in the Mexican city of Cancun. Whether the audience for such a musical take-off is one of the agents of corporatist globalisation, as the WTO is, or transnational corporations, or governments that need to be reminded of their responsibility towards people-centred policies and practices, the message is a common one.

In its second annual report card, the National Social Watch Coalition has extended the innovative approach of the Social Watch process revealed in the first report. In 2004, the report examines the sensitivity, efficiency and efficacy of the institutions of governance in ensuring three fundamental rights -- health, education and livelihood (food and work). Social Watch India's second Citizens Report on Governance and Development 2004 seeks to analyse and understand the performance and working of key institutions and arenas of governance, in relation to social development and from the perspective of citizens and civil society.

This report's startling findings on how India's Parliament functions have been well-documented since its release in December 2004. The most telling statistic that speaks about the matter of governance is simply how much of it came before Parliament. For 36 years from the time of its inception in 1952, says the report, the Lok Sabha sat for over 100 days every year and averaged 138 sittings in a year for several years. This came down to 102 days in 1988 and has slipped since to only about 80 days in a year -- in 2003 the Lok Sabha sat for only 74 days.

"Unfortunately, the Indian polity and the state have perfected the rhetoric of democratic governance, which in reality is divorced from a policy framework rooted in a peoples' rights discourse," says the report. "This leads to [the] perpetuation of inequity, exclusion and poverty."

The Social Watch report attempts to track the performance of policies with respect to three rights: livelihood, education and health. There is little good news. "In spite of the adoption of a progressive and promising Common Minimum Programme (CMP) for governance by the Union government, the audit of the performance and framework of policies presents a dismal picture," says the report.

In its second annual iteration, the Social Watch report has established that its unique methodology of examining the functioning and efficacy of the key institutions of governance -- executive (policy and practices), judiciary, legislature (represented by Parliament), and local self-governance -- yields a system designed to make institutions of democratic governance responsive and accountable to citizens.

The second report is particularly revealing about the state of affairs of two critical subjects -- our villages, and our food. With respect to the first, the report points out that "the panchayats function at the mercy of state governments and are usually treated as mere adjuncts of a state's politico-administrative machinery". Panchayats have failed to generate their own revenue and are dependent on grants from the state and the centre to fulfil their responsibilities. An important reason for poor resource generation by panchayats is inadequate control of Panchayati Raj institutions which address natural, physical and human resources within their jurisdiction. The reality is that fiscal devolution is increasingly dependent on political pressures, market forces driven by contractors and that familiar 'narkasur', corruption.

Following the 73rd Amendment, most states have either passed new Panchayat Acts or have brought their existing acts to conform to the Constitutional Amendment. This requires handing over responsibility for 29 subjects from the state government to panchayats. Easier said than done. Two examples show why. In Madhya Pradesh's Gram Swaraj framework the gram sabha is responsible for maternal and child health while the traditional dai (midwife) is supposed to provide vitamin supplements, birth control measures and immunisation related to reproductive health and infant mortality. However, it is still the Madhya Pradesh department of health that controls the services of the dai, not the panchayat.

In Chhattisgarh, providing food security is now the responsibility of the panchayat. This means the panchayat is made directly responsible for any hunger death -- a political bomb -- within its jurisdiction. However, the panchayat has no control over the public distribution system. Yet it is, on paper and in a cynical display of passing the buck, responsible for all that goes wrong in the matter of food supply and distribution.

It is axiomatic that for decentralisation to be effective, self-sufficiency in finances is a must. While a study by the National Institute of Rural Development has indeed pointed out that the revenue potential of panchayats is not as low as the panchayats claim, the reason for such a claim has much to do with the unconscious imbibing of populist attitudes that is a characteristic of India's systems of governance. In Andhra Pradesh, the Madikonda Gram Panchayat of Warangal district was adjudged the best panchayat in the state in terms of how much of its own resources (tax and non-tax revenue) it mobilised. And how much was that compared with what it requires? No more than 11% -- the rest appears in the form of grant and via other sources.

For these 29 subjects, roughly Rs 72,000 crore must reach the panchayats. Yet the report says this sum "is only minimally devolved to the panchayats". The central ministry retains a large portion of approximately Rs 30,000 crore and an equally substantial sum is kept at the state level, which leaves only 5 to 10% to be devolved to the panchayats. Against this background, what the Madikonda Gram Panchayat has achieved is indeed impressive.

Turning to food security, it is incontestable that even after 30 years of garibi hatao, as the report comments, "the balance-sheet of public policy is littered with broken promises". The policy-making process should move towards a rights-based approach to development: "all citizens must have a set of core entitlements which are justiciable and in whose provisioning the state must be held primarily accountable".

That this is not an approach being followed is evident from a reading of the key statistics. A number of studies have highlighted the decade of the 1990s as being the only one since Independence when per capita foodgrain output in the country declined in absolute terms. The net availability of pulses per head in 1991-92 was 14.2 kg and has been dropping steadily since -- to 13.5 kg in 1994-95, to 12.6 kg in 1997-98 and to 11.5 kg in 2000-01. Similarly, the availability per head of foodgrains has declined from 485 grammes per day in 1991-92 to 447 gm/day in 2000-01.

The numbers do indeed tell their own story. Fiscally, in 1997-98 the capital expenditure on defence services was Rs 6,707 crore (in constant 1993-94 prices) which rose to Rs 12,059 crore in 2004-05. In contrast, capital expenditure on agriculture and allied activities was Rs 319 crore in 1997-98 and declined precipitously to Rs 40 crore in 2004-05.

For the triennium ending 2002-03, the absolute amount of per capita food availability was only marginally higher than the years of the Second World War -- the period that witnessed the terrible Bengal famine. "It reflects a complete disregard for the right to livelihood, as reflected through appalling access to employment and food availability, and in recent years, the situation appears to have deteriorated alarmingly," says the report. There is no doubt that the problems of rural pauperisation, rural-to-urban migration, and the nature of urban labour market are essentially structural issues and linked to larger questions of growth modes either chosen or abandoned, issues of political economy and ultimately of political will.

Dr B R Ambedkar, during the Constituent Assembly debates, had warned that "the unemployed will be compelled to relinquish their fundamental rights for the sake of securing the privilege to work and to subsist". The democratic doctrine of 'one man, one value' could not be implemented, he said, merely by adopting the political principle of 'one man, one vote' -- "it was equally essential to prescribe the shape and form of the economic structure of society".

For its part, the second Social Watch report continues the excellent breakthrough achieved by the 2003 effort and contributes substantially to the public life of the country. This is the kind of periodic assessment that it critical for a vibrant democracy, one which requires an informed, empowered and vigilant public as active participants.

(Rahul Goswami is a freelance journalist and researcher based in Goa)

InfoChange News & Features, February 2005