Common to India

The most basic dictum in Public Administration is that “the nature of the regime determines the nature of the outcome.” Regimes dominated by elites tend to be extractive, while regimes based on popular participation tend to be inclusive and where the fruits of development are more shared. Make no mistake, whatever be a system of government there will always be elites. The difference lies in the difference between the elites. A privileged and self-perpetuating elite is by nature extractive.

There are many systems of government. The one we are most familiar with is democracy. There are many kinds of democracies in vogue, but the common foundation is that they all strive to reconcile needs, aspirations, demands and rights of all the people, and consider all people equal. We therefore call them reconciliatory systems.

Then we have regimes, which are controlled by elites. These typically are all kinds of monarchies, theocracies, dictatorships, colonial and random despotic regimes. Since power is vested in the hands of a small number of people, we call them bureaucratic systems.

The last kinds are the communist and post revolutionary systems that depend on a very high degree of mobilization. To be a mobilized system you invariably need a common goal or enemy, and usually a charismatic leader. Mobilized systems usually come into being at times of great distress or following an upheaval. Russia and Germany after WW1, or post-revolutionary China are typical of this.

But the problem with reconciliatory and mobilized states is that sooner than later, elites take them over too. Often these elites become hereditary as in very diverse nations like India and North Korea, or bureaucratic elites from internally competitive and politicized structures like the Chinese Communist Party.

Political leaders as diverse as Jayaprakash Narayan and Leon Trotsky warned against this tendency. JP called for a complete decentralization of government, with the higher tiers of government with very restricted power and authority. Trotsky advocated Permanent Revolution to prevent vested interests from getting entrenched and taking over the system.

According to Mark 6:4 Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his own town, among his relatives and in his own home.” JP never got the honor and due respect due to him in his own country, as did Gandhi who championed an even more idealistic state of democratic decentralization advocating self-sustaining and self-reliant village republics.

When India became independent, Jawaharlal Nehru advocated disbanding the British inherited civil service and wanted a new system of public administration that will not just preserve order to facilitate extraction, but will drive change and equitable development. But Sardar Patel was dead set against such a radical transformation of government, and preferred India to be administered by an elite civil service such as the ICS. Nehru abhorred the ICS for its role during the British occupation of India, and as a compromise a new broad-based civil service system, based more on merit and less on class, was created with development administration as one of its key goals.

Whatever were the dynamics, between the two leaders they perpetuated a highly centralized regime, and India is still paying a heavy price for it.

Thus we now have a system of governance that is still as distant from the people as was the case in the British and possibly even the earlier feudal periods. All we need to confirm this thesis is to study the wage bills at the three tiers of government – the central, state and local government levels.

A sum of Rs.1, 74,081 crores has been provisioned in the current budget to pay central government employees – about 10.45 per cent of its overall expenditure. The estimated wage bill of government at all tiers is around Rs.10.42 lakh crores or about 10% of the estimated 2013-14 GDP of about Rs.120.00 lakh crores.

A government job is highly sought after as it assures unbroken employment till retirement and pension after that till death do us part. Not only does the government pay well, it offers a completely removed lifestyle with assured housing, healthcare and education for the entire family. It’s a complete eco-system far removed from that of the nation it is meant to serve. Since entry is restricted and the stay is for the full lifetime, it’s as if it were complete gated nation.

The three levels of government together employ about 185 lakh persons. The central government employs 34 lakhs, all the state governments together employ another 72.18 lakhs, quasi-government agencies account for a further 58.14 lakhs, and at the local government level, a tier with the most interface with the common citizens, we have only 20.53 lakhs employees. In other words it simply means we have five persons telling us to do this or do that, for every one supposedly serving us. And whom even these one out of six persons are answerable to is still a big question?

Do we then have a big government bearing down on us? Not really. Consider this: India has 1,622.8 government servants for every 100,000 citizens. In stark contrast, the U.S. has 7,681. The central government, with 3.1 million employees, thus has 257 serving every 100,000 population, against the U.S. federal government’s 840. Now look at the next tier at the state level. Bihar has just 457.60 per 100,000, Madhya Pradesh 826.47, Uttar Pradesh has 801.67, Orissa 1,191.97 and Chhattisgarh 1,174.62. This is not to suggest there is a causal link between poverty and low levels of public servants: Gujarat has just 826.47 per 100,000 and Punjab 1,263.34.

The troubled states or really speaking the troublesome states actually fare far better on this score. Thus, Mizoram has 3,950.27 public servants per the 100,000 population, Nagaland 3,920.62 and Jammu and Kashmir 3,585.96. Bar Sikkim, with 6,394.89 public servants per 100,000, no state comes close to international levels. Very clearly for the most part, India’s relatively backward states have low numbers of public servants. This means staff is not available for the provision of education, health and social services needed to address poverty.

During the past two weeks I have been traveling in the hinterlands of India. The biggest realization was that no sooner you get off the tarmac roads and highways, all signs of government disappear. Even the government primary schools when not locked, function mostly to provide the midday meals than any worthwhile education. There are very few signs of the police, irrigation, power and PWD departments. In most of the adivasi homelands the only presence of modern India is often the arrack contractor or the forest guard. Its as if a vast stateless nation exists.

Even in urban areas, the Prime Ministers call for a Swachch Bharat goes unheeded because the systems to collect trash, sewage and waste, and ensure their disposal just don’t exist. Does anybody wonder why Indians defecate everywhere? The PM’s call is timely, but to put it into effect we need the public systems that can carry away waste. This is why local government is critical.

Friedrich Engels prophesized that as societies develop “the interference of state power in social relations becomes superfluous in one sphere after another, and then ceases of itself. The state is not “abolished,” it withers away.” It would seem that the state has withered away in India without achieving any worthwhile social and economic transformation. Instead we have evolved into multiple nations. We have a Stated nation as envisaged by the founding fathers. We have a Stateless nation ruled by the Gated nation of government.