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Tuesday, July 31, 2001

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Good governance agenda

IN THE last few years issues of good governance have been receiving considerable attention in political discourse in India. In fact, the term good governance is used so widely now that it is coming to replace in popularity that other buzz word of the Eighties and the Nineties, civil society. A set of strategies to achieve good governance is being put forward by international lending agencies such as the World Bank as also by our own government. Andhra Pradesh has even agreed to set up a centre for good governance to guide reforms in the State and train officials.

It is claimed that reforms could help to lift developing countries like India out of the morass of problems in which they have been stagnating. The kind of problems generally identified would include bureaucratic delays and inefficiency, corruption, poor quality public services and a judicial system which is collapsing under the weight of archaic procedures and a huge backlog of cases. No state can afford to be less than efficient in a globalising environment, it is maintained, and good governance is a necessary condition for attracting capital and maintaining stable growth. Political leaders talk glibly now about the need for the state to `steer, not row', the need to `slim down' the state and encourage private capital initiatives, and the need to build capabilities rather than redistribute wealth.

This rhetoric bears a close resemblance to what has been heard during the Clinton and Blair administrations in the United States and Britain. But in those countries it provoked a great deal of debate in which political parties and intellectuals participated. In India on the other hand, the tendency has been to accept it as a form of received wisdom and there has been relatively little public debate about the ideology and assumptions which lie behind the reform package, let alone the reforms themselves. Given the far-reaching nature of the changes being introduced, such complacency could be dangerous.

Reforms package

The package of reforms which is being presented as necessary for good governance forms part of the wider agenda of economic reforms and liberalisation. Neo-liberal reforms demand that the state withdraw from some of the responsibilities undertaken in response to social democratic and welfarist objectives. The state should not attempt politically to manage economy and society and guarantee welfare but it would remain the primary provider of social goods like health, education and security. It would also need to provide adequate material infrastructure to attract capital and promote economic growth. To fulfil these responsibilities, the State should act in partnership with interests in civil society and the non-governmental sector, involving them wherever appropriate in decision making and implementation. The corporate world has acquired an image of sleek efficiency and rationality and the media today is projecting corporate manager as the embodiment of wisdom. We seem to have moved from a belief in the generalist administrator to belief in the versatile manager who can turn his/her skills to a variety of tasks ranging from building airports, education or garbage disposal.

To streamline public administration, reformers advocate the incorporation, wherever possible, of some of the values and techniques of corporate management - the profitability criteria, cost-benefit analysis and economic rationality. The emphasis is not so much on achieving an egalitarian society but on developing individual capabilities. This could sometimes mean changing the nature of the social goods provided. For instance, if economic rationality is applied to services such as education or health care, targets would have to be redefined in terms of increasing productivity, or providing a supply of skilled manpower for needs defined by the market. In India we are already beginning to see the results of such analysis. In addition, apart from streamlining public administration, some tasks could be contracted out, or shared with private bodies, or privatised.


Since greater accountability is claimed as one of the advantages of good governance, how would this be ensured? Traditionally, in a parliamentary system, political accountability of the executive is to the voters through elected assemblies. Administrative and legal accountability of the executive branch is through administrative procedures and the law courts. But if decision making and implementation is now to be shared with private interests it may become difficult to fix political responsibility. Following the new Anglo-American model some State Governments in India have adopted a stakeholder approach according to which the corporations which provide public services would be held responsible to their end users, or consumers, provided of course they pay for the services. Citizens should get the rights appropriate to consumers. This would include right to information, the right to demand quality services, the right to approach consumer courts, and the right to be consulted on important decisions. How effective these rights would be remains to be seen since some services are likely to remain monopolies.

Untidy political negotiations

Reformers are never tired of proclaiming their faith in democracy but the thrust of the managerial turn in public administration is likely to be away from widening the area of democratic participation. Untidy political negotiations are seen as a possible source of corruption and a diversion from economic rationality. The good governance project is essentially executive-led and political accountability is limited. It is not a mere coincidence that Andhra Pradesh has had reservations about the panchayat system or that in Karnataka legislators and corporators have been complaining about being excluded from the many task forces which are being set up. Some of the fault no doubt lies with political parties which have not taken up the issues seriously except for opposing particular decisions for populist reasons. Raising important issues seems to have become the responsibility of NGOs and social movements but their influence on political parties is limited.

The reforms represent a new orientation towards State and society according to which the notion of collective welfare and a shared identity as citizens will be replaced by a more individualistic ethos. The State will, at best, try to help individuals cope with the vagaries of the market but it will no longer guarantee minimum standards. Some of the changes which are taking place may be inevitable, some may also be desirable, but in either case they raise many important issues which deserve serious debate.


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