On the ambit of what it sets out to achieve — to analyse why some states in the country provide better public services than others — research scholar Jennifer Bussell’s book, Corruption and Reform in India: Public Services in the Digital Age is ambitious in scale.
In the introduction, the author says her interest in the topic rose after seeing a resident use a “one stop centre” in the state of Chhattisgarh to apply for a birth certificate. She felt the digitised public service centre in one of the poorer states of the country seemed to serve more efficiently than what was available with the more resourceful states of the country. It sets off the Assistant Professor from the University of Texas’ Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affair on a study of the effectiveness of public services and the effect corruption, both petty and grand, has in defining the extent of digitisation of services.
International aid institutions such as the U.N. and the World Bank have made optimistic projections on how digitised public service reforms could lower levels of corruption. But Jennifer observes that this is not how it has panned out across the developing world.
The Indian Government in 2006 launched a policy initiative to reform provision of public services using information technology services. Political forces have resisted, for varying reasons, from allowing this to happen in a full-fledged way.
The author argues that the primary cause for diverse technology-enabled reforms in India is the extent to which incumbent politicians expect new policies to affect their political power, in particular the economic resources essential to their current and future electoral status. She draws on a sub-national analysis of 20 states, a field experiment, statistical modelling, case studies, interviews with citizens, bureaucrats and politicians, and comparative data available from Brazil and South Africa.
Culture of ‘rents’
The book serves as a primer on the state of Indian politics, tracing the impact of national and regional parties in governance in recent times. The author detects that the compulsions of coalition politics have remained a major stumbling block for reforms. The tone of the book is very blunt in stating the interests and ways of politicians; on how everyone from a Union Minister to a Chief Minister to a State Minister to an MLA influences the culture of “rents” that ensure delivery of government services.
Even in states that claim to have a high level of public service reforms, like Gujarat, the author explains that the procedures differ from what is available in the bigger cities, meant to be centres that attract foreign investments, to what is on offer in the rural areas where similar services are still plagued by the 20th century approaches and active rent seeking.
A state like Himachal Pradesh, with relatively average levels of economic and social development, registers very low levels of petty corruption but more advanced states like Delhi and Tamil Nadu have above-average levels of corruption. Sometimes schemes that are launched to root out corruption and enjoy public patronage — such as RASI (Rural Action to Services Initiative) in Tamil Nadu that eliminated people-staff interface — eventually got shut down because of lack of government patronage.
In the concluding chapters of the book, Jennifer evaluates the relationship between political corruption and technology-enabled service reforms using two measures of national corruption: Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index and International Country Risk Guide corruption score from Political Risk Services. In setting the future agenda for reforms, she asks to target the institution or institutions that encourage, even if indirectly, the funding of campaigns from illegal sources. Comprehensive in account and approach, this volume serves as more than a primer to political students and journalists alike.