Governance Reviews

‘The Gated Republic: India’s Public Policy Failures and Private Solutions’ review: The deepening gaps in basic public services

Eisenhower once remarked that in governance, the urgent is never important, and the important is never urgent. We also often hear that what gets measured gets done. This is only true of some aspects of governance. It ignores the importance of processes. Hence, the popularity of metrics, compliance, and the top 3 vs. bottom 3 style of reviewing. Meanwhile, what can’t be easily measured — including the quality of governance itself — gets forgotten.

Shankkar Aiyar’s book begins with a list of water despatches from different parts of India. In Bundelkhand, where summer temperatures go above 45 degrees Celsius, people who “borrow” water must return it within hours — and at twice the borrowed quantity. In Mawsynram, one of the rainiest places on earth, residents are forced to ration water in winter. In major urban centres, municipal corporations issue building clearances without ensuring water supply.

In five swiftly narrated chapters, Aiyar lists the malaise in India’s key public services sectors: water, health, education, power, law and order. Pulling from history, research, committee reports, plan documents, national surveys, and reportage to create his narrative, he shows how India’s privileged classes have exited from the miasma of apathy and failure: with bottled water, tankers, storage tanks, water purifiers, inverters, diesel gensets, private healthcare and private security agencies — while outside the gated communities, those with less privilege must contend with overburdened public service infrastructure, power outages, and vanishing or contaminated groundwater.

Lack of decentralisation

What has caused these failures? As Aiyar observes, an obvious reason is funding: yet, poor allocations have not always been due to the lack of resources, but their misdirection. Another is the division of power and accountability in the design of programmes, resulting in one-size-fits-all policy interventions that may not fit local requirements. A third reason is the push for short term outcomes — for optics — rather than an investment in long-term processes for community participation, equity and empowerment.

Finally, the most important reason for India’s failures in the provision of public services is incomplete decentralisation. “Literature on development policies has redefined the last mile of delivery as the first mile of governance,” notes Aiyar. “Every country which has delivered on basic public goods and services has done so by empowering local governments.”

The list goes on

Drinking water, sanitation, health, education, rural electrification, are all listed under the eleventh schedule of the Constitution as subjects under the purview of the elected rural local bodies. This would lead to better accountability and locally responsive governance.

Yet in most States, these sectors continue to be under the control of administrative departments at the State level.

When the elites opt out, the voice of the poor is more easily ignored and problems become entrenched. But not always. More sharply than ever before, during the time of COVID, we are seeing how inadequate attention to the public health care system, and to state capacity, can impact all of us.

Gated communities cannot provide sanctuary against the pandemic. Only a well-functioning and well-resourced public health care system can do so. The greatest challenges facing India and the world today — the pandemic, the economic downturn, climate change — offer no easy escape.

The Gated Republic: India’s Public Policy Failures and Private Solutions; Shankkar Aiyar, HarperCollins, ₹699.

The reviewer is in the IAS.

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Printable version | Jan 19, 2021 9:22:12 PM |

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