Lok Satta

 

 

 

 

 

 

2002 Articles

~ ~ ~ ~ Articles in Times of India~ ~ ~ ~

?Dr.Jayaprakash Narayan

  • A Truly Popular Government-Panchayats can make the difference
  • Making the Citizen Sovereign
  • Vestiges of British Raj continue(14th June 2003)
  • Government plays politics of tokenism(7th June 2003)
  • Cities need to be self-reliant to survive.(31st May 2003)
  • Government should reorient its land policy(24th May 2003)
  • Has corruption become a part of the Indian DNA?(18th May 2003)
  • Civil Services need fresh blood.(17th May 2003)
  • India's crumbling metropolises.(3rd May 2003)
  • Spare gram panchayats.(26th April 2003)
  • Local Bodies in state need more powers.(19th April 2003)
  • Crisis in urban co-operative banks.(12th April 2003)
  • A dozen years of dramatic change(5th April 2003)
  • Vox Populi, Vox Dei !(29th March 2003)
  • Ensuring Women their fair share(22nd March 2003)
  • Delimit exercise and contempt for politics(15th March 2003)
  • Verdict not a fight between Parliament and Judiciary(14th March 2003)
  • Using Technology for Empowerment(2nd March 2003)
  • Yes to empowerment, no to diktats(16th February 2003)
  • There is no substitute for good governance(8th February 2003)
  • Pre-budget exercise nothing short of a farce(1st February 2003)
  • Devolution of powers need of the hour(25th January 2003)
  • Problems and oppurtunities(18th January 2003)
  • Small solutions to big problems(11th January 2003)
  • Global change and deep slumber(4th January 2003)

    A Truly Popular Government-Panchayats can make the difference

    It is now over ten years since the 73rd and 74th amendments to the Constitution were enacted with great hope and anticipation. Unfortunately, local governments in most parts of the country continue to be feeble and anaemic. As has now become the habit, our law-makers are loquacious without substance. Together the two amendments are about 7700 word-long, and yet the key provisions regarding the powers and functions of panchayats (Article 243-G) and municipalities (243-W) are vague and feeble. Most states, which are loathe to devolution of powers, took full advantage of this ambiguity, and created local governments devoid of any substance. Kerala is an honourable exception, and West Bengal and Karnataka too have empowered local governments to a reasonable extent.

    Our two amendments run longer than the entire American constitution (4700 words) which created the most successful democracy in history. Article 28 of the German Basic Law, mandates powerful, democratic, autonomous and self-reliant local governments in just over 100 words.

    Even then, our constitutional provisions are not meaningless. They do provide for mandatory creation of local governments and periodic elections. Elected local governments can no longer be dismissed en masse. If a functionary is removed after due enquiry, there shall be an election within six months to fill the vacancy only for the remainder of term. The propensity of partisan state governments to dismiss local governments controlled by rival parties is thus curbed. A State Election Commission as an independent constitutional authority is now mandatory to conduct regular, free and fair elections. Similarly a State Finance Commission has been created to recommend distribution of resources to local governments.

    The preamble, fundamental rights and directive principles embody the spirit of the Constitution. These three together clearly point to true democracy defined as self-governance and empowerment, and popular sovereignty. Article 40, as well as the 73rd and 74th amendments talk of local bodies as effective units of self-government. The wording in provisions relating to creation of parliament (Article 79), state legislatures (Article 168), and local governments (Art. 243) is identical. But most states have violated this spirit. Often District and Metropolitan Planning Committees (Articles 243 ZD and ZE) and ward(s) committees (Art. 243S) are not created. Elections have been delayed; the recommendations of State Finance Commissions are ignored; and even Union grants devolved on the local governments are appropriated by the states.

    The Council of ministers and legislature at the Union and State levels are clothed with great authority not because they comprise of the greatest or most virtuous citizens, but because we have elected them to represent us. That is what democracy is about. It is ironic that governments which derive legitimacy solely from democratic elections are keen to undermine local governments elected by the same voters.

    Entrenched corruption in a centralized governance milieu has crippled the nation. This can only be changed in a decentralized government where the link between the citizen's vote and well-being is clearly evident and the local government is truly empowered. The citizen will realize his vote is more valuable than the paltry hundred rupees offered during elections. When people see that the elected functionary can make all the difference in matters like water supply, drainage, roads, schools, healthcare, land records and public distribution system, they will start voting with greater care and judgment. The distortions will not disappear overnight. But empowerment of local governments is the key to revitalization of our democracy.

    We have to acknowledge there is corruption in local governments. Five decades of high and illegitimate election expenditure, and conversion of public office as a means of self-aggrandizement and private gain have created a dangerous culture of treating politics as a big business. Criminalization of politics, polling irregularities, and local political fiefdoms have vitiated our parties and democratic institutions. Inevitably, the same predatory politics has permeated local governments. But corruption cannot be used as an excuse to deny legitimate empowerment of local governments. It is not our contention that local governments are better governments, but it is easier to check the misrule of a local government and for people to keep a tab on how their tax money is being spent. Moreover, when authority and accountability are fused, it will be difficult for public servants to offer lame excuses for non-performance. The greatest safeguard against abuse of authority is citizens' vigil, and people can be effective watchdogs only at the local level where they understand the issues affecting their daily lives.

    In a true democracy, there is no 'central' government away from citizens. Citizen is the centre. There are only closer or farther governments; smaller or larger units. The federal government is the most peripheral government. There are no hierarchies. Power flows from the citizen in ever-enlarging concentric circles. That is the reason why local government can be trusted most.

    What can be done to translate this principle of subsidiarity into reality?

    • Article 243 G and W need to be amended to give explicit authority to local governments. 11th and 12th schedules of the Constitution should have the same effect as the 7th Schedule - distributing powers between the Union and States.
    • We need to create a single district government for rural and urban areas at the third tier of panchayats. A district is larger than about 80 nations in the world. The idea of a district panchayat only for rural areas is outdated.
    • Healthy practices of devolution and decentralization should be evolved. Transfer of 50% tax resources as untied grants, de-provincialization of employees entrusted with local functions, district budgets, local tax avenues, and restructuring of village panchayats to make them larger and more viable units of self-government - all these are vital for effective local governance. Rotation of reservations can be effected once every two terms to give greater stability and promote leadership.
    • We need to create instruments of accountability to keep elected governments at all levels under check.

    All these changes are critical for the future of our republic. Only a massive people's movement can empower local governments and rejuvenate our republic.

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    Making the Citizen Sovereign

    In our fight for independence we rightly said, "Good governance is no substitute for self-governance". But when our local governments (very often our bureaucrats and 'superior' politicians only refer to them as local 'bodies' not even giving them a status of a government) seek more autonomy, the immediate response from one and all is that local representatives are inexperienced and incompetent, corruption will skyrocket, and citizens are illiterate and ill-informed. I am immediately reminded of Lord Macaulay's admonition: "Many politicians lay it down as a self-evident proposition, that no people ought to be free till they are fit to use their freedom - the maxim is worthy of the fool in the story, who resolved not to go into the water till he had learnt to swim."

    If the governments at the union and state level are governing well and if corruption is negligent, may be they are justified in expressing such views even if they happen to be incorrect. But with governance at their level in such shambles and corruption so rampant, they have no business to make such accusations and withhold power on such grounds.

    The state governments are behaving like some Indian parents with feudal mindset who think their children will listen best if they do not give them any freedom, withhold all power and control the purse strings. This centralization of power and control of funds may make the parents secure in the knowledge that their children will never rebel. Although this does have its benefits the ultimate consequence can be disastrous in terms of the child's future and parents well-being.

    As enlightened and educated parents we all know that unless we give our children opportunities to learn, provide an environment to grow and give them freedom to make choices, they can never grow up to be independent, capable and responsible people.

    This centralization of power and control of funds may make the states secure in the knowledge that the local governments can never become powerful. But the fact that such centralized control prevents the states from rising to the heights they are capable of escapes these autocratic, self-important bosses. Such centralized misgovernance eventually invites rebellion of the local representatives and disaffection among the citizens in some form or the other.

    All state governments believe that the Union should not be an all-powerful bully dictating to them beyond what the constitution mandates. And they demand more financial devolution. But it is ironic that the same state government fails to recognize that the local governments elected by the same people should be given the funds, functions and functionaries to carry out their responsibilities. Once such authority is transferred, the people know how to hold local governments to account.

    Experience the world over has been that those countries whose local governments are free and empowered have progressed more rapidly than where the government has been centralized. Even communist China achieved rapid growth because of local autonomy and decentralization. In our country where local governments haven't even reached the stage of autonomy - many developed countries the world over are moving towards the principle of subsidiarity. This principle of subsidiarity is a complete reversal of our top down model. Here the citizen is the focal point and that which she cannot do herself will be taken on by the immediate family and anything beyond the scope of the family will be taken care of the community. Only those tasks which are beyond the community will be delegated to the local government. And then, what the local government cannot do should go to the state level, and what the state cannot, should be handled by the Union. There is no 'centre' apart from the citizen and her family in a sane democracy. Nor can we accept hierarchies of government. We only have smaller or bigger governments, and nearer or farther governments. And the citizen is the sovereign. When will our puffed up bureaucrats and self-important politicians realize this simple truth about liberty and democracy?

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    Local Bodies in State need more powers

    Recently, we had the privilege of interacting with a number of leaders who were former local government heads in the state. A few of them who served as heads of the district panchayat (Zilla Parishad) in the 60's and 70's were commenting that they turned down positions in the state cabinet as they wielded more authority than that of a cabinet minister! In fact the norm used to be that a MLA or minister from any district had to request the ZP chairperson for any assistance that their constituents needed. What a contrast it is now - the MLAs rule the constituencies as uncrowned kings, while the elected head of the local government sits as a figurehead. In our own state, powerful leaders like Jalagam Vengala Rao and K Vijaya Bhaskara Reddy emerged from the ranks of local government and went on to serve as Chief Ministers.

    Let's examine the powers of local government leaders now, to understand the gravity of the situation. The directly elected Mayor of Hyderabad city has a discretionary power of approving/sanctioning any work up to Rs.50,000 at a time. Contrast this with the powers of the appointed Commissioner who can sanction works up to Rs. 20,00,000! The story is the same in smaller Municipalities also - the power of the chairperson to incur contingent expenditure is restricted to a paltry Rs 1500-3000.

    It doesn't get any better in rural governments. A major gram panchayat can give administrative sanction up to Rs 2 lakhs, while a Mandal Parishad can approve works up to Rs 75,000 and the Zilla parishad up to Rs 10,00,000. Any works/projects above these limits have to be approved by the government. And leaders of these tiers of local governments do not have any powers of their own, except for the gram sarpanch who can authorize spending up to Rs 10,000. On the other hand a Member of Parliament has at his disposal a 2 crore constituency development fund to spend as he wishes!

    What is really getting lost in this administrative maze are some crucial facts:

    • An average district in AP, with approximately 3 million population is larger than 80 countries in the world
    • The local governments have as much constitutional sanctity as other tiers at the state or the union. It is not a question of higher vs lower governments, but a matter of farther vs nearer.
    • Therefore, the elected head of the local government should have the legitimate authority to govern his/her domain as they are directly accountable to their constituents and no government has any right to deny these powers.

    In any form of modern democratic governance structure, local governments are recognized as the most important tier as they are the nearest to the people. The case of New York city exemplifies this. Up to the early 90s, this great city was gripped by a host of problems ranging from crumbling infrastructure to high crime and bad schools to high unemployment. Guiliani took office as Mayor in the early 90s and single handedly transformed the city into the booming metropolis that it is today. It was estimated that in 2000, the metropolitan New York area contributed as much as 1/10th to the American economy. Even when a tragedy of the magnitude of September 11th with national security implications struck the city, the American President ceded the primary responsibility of coordinating the relief, rehabilitation and rebuilding efforts to the City's Mayor. Contrast this with the Mayor of Hyderabad City. Over 4 million people in the city have directly elected him, making him the elected official with the largest popular constituency. And yet, he has no legitimate authority to make even the slightest difference. The link between our vote and public good has been snapped in this centralized system which has no respect for our needs or our verdicts. It is high time that the governments and parties of the day recognized the fact that governance cannot be improved until local government leaders are empowered and made accountable to the citizens.

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    Vestiges of British Raj continue!

    The Times of India, June 14th, 2003

    During colonial times, the British Raj used to administer its provinces in India through Governors and "Resident Agents" (in princely states). And within each province/state, the head of administration for each district was the "Collector" who used to report directly to the Governor. Not withstanding the fact that many civil servants of that era have done an outstanding job in public service, they still used to function as the agents of the Crown/Raj.

    One would have expected that this colonial tradition would be discontinued in an independent and democratic India and be replaced by sovereign, elected democratic heads of government at various levels accountable to the people. Unfortunately, owing to various reasons which are outside the scope of this column, this colonial practice continued in independent India through the largely ceremonial office of the Governor and more importantly through the still all powerful office of the 'District Collector".

    1. In fact the chief minister has explicitly instructed all the collectors that they will be held responsible for implementation of all the welfare schemes that were launched recently and that they should report to him directly. In addition, the chief minister has also created a separate district fund to the tune of Rs 2 crores, which is kept at the disposal of the District Development Review Committee (DDRC), headed by a Minister. All these measures raise some serious concerns on the nature of governance in this state: What is the role of a " district collector" in a democratic society? What ought to be the relationship between the chief minister and the collectors? Why is a State Minister getting involved in matters which ought to be handled by local governments? What is the role of the elected local governments in administering their own districts?

    In modern India, the district collector continues to function as in colonial times - i.e. as an agent of the chief minister. S/he is the uncrowned king of the district much in the same fashion as the colonial times and is answerable to no one except the CM. In fact some of the elected Zilla Parishad chairpersons complain that even in their own council meetings, the collector holds the centre-stage and they are relegated to the sidelines. In this day and age of specialization, it is absurd to have a collector in charge of every facet of administration ranging from health care to law and order. This ubiquitous role also violates the very basic foundations of a democratic society.

    Only in a highly centralized setup does the state feel the need to exercise direct control over each and every district. Germany's population is comparable to that of AP. And yet, in Germany there are 16 provinces with elected governments (called Landers), and over 4000 municipal governments at local level - all with clear and exclusive authority and resources! This whole notion of the chief minister directly controlling all functions and functionaries in the state is a throw back to the days of monarchy.

    The same principle applies for a Minister also. S/he has absolutely no role to play in the management of issues which are the natural responsibilities of local governments. The current practice of having ministers as heads of the DDRCs is blatantly unconstitutional. The constitution calls for a District Planning Committee constituted with elected members of the local governments. The role of a minister is in administering his/her own department and articulating his/her constituents' demands in a legislative capacity

    We have ended colonial rule long ago, and it is high time we buried the last vestiges of the anachronistic Raj's practices that have stayed on.

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    The Times of India, February 16th, 2003

    Yes to empowerment, no to diktats

    "If large-scale corruption is detected in any municipality, the government will not hesitate to initiate severe action, including dissolving the elected body. Public representatives are mistaken if they think they can fleece the people and remain indifferent to their problems" - this is a report of CM's outburst carried in a newspaper. The CM was understandably annoyed on seeing garbage strewn all over the place on his surprise visit to Rajendra Nagar. He hauled up both the municipal chairman and the Municipal commissioner.

    About the same time, newspapers also reported that during a videoconference review of the health department, the CM instructed the health minister and concerned officials to fire a doctor in Khammam district for failure to discharge his duties. This will surely be as effective as King Canute's admonition to the waves!

    The CM is right in telling the people to be more vigilant, to be more assertive - that they should demand and get proper service from their municipality in matters related to roads, drains, garbage, water, street lighting and a few other services expected of it. He was also right in his response to a citizen's complaint about the traffic problem "I alone cannot do everything. Your mayor is here, talk to him." He was also right in saying that all elected representatives are answerable to the people. When people complained that many a time their complaints went unheeded, he rightly told them to hold a dharna in front of their offices. All this is a step in the right direction towards citizen empowerment. As long as the citizens are told that it is their right to get certain services from the government, that the public servants cannot get away with corruption, that they are accountable to them, such candour is refreshing.

    But there are two disturbing inferences that could be drawn from the above incidents. First, the CM wants to deliberately undermine the members of his cabinet and local governments and an image is sought to be created in the public eye that while he gets the credit for anything good that happens in the state, the ministers, local governments, legislators and officials get the blame for whatever bad might be happening!

    Even a small office or organization cannot run on this basis of "heads, I win; tails, you lose"! Organization building, teamwork and delegation are the basic principles of modern functioning - from households to corporate bodies; and from local governments to national agencies. Unfortunately some of our chief ministers are so puffed up by their own self-importance that they put medieval autocrats to shame and behave like modern-day Nizams. That may impress gullible and wide-eyed citizens who are easily swayed by theatrics and cinematic gestures. But it is only on the celluloid that a painted 'hero' brings about dramatic transformation through the flick of the fingers or a passionate dialogue (scripted by someone else) or a song and dance sequence. Real life and democratic governance demand respect for all players at various levels, and deep understanding of and faith in the democratic culture.

    The second inference is that elected local governments are irrelevant, they exist at his pleasure and he can arbitrarily dismiss them at will. Local governments happen to be elected by the same citizen whose wisdom is extolled when electing the national government, and the same voter whose foresight is praised when electing the state government. The national and state governments have persistently belied our hopes and have been habitually indulging in corruption, nepotism, short-term populism and gross incompetence. And yet, we, the citizens, have been patiently indulgent of them.

    We want democratically elected governments not because the leaders are wise and omnipotent, but because they acquire legitimacy with our mandate, and can be held to account by us, We want empowered local governments not because they are repositories of wisdom and virtue, but because the closer they are to us, the easier it is for us to resist their misgovernance and compel better performance. If dismissal of elected governments is the only recourse available for every misdeed, how many state governments can survive the test? If the union government threatens to invoke Article 356 against every state at the drop of a hat, will the chief ministers remain calm and unaffected? And who is there to dismiss the union government for its failures? No amount of hectic activity can be a substitute to solid achievement. And solid results can never be accomplished by firmans and diktats of a centralized authority. Strengthening of institutions, empowerment of people, delegation of powers and instruments of accountability are the keys to improving things. Will our heads of governments, self-important leaders, and pompous public servants realise this simple truism?

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    The Times of India, February 8th, 2003

    There is no substitute for good governance

    Someone once asked Archimedes, "People say you are a great scientist, can you move the earth?". He replied confidently "Yes, give me a place to stand on and a long enough lever and I will move the earth"

    We all admire great heroes like Anna Hazare or Rajinder Singh for their courage, sacrifice and commitment. There are many such wonderful pioneers whose innovations are of great value to us. But to expect every village and mohalla of India to be transformed through such heroic work at enormous personal cost to tens of thousands of martyrs is unrealistic. What is more, it is for the rest of us to successfully replicate their efforts and extend the benefits to all people. That is what human progress is all about.

    Why be heroic and try unsuccessfully to push a huge boulder with all one's might, when one should be using a lever to lift it? Why expend enormous energies in pushing one compartment only a short distance on a sand track when so many more can be moved with so much more ease, and reach out to far off places and in much shorter time - if only we gave them wheels and put them on a rail track?

    We have come a long way from glamorizing Sati, but are yet to go a long way from ceasing to desperately look for saviours willing to sacrifice their lives (and that of their families') to save the country. We are living in the day and age when the wheel has been invented and tracks have been laid and there is absolutely no need to expend disproportionate energy to achieve results which are but meagre when one looks at what needs to be accomplished.

    This is why we need governance reforms. Good governance is the track on which all these different compartments of education or healthcare, water supply or sanitation, public order or justice can reach people across the country. Everyone of the myriad efforts by noble people across the country is necessary but not sufficient. In the absence of good governance heroic efforts are required to accomplish deeds which are but mere drops to fill a bucket. With good governance ordinary people can achieve extraordinary results.

    Much as we like to wish away the government, it has an irreducible role in providing basic healthcare, school education, rule of law, public order, justice, social security - apart from natural resource development, infrastructure and defence of the country. All successful democracies across the world are testimony to this. The onus is on us to not allow the government to abdicate its responsibilities but make it perform.

    Good governance is about institution building and institution building is about easy large-scale replication of work done elsewhere, which might have to be just modified or adapted to suit to our needs. There are so many simple, sensible and practical solutions to most of our seemingly intractable problems. The flight of many of our promising youngsters is to countries where the track has been laid. They just want to be given an opportunity to move faster and with ease. And everyone of these youngsters is rising to heights they never even dreamed of. Good governance is very well within our reach and it is worth working for. We have to create opportunities for all the 720 million children and youth below 34 years of age, to rise to great heights in our own country rather than surface elsewhere.

    Are we going to wait for saviours in every village for every tiny little progress? Or do we want to build institutions which can borrow progressive initiatives anywhere and can quickly adapt and adopt them everywhere? This emulation and adaptation are what human progress is about.

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    The Times of India, February 1st, 2003

    Pre-budget exercise nothing short of a farce

    The AP state government has recently released a document titled " Annual Fiscal Framework 2003-04" (AFF). This document is ostensibly intended to serve as a basis for formulating the budget after considering the feedback received from the public. Without resorting to financial mumbo jumbo, I would like to draw your attention to the real issues, which get obfuscated by the mirages the government is trying to create.

    Let us say you are running a business or household. How would you go about budgeting your income? First you will have an idea of your needs and priorities, after which you arrive at a projected expenditure and depending upon the surplus or deficit of expenditure over income, you will plan for either savings/investments or borrowing. If you have to borrow, you will also think twice about the need for your borrowing and for what purpose those funds are going to be used and your ability to repay.

    Contrast that with what happens in our government. The state's revenue receipts (income), which are projected to be approximately Rs 27964 cr for the fiscal year 2003-04, will be hardly enough to meet the revenue expenditure, projected to be Rs 30372 cr. The state is actually borrowing to bridge the gap between revenue receipts and revenue expenditure - i.e. you have to borrow in order to meet your running expenditure comprising of salaries, pensions, interest and subsidies. In fact, the state's own revenues (excluding central grants) are not even enough to pay for wages, pensions and interest on loans.

    The state's AFF shows that only 4261 cr, which is less than 10 % of the total expenditure of 42000 cr is earmarked for capital expenditure. Capital expenditure is what creates capital assets, which will spur economic growth in the future. On the other hand the state's annual borrowing for the year 2003-04 is projected to be in the range of 7500 cr raising the debt burden to about 57000 crores!

    So what are the real issues behind this whole smoke and mirrors and exercise? The reality is that in the existing framework, there is very little room for maneuvering and the state (and for that matter the union also) is fast spiraling towards a classic debt trap, where you borrow just to service the old debt. This is a vicious cycle into which we cannot afford to fall. In the current centralized setup, where the bulk of the expenditure is going towards wages, how can the government control spending, short of retrenching staff? How does the government increase its revenues short of fleecing the state's population? Will the people of the state be willing to burden additional taxes?

    The answer to all these questions lie in true decentralization. While the economic dimensions of the crisis are well understood, it is often not recognized that this is largely a governance crisis. Fiscal deficits can only be addressed by significant increase in revenues or reduction in costs. Revenues can be raised painlessly only by very high, sustained growth rates. As our infrastructure is weak and inadequate, and as the productive potential of the bulk of the population is shackled on account of low levels of literacy and poor health care, there cannot be rapid growth on sustained basis.

    The more painful way of increasing revenues is higher taxation. As much of the tax revenue and public expenditure do not result in realizable public goods and services, citizens resist and evade high taxation. With rampant corruption in a centralized governance structure, there cannot be tax compliance in high-tax regime, nor is high taxation politically feasible in a liberal democracy without tangible improvement in public services and community assets.

    There are two ways of reducing public expenditure - reduction of wage bill and elimination of subsidies. Savings through wage reduction or retrenchment of employees are very hard to accomplish. In a centralized governance structure, no government has the power or will to antagonise the vast army of employees. In any case, the problems with public employment are not the excessive number of workers and high wages, but the wrong deployment and lack of accountability. We have too many support staff and too few teachers and health workers, and where public employment is in the right sectors, there is hardly any effective delivery of services. Subsidies cannot be eliminated unless the beneficiaries are satisfied that the money so saved is improving the quality of their lives in some other manner. In centralized structures where such a link is not visible, de-subsidization is difficult. All these factors make our fiscal crisis a highly intractable problem in our centralized governance model.

    This fiscal crisis can be addressed only through effective and far-reaching decentralization of power and citizen-centered governance. We accept tax burden voluntarily only when we see the link between the taxes we pay and the public services we receive locally. Finally the vast army of employees can be redeployed from areas where they are redundant to sectors where they are needed only in local governance.

    Therefore the truth is that unless there is a fundamental structural change in the governance process, accompanied by true decentralization and massive investments in infrastructure, health and education, the state's economy is not going to improve. Whatever else the state might attempt to do will at best be a smoke and mirrors exercise and is nothing short of a farce.

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    The Times of India, 25th January 2003

    Devolution of powers need of the hour

    Soon we celebrate one more republic day. Instead of the usual symbolic flag hoisting and traditional invocation to Ghandiji, can we take a few concrete steps and make some sincere attempts to realize his dreams? Ever since independence, every leader of our country has been paying lip service to Gandhiji's concept of Gram Swaraj. But this continues to remain only an ideal with decentralization of power and local government empowerment turning out to be a mere mirage.

    Let us now examine why there should be real transfer of responsibilities with power to the local governments. Don't get me wrong. I am not saying that the local people and representatives are better people than our leaders in Hyderabad or Delhi. I am not saying that they have a greater understanding or competence than national and state leaders. But local government of even mediocre men and women is superior to centralized government of bright people.

    A glance at our public expenditure and its scanty fruits will open our eyes to the centralized plunder that is taking place in the name of governance. Every year the government is spending Rs 7 lakh crores, collected either as taxes or by mortgaging the future of our children. The services we get in return do not account for even a fraction of this expenditure. All the basic amenities and services that make life worth living are in a state of disrepair. Look at education, health-care, water supply, drainage, roads and myriad other public services. As a rule, wherever we can find private alternatives, like in education and health-care, we opt for them at high cost. Where private goods are not possible, like roads and drains, we suffer in silence, and fume in impotent anger. The link between our taxes paid and services received is non-existent. No wonder, we all made tax evasion and avoidance a highly creative national pastime!

    To understand this plunder, let us closely examine education in government schools. None of us send our children to government schools. Why? After all, the teachers here are as qualified or better qualified, and better paid, than teachers in private schools. Yet we all know that the quality of teaching is dismal with total lack of accountability. Even the teachers do not send their children to the schools where they teach! Even the poorest of poor try to avoid them. Why don't we do anything about it? Somehow, because we do not spend the money directly from our pocket, because stakeholders are not empowered and because the local governments are powerless, this vital service has been allowed to be reduced to this sorry state. The dropout rate among the few who go there is very high resulting in the related problems we are all too aware of - low literacy, child labour, poor employable skills etc. There was a time when local governments ensured better schooling in a remote village. I am a product of a government school. When I think of today's children who will never have an opportunity to fulfil their potential, it is difficult to control the tide of anger or tears of sorrow.

    It would be folly on the part of either the state or Union governments to think that the people at the local level are not qualified to know their self interest and are incapable of taking charge of their own lives. Let us not forget these 'ordinary' people elected the national and state governments and our pundits and politicians extol their virtues in every election.

    We have wasted 55 years of freedom by not trusting our people to look after themselves. As a result, taxes are de-linked from services, and authority is divorced from responsibility. As voting and change of governments does not change anything, people have succumbed to cynicism, and demand money for voting. Politics has become big business, and a vicious cycle of corruption and misgovernance has set in.

    Do we, the urban, English-speaking privileged classes, have the good sense and foresight to trust the people, empower local governments, and allow little republics to flourish all over? Only when that happens will the fruits of freedom reach our people, and our national holidays will be occasions for genuine celebration, instead of meaningless rituals.

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    The Times of India, 18th January 2003

    Problems and oppurtunities

    Recently, I had an opportunity to interact with a bright second generation Indian American, who is incidentally doing quite well professionally and is on a fast track career path. Most of these kids are born and bought up in the US or elsewhere and their only link to India is that it's the land of their parents. You might think that therefore these kids don't have as strong an emotional link to India as their parents - but I am pleasantly surprised to discover that there are quiet a few young bright professionals of Indian origin who are willing to do their bit for India.

    This youngster was recounting how Indians who are visiting them in the US - ask them very casually - why don't you do something in/for India? Many a time these kids don't know if they were trying to be patronizing or serious? When they try to probe deeper and try to find out how they can contribute and in which areas - they get a blank face!

    This youngster asked me some penetrating questions - the answers to which are applicable to all Indians:

    1. When you are asking these youngsters to make a significant personal and financial sacrifice by asking them to work for the nation's cause - what is it that you are offering them in return? Are they at least assured of a fair and reasonable chance of success?
    2. What are the goals and objectives for this nation? They are humble enough to realize that they can't set the agenda for this country - It is for India and Indians to set their own agenda - The pan Indian community and the Indian Diaspora can at best be facilitators for what India wants to achieve. They are very concerned about ambiguity of objectives and clarity of means

    To many youngsters of his generation, the size of India's problems are precisely its attraction. The chance of creating a first class school system for millions of kids, the challenge of designing a world class primary health system to serve a billion people, an opportunity to set policies in agricultural and industrial sectors to facilitate creation of 10 million new jobs every year, - the challenges and opportunities are endless.

    The question is do we here in India view these issues as challenges or problems? Are we open enough to recognize that there is talent and expertise available with us - here or abroad - which can facilitate transformation of India? Are we willing to offer ourselves at least a fair chance at succeeding?

    The youngster also asked another penetrating question. What is India's track record in treating reformers? Do we give them a fair chance or do we persecute them? Their generation understands that the government is a means to an end and needs to create an institutional framework to facilitate and encourage agents of transformation and change.

    The world cannot and will not give up on a billion people either that easily or casually. There are many passionate Indians who are willing to labour for transforming ourselves into a modern thriving society. It is up to us to make the best use of this talent and fulfil our potential. If we fail to take good care of a milch cow, the cow will stop yielding milk; and we will be the losers. Talent and commitment to public good are qualities which need to be treasured and nurtured.

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    The Times of India, 11th January 2003

    Small solutions to big problems

    One trip out of India, and we end up having so much material to write about on our return. I am not referring to the wonderful sights or technological innovations one sees abroad or the curtsey and efficiency with which even a third world country's immigration and customs officials function. I am referring to the simple things which are overlooked because of lack of planning or attention to detail or plain insensitivity.

    Let me recount a simple incident in Mumbai airport on my return from abroad, which was both irritating and amusing but ends up making all us Indians look pretty foolish. Apparently only recently a bus has been arranged by the National Airports Authority for transporting passengers directly to the domestic terminal. The bus takes a short cut within the airport complex, instead of the circuitous passage through Mumbai streets earlier. Of course, there was neither an announcement, nor a notice indicating such a facility! We are supposed to discover it ourselves.

    A co-passenger who traveled recently told us of this facility, and so we went to the coach after clearing immigration and customs. We were guided to a coach that is to transfer us from the international to the domestic departure. We did not realize that there were passengers who had connecting flights with Indian Airlines as well as Jet Airways. But all baggage was loaded together.

    Five minutes into the bus ride, the driver announced that we were approaching the Jet Airways terminal. As the Jet Airways passengers were getting ready to disembark, the driver announced that even the Indian Airlines passengers should disembark to make sure their own baggage is reloaded properly. Apparently it did not occur to the officials that they could have loaded the baggage of Indian Airlines passengers in a separate compartment. Some of us burst out laughing but did not get too angry because we had ample time to catch the Indian Airlines flight, thanks to the arrival of international flights in Mumbai at an unearthly hour. All the 'housewives' amidst us immediately exclaimed - such a simple solution; why all this confusion! (On some other occasion I shall talk bout the immense common sense exhibited by housewives but has become dormant in our so called 'experts' and 'professionals'). If only we thought through issues, paid less importance to facades and appearances and more attention to detail, if only we put things on paper before implementation - we wouldn't end up with flyovers hanging in mid-air and lanes leading to nowhere.

    It so happens that many of the problems, big and small, 'plaguing' our country are all amenable to simple and practical solutions - we just have to show the will. A friend of mine always keeps telling me the problem is that between the big things we cannot do and the little things we will not do, the danger is we end up doing nothing. Where the whole world revels in finding solutions to any problem, we seem to relish identifying a problem in every solution. And now having identified this make-believe problem, we would have a perfectly legitimate excuse for not attempting to do anything about it. Many of the problems of our country don't require new solutions which are yet to be discovered. The answers are all out there, having been successfully tested and tried-out elsewhere, and all we have to do is to replicate with suitable adaptation and institution-building. A little attention to detail and putting to good use our common sense can make life so much simpler and smoother for all.

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    The Times of India, 4th January 2003

    Global change and deep slumber

    Recently, I had an opportunity to spend some time in Kenya as a member of the commonwealth group of election observers deputed to oversee the national general elections. Even though I had taken on this assignment rather reluctantly, I am really glad that I did, as it has opened an entirely new world and shattered the many unflattering myths we harbor about Africa. Nothing that we learnt as kids about Africa prepared me for the breathtaking beauty of Kenya and the grace and dignity of the people.

    Like most other African countries, Kenya also became independent from its colonial rulers in the 1960's and was led by first generation leaders who had roots in their freedom struggle. Unfortunately like the rest of the continent, the first generation Kenyan leaders also simply looted the country and haven't allowed either a democratic tradition or good governance to take root and as a result suffered from despotic rule, lawlessness and corruption.

    Owing to pressure from the international community, and under the terms of a constitutional amendment in 1992, the incumbent president, Daniel arap Moi who presided over a regime of plunder and tyranny for the past 24 years had to give way. For the first time since independence in 1963, free and fair polls were held and the Kenyan people voted overwhelmingly for change. The ruling party was routed giving a landslide victory to Mwai Kibaki who campaigned for good governance and end of corruption. This is a rare instance of peaceful, democratic transfer of power in Africa and it bodes well for the rest of the continent.

    The most striking thing one notices in Kenya is the high level of literacy. Kenya's per capita income in purchasing power terms is only half that of India. There are some 42 tribes, and people are dispersed in small, remote villages with hardly any infrastructure. And yet, every village or a group of tiny villages has a primary school of good quality. Most schools are run by missionaries, and they have good infrastructure. Each class has a teacher and a room. Compare this with our single-teacher and two-teacher schools, and you will realise how much of catching up we have to do. What is more, Kenyan education is really good. About 75% of people are literate. And every literate Kenyan knows how to read, write and speak two languages - Swahili and English. I have talked with hundreds of Kenyans from all cross-sections. The level of awareness and articulation of the ordinary people with only school education is amazing.

    Of course, Kenya has had rotten governments so far, and tyranny and plunder have been synonymous with power. Government did little to promote education, provide health care, or build infrastructure. And yet Kenyan society values education. Even poor people are willing to pay large sums for education in private schools. Part of the reason is the sense of equality, despite the many tribal divisions. There are no hierarchies in society. Every Kenyan has a sense of dignity and self-esteem. There is no feudal subservience. A driver often shares a meal with his employer, and a constable sits in front of his boss and converses freely! They have many challenges ahead, but happily the recent election brought hope, and the ordinary citizens discovered their power.

    All of us have disdain for the 'dark' continent of Africa. Outside the west, we only recognize two regions - South East Asia, whose rapid growth in recent decades left us behind and envious, and the gulf countries, whose oil wealth attracted many youngsters in search of jobs, including from Hyderabad. But there are many lessons we the 'civilized' have to learn from the much-neglected Africa. Our insulation and hierarchies are doing us immense damage. All over the world, determined efforts are being made to improve the conditions. We need to wake up from our deep slumber and focus on things that really matter, if we are not to be left behind.

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