Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Thoughtful Governance

It is ironical that while we want every trivia around us to be scientific but no one questions about the logical foundations of the government structure and its workings. The Governance has become an inanimate being which would not change and which one has to live with. While scientists conduct studies to improve every aspect of human lives from the way one sits to the way one sleeps, there has not been a considerable contribution of science in the way our nation is governed.

Governance and politics in India attracts very little of talent and research. Albeit the IAS officers have a very good caliber and are selected via a very competitive exam, they, as IAS officers, do not have the power to challenge the governance structure. Even more unfortunate is the fact that the general perception remains that it is solely the job of the politicians and government employees to bring about change in the nation. The high threshold of political capital required to make yourself heard, in the corridors of power, restricts nation building and social change to an exclusive club.

There is a need for institutional mechanisms to involve more creativity and fresh breeze of thoughts into the process of building a nation and helping every human have the opportunity to realise his/her dreams and potential. The method of scientific discovery must not remain confined only to the traditional sciences. They are badly needed in many areas which directly influence our lives. While ample research is undertaken on the government policies and social structure, only a negligible fraction of it sees the light of the day and gets implemented. The need of the hour is to make governance inclusive of scientific thought. Fresh ideas must be tested in a conference of experts and be published in peer reviewed journals, and should form a part of the government policy. Government should be open to experimentation in governance and promising ideas on various aspects of governance should be allowed to be tested in real experiments in a small scale.

The case of the Gramin bank and its founder Mohammed Yunus is a classic example of the benefits of such an exercise. Mohammed Yunus was an economics professor in a university in Bangladesh( whose governance system is similar to that in India) who was appalled to see the condition of the destitute in the country. He started the Grameen bank as his own initiative to provide cheap credit assistance to the poor in the neighbourhood. While his idea succeeded in his locale, he had to struggle a lot to make him self heard in the corridors of power and bring about the change in the whole country. He was lucky to have met acquaintances and encouraging officials in the midst of naysayers. After years of toil, his efforts finally bore fruit and the Grameen bank lifted many people out of distress. Today countries around the world want to replicate this model. While no political leader would have been against such wonderful effort to eradicate poverty, the problem here lay in bringing the idea to the notice of the rulers.

The power of Wikinomics is well established today. Many corporations and establishments are scrambling to exploit its power and open source movements have come in the lime light in software and information industry but Governance still remains a closed source. We must realize that democratic closed governance is a contradiction of terms and to make governance an effective tool for social and economic change, it needs to get constant doses of innovation like science does and must not remain static as a dogma.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Of The People and not just By the People, For the People.

In the on-going debate about providing legally enforceable rights to all citizens of India, one of the most common and recurring questions is that why these laws should work any better than the whole gamut of laws, policies and programs in the past encouraging education, food security, employment and well being of the people? This question has been the ultimate killer for any debate on a good legislation that things on the paper and on the ground remain very different.

What we must realize now is that we no longer live in a democracy with resources so scarce that it acted like a monarchy where it was considered a favor if an elected leader got a school constructed in the neighborhood. Today, the nation has the capability and resources to provide for all. It is our inalienable right to get good education, have enough food, get employment and good health services. We must strive for these rights as we did for our political freedom. It is good that the government has made it easier for us to fight for some of these rights by legislations granting legally enforceable right to information, right to education, employment guarantee and hopefully soon a right to food security and access to health. The onus now lies on 'we the people' to make sure that all of us get our birth rights.

The civil society in India has been a very vibrant one but even today many people look to the government for every problem. We must start looking at the government as an enabler for our better future rather than as a spoon feeder. Hence, if tomorrow we feel the pinching need of a school in our locality we should not wait for the government to take suo moto notice but move the courts and other relevant fora for our rights. The model of governance, we are shifting to, requires a lot of public participation. If we feel appalled at the state of corruption in various government schemes, the onus is now on us to take action and file RTI applications to expose the corruption.

As pointed out by Shekhar Singh in the article by Lina Khan that usually laws were made for the government to control the people, but now we have moved to another level where laws are made for the people to regulate the government. These laws give us a wonderful opportunity to plug the leaks in the flow of money and resources from the top to the grass roots. 'Well Done Abba' , a recent movie by Shyam Benegal, highlights precisely how we can do so. Many instances of corruption are pretty easy to spot. As rightly depicted in the movie, there are many wells, lakes, schools and roads in India that exist on paper but not in reality. All we need to do is to find out what all is there on paper. As in the movie, I guess we can file an FIR against some one stealing our wells, roads and other infrastructure.

I propose that we all launch a nation wide social audit. A team of individuals would take up a locale in a town or a small village and then use RTI to find out about all the public projects in the area that exist in the government records as well the payrolls of all the people employed under NREGA, lists of all the beneficiaries of various other government schemes in the area, etc. Then we visit the place and actually map the things on paper to reality. That would not only expose all the wrong doings of the corrupt officials but also make the locals aware that they can always audit the working of the government and make sure that they get their due. This nation wide campaign can be coordinated on the web with various teams selecting different locales and then uploading their reports online along with the other valuable information about the locality as how one can go there and what all is there in that area.

There are many many opportunities the new legislations have provided for both social activists and businessmen. Only thing that is needed is imagination. Shaffi Mather has come up with a wonderful idea to make money by fighting corruption. The new Right to Education Act throws an opportunity for us to make money while educating poor children. The window of opportunity looks like a curse, at present, to many. I am talking about the clause in the act which makes it mandatory for all private schools to take at least 25% pupils from the disadvantaged sections in all new admissions. What many forget to add is that the government will pay the school for educating these children. The amount paid by the government per child per year would be the cost the government bears to educate the child in a government school. My thesis is that if it costs Rupees 100 to , with all due respect, the inefficient, corrupt and wasteful government to give quality education to a child, a private school with an efficient and innovative management can provide better education in around 80 Rupees (read this). Thus, quite contrary to the assumption of our HRD minister Mr. Sibal, the private sector can play a very important role in educating the children of India and even make it into a profitable enterprise.

We are seeing a new democracy evolving in India which would make the governance more participatory and accountable. While the RTI has already made ripples in the society about the way the people now perceive the government (see this article), I am sure that soon enough we all would realize our roles in the governance of the nation that the government is of the people and not just by the people and for the people.

PS: Thanks to Anirudh for editing the post

Friday, April 2, 2010

Well done India.

The ever skeptic Indian finds it against the normal instinct to appreciate the advances of the gargantuan elephant of Indian system and democracy. Perhaps, there is a feeling that we have miles to go and any sort of praise may make the elephant more complacent and it would doze off even before it completed half of its journey. The journey is a long one and the goal is one that is universally aspired by all for centuries, but it does help to cheer the slow and most of the times steady creature when it reaches a mile stone.

It was on the banks of river Ravi in 1930 that our leaders set the goal for 'Swaraj' or freedom. That freedom didnt not just mean political freedom but also social and economic freedom for all citizens. While the former was achieved at the stroke of midnight hour seventeen years later but the latter still remains an unfulfilled goal. Nehru once uttered "A moment which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new". Today again India is at the same crossroads, where she seeks to redeem its age old pledge in a substantial manner.

I have always found it unfair to judge the whole Indian political system as rotten and worth no good. Albeit there are many problems with the current state of affairs, we also have been fortunate, not once but most of the times, to be lead by great leaders whether in politics or in civil society. After six decades of liberal democracy and two decades of high economic growth, India has found the moral and material strength to reembark on its journey towards Utopia. The democracy has finally started trickling down to the roots and the voters always outsmart the politicians in every election. Development and basic needs of people is on the forefront of all political discourses. Efficiency and transparency not just words used by the elite but have found increasing resonance with the common masses.

The course of liberalization and ensuing economic boom germinated the seeds of new socialism and activism. The omens of things to come was the right to education act passed by NDA government and also the not so successful 'India Shining Campaign.' These demonstrated the new found confidence in the government to think big, though it was little too early to trumpet victory even before the battle started. None the less they made important contributions in bringing back the the bureaucracy in shape, breaking down the colonial shackles of licence raj and providing connectivity to all Indians in terms of roads and telephones.

Despite the blows the two major political parties exchange in public, the course of Indian elephant remained more or less the same after change of government. There has been a gold rush to exploit the new found monetary strength of the governments to make grand changes in the life of all citizens and reap the political benefits as did the left government after the successful land reforms in West Bengal. Quite ironically but in a quintessentially Indian way the right liberal policies gave a major push to the center left ideology. Every one from all parts of the political spectrum rushed to adopt the new and more aggressive form of Indian socialism. The days of Mandir and Mandal politics were over. The BJP ruled states focussed on food security by providing food grains to all at almost no price. Some went further ahead to relieve the parents of one of their most pressing worry i.e. cost of marrying their daughters. They promised not only support for education of the girl child but also to give a substantial amount of money at the time of marriage. The southern states soon followed the suit. It was a refreshing change to see rice and not color TV's in the manifestos. The master stroke came from the UPA government lead by congress party with the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA).

The civil society made the most important contribution by channeling the aspirations of the public. They not only highlighted the problems with the Indian government system but also proposed very effective measures and then made sure that the masses rallied behind them.
Aruna Roy, who left her job as high ranking Government official to become a socail activist, championed the cause of right to information (RTI). Her efforts and the more responsive political system lead to the revolutionary legislation empowering every citizen with the right to get information on pretty much every public and personal matter from the government within few days of a simple request.

The ultimate responsibility of good or bad within a democratic nation rests on the people. They have been the major instrument in bringing about this change. The people have generously rewarded the social pro-activeness of the governments. It has been after a long time that people in many states voted the incumbent government back in power. Manmohan Singh is the only prime minister after Nehru to have completed one full term in office and to be re-elected again. The winds of change have blown over the whole nation and today Bihar has the second fastest growing economy in India.

Encouraged with the generous bounty, the last general election saw major social programs in the manifestos of major political parties. There is a consensus among all on the major parties on many social issues. Today, the issue for political parties is not whether the social incentives will be launched or not but how to get the most credit for the them and how to be the first or the most vocal supporter of these policies. Starting from yesterday, the right to education has become a legally enforceable right. The efforts to empower women at all levels have seen a rat race among political parties. Some states have increased the reservation of women in local bodies to fifty percent. The BJP has included one third female members in its highest decision making body. The congress is making the most of electing the first woman president and a woman speaker and marshalling the woman reservation bill through the Rajya Sabha. The food security act will soon become a reality and many other socially conscious measures will see the light of the day.

Within the last decade, India has changed beyond the imagination of many. The new found tools of freedom have worked in tandem with each other to achieve wonders. RTI has acted as panacea. NREGA and many more government schemes have seen a huge improvement in their efficacy. Judges have declared their assets and the Government officials would hopefully follow the suit in the future. Corruption is no longer a thing to live with today but something which can be fought with the RTI. Entrepreneurs like Shaffi Mather have come up with ideas to make fighting corruption a business opportunity. They would fight corruption on the behalf of their client using the new legal tools and charge a small fee for making sure that the client gets a just service from the government. The governments right from the municipal level have become more responsive towards the needs of the citizens and it is no more a traumatic experience to go to a government office for some service.

I feel appalled to hear many voices that still carry the skepticism that is two decades old. I feel rather proud that the Elephant of Indian democracy moves slowly but every step has a huge impact bringing out a gradual change and allowing the effective policies to evolve over time winning against many other alternatives. We all need to pat ourselves and say well done India! lage raho India!!.