Looking Ahead: Taking governance to people, delivering justice

Today’s governance can be equated with something that is sluggish and obscure.

Akrita Reyar

India has had a democratic set up – in one form or the other – for centuries now, even if it was only democratic administration within a monarchy. For example, the committee of elders is a uniquely Asian tradition and panchayat a completely Indian concept. Today we are the largest democracy.

Now if one looks at major arms of governance within a democracy - they are political administrators, legislature, judiciary, civil services, and civil society.

One would ask, what is the state of governance today in India? Clearly, it is still not transparent or pro-active in the interest of the people. Governance in today’s terminology can be equated with something that is sluggish, obscure and mired in corruption, and red tape and out of reach as far as common man is concerned. The procedure is synonymous with what we call as the ‘Babu’ culture.

As per a Planning Commission report for Governance 2020, “The general feeling outside the government is that the government is huge, lacks direction, is unmanageable, wasteful and uncaring of the citizen.”

Obviously, this doesn’t paint a pretty picture. The report further elaborates that there is trust deficit between the government and the people who “take with a pinch of salt whatever the government says or claims”.

Currently, nearly 2% of our population or 20 million people are linked with the government in some way or the other including through PSUs, autonomous boards etc. The proportion is far too large. Probably, a leaner, fitter and more streamlined government is required to bridge this gap with the citizen.

In terms of how Indian governance is viewed abroad, during Commonwealth Games, senior officials of international sports bodies as well as world press said that India needed to wake up to international standards of governance. That the country was too inward looking about what it felt were the correct methods of doing work and standards of deliverance.

The challenge is to deliver effective governance to more than a billion people. A country like Switzerland has just 7 million in total population. People can be assets as Jawaharlal Nehru had claimed to JRD Tata when the latter was pressing the former PM to implement population control measures. But what needs to be looked at is the quality of the population, according to the Planning Commission report. Unfortunately, our population does not necessarily have adequate education or training or in fact even basic means of sustenance in the first place. Our citizens also largely lack basic civic sense.

People often take law into their own hands and government for granted. At the drop of a hat, mobs spill into the streets and feel they have a license to do what they please including damaging public property, setting to fire vehicles, smashing furniture and hurling stones.

People who indulge in lawlessness must be made to pay for damage to public property, even if it means auctioning that person’s assets.

Judiciary is completely bogged down and cases stretch over generations. According to reports, Indian courts would take 320 years to complete backlog of 31.28 million pending cases.

Our judicial system needs to be decentralized further and courts need to be made fast-track, just like in the US which handles a huge volume of cases, but at a much faster speed than us. Speedy justice is absolutely vital for a clean system.

Let us see in detail the findings of World Governance Survey (WGS) conducted in 2001 under aegis of the UN. The India chapter included 177 experts from Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, UP and Delhi. Major factors observed were:

a) Democracy is more impressive in form than substance.

b) Corruption was the most important governance challenge facing India.

c) There was substantial amount of devolution of power to states.

d) Quality of governance and standard of living varies dramatically from state to state, mainly due to historical reasons, geography and socio-cultural factors.

e) Variance between states is less in civil society, political set up and judiciary, and more pronounced in terms of bureaucracy and economic society. Difference in ratings for state governments are most marked.

f) India’s strengths lie in the fact that there is constitutional democracy since independence. Roles of Legislature, Executive and independent Judiciary are well delineated and there is clear power sharing between the Centre and the States.

g) Corruption, inefficiency and troubled politics are among main weaknesses.

h) There is increasing importance of non-state actors in governance but this is a gradual process.

i) There is a seeming regeneration of political institutions after a period of decay. But this has hiccups and setbacks from time to time.

j) Globalization and liberalization have had an impact on governance but the full depth of the implications is not yet understood.

k) Lok Adalats and new community dispute mechanisms are welcome considering the otherwise slow judicial process.

Some bright spots in India as described by WGS:

(i)High level of freedom of expression and association

(ii) High levels of political competition

(iii) Bureaucracy overall well rated but fears of falling standards

(iv) Military accepts its subordination to civilian govt

Some concerns:

(i) Policy making divorced from people and their interests

(ii) Government not open to public inputs

(iii) Low level of accountability of legislators to the public

(iv) Corruption, as stated above, remains the main concern

(v) There is a need to improve access to justice – making justice more timely and less costly and thus Lok Adalats need to be encouraged

In days to come, governance is likely to be become more decentralized and federal in nature. It should further percolate to local municipal bodies and panchayats, especially after the adoption of 73rd and 74th amendments (calling for more representative local government) to the Constitution, which has propelled states for similar action.

The Eleventh and Twelfth Schedules of Constitution already contain 29 and 18 items respectively for Panchayat Raj Institutions and Urban Local Bodies, but in the absence of legislative, financial and executive powers, they have not been very effective.

Right to Information is a step in the right direction. It brings with it more transparency, but how effective it is remains a question. People are mostly even unaware of how to use it to push for better administration. Moreover, there is political and administrative resistance to RTI.

In the future, we could look at e-governance as an effective tool. Internet access, teleconferencing and video conferencing will help administrators take quick decisions.

But all roadmaps to better governance will continue to fail in face of widespread corruption. There is need for public accountability; judicial activism and increase in the number of PILs give us a ray of hope.

(This piece on Governance is part of the Looking Ahead series.)

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