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Examining the rot

Print edition : Aug 24, 2012 T+T-

A refreshing contribution to the national debate on governance and accountability in the wake of scams and anti-corruption campaigns.

TO have a title like Accountability: Angst, Awareness, Action for a tome and to state wistfully that those who read it will transit from a state of angst about accountability to one of awareness and finally into action is being too optimistic about our countrys denizens. Particularly when people do not have much awareness about their own rights and their obligations to society, which have not been spelt out comprehensively or understood properly by them. The result remains one of indifference to changing their lot. How else could one explain the large-scale illiteracy and deprivation, the widespread poverty, and the rickety infrastructure, both physical and social, in a country of continental size, despite decades of developmental initiatives since Independence? Jay P. Desai, a practising management consultant, was not discouraged by this state of affairs from amplifying his concern about governance deficit, which he identifies as the single biggest malaise afflicting the country.

Shorn of any pretence of academic jargon or activist zest to overstate the case and concern, the author brings a refreshing insight into the ongoing national debate on governance and accountability in the wake of a spate of scams and also anti-corruption campaigns spearheaded by the social activist Anna Hazare in 2010. The author scans the three key pillars of democracy the legislature, the executive and the judiciary but leaves out the fourth, the vibrant media that played a key role in exposing the chinks in the three pillars but did not have the necessary restraint or effective self-regulation to draw the line in its crusade.

Before dwelling at length on his prescriptions for remedying the ills of the system, the author aptly states that at the heart of our dismal economic, social and political performance lies the irregular and arrhythmic drum-roll of poor governance, non-standard, ad hoc, whimsical. The main reason for the poor governance is not far to seek. It is the very absence of accountability in public office that, the author avers, fixes responsibility for outcomes on specific individuals, positions, departments, ministries or organisations. He highlights tragedies such as the Bhopal gas leak of 1984 in which thousands lost their lives and the floods in Mumbai in July 2005, which was the byproduct of rampant construction that ravaged the natural flood-protection barrier of the mangrove swamps. He also writes about the 2010 Commonwealth Games in New Delhi, which revealed to the rest of the universe the corrupt practices in the construction of stadia and other physical infrastructure.

Even before the dust kicked up by the stadia scandal settled, irregularities in the allocation of the 2G telecom spectrum licences rocked the nation. It was not that all the malpractices became manifest in a jiffy and exposed the unpreparedness of the established defence mechanisms to remedy the malady. The author aptly recalls that in the early post-Independence years, the government set up solid governance institutions such as the Central Vigilance Commission and the Central Bureau of Investigation. With the passage of years, several citizen-friendly remedial institutions, such as public interest litigation (PIL) in 1980, Lokayukta in 1984, the Prevention of Corruption Act in 1988 and, more tellingly, the Right to Information Act in 2005, came into being in order to ensure and enforce accountability and let citizens participate proactively in the process of genuine governance.

The author has hit the nail on the head when he remarks that on paper these accountability mechanisms and institutions beefed up the capacity of citizens to lodge complaints and seek accountability in the conduct and performance of public officials, while in practice a lot of work is required. In this regard, the author has a special word of praise for State governments such as that of Delhi and Karnataka which have involved citizens in the planning and delivery of public services through joint initiatives like Bhagidari and the Bangalore Agenda Task Force (BATF) respectively.

The gains of these state-sponsored institutional mechanisms have proved good to citizens. Bhagidari in Delhi has proved itself to be an example of participatory governance, where citizens and city administration officials jointly conduct workshops to discuss the civic issues in Delhi, suggest solutions, and implement them. As for the BATF, it is an initiative in which stakeholders jointly define projects to mend the citys overburdened infrastructure and systems and help the government in their implementation.

Be that as it may, the author ruefully reminds the reader about the countrys poor performance in governance. He cites a World Bank study on Worldwide Governance Indicators, in which India ranks 112 of the 213 countries evaluated, scoring poorly in facets such as political stability, corruption control and regulatory quality. While the South Korean web service OPEN (Online Procedures Enhancement for Civil Applications) allows citizens to track their applications for licences/permits online and thereby helps curb exaction and bribery, India is yet to scale up substantially this sort of a tracking mechanism at the frictional interface between the life of an ordinary citizen and the role the government plays in it with its legions of bureaucrats, at the Central and State levels and down to the district administration.

Jay Desai notes that despite the good intentions of and moves by authorities immediately after Independence, the introduction of governance policies began slowing down in the 1970s and 1980s. Emergency Rule in the mid-1970s curbed the political and civil rights of citizens, censored the media, and heightened the opaqueness of government actions. This way power and authority shifted squarely but unobtrusively into the hands of government officials, reinforcing nepotism. Small wonder that successive years saw big-ticket scams marring the countrys image and shaking the faith of the aam aadmi in the steel frame of the Indian bureaucracy. It is altogether another story that after a series of scams post-2008, both the political class and the civil service became muted, contributing to the policy inertia that now plagues the administration in general and the economy in particular.

The author has answers to break the logjam and burnish accountability among all sections that have a stake in the development of the country. The six initiatives he has laid out are information, impartiality, implementation, infrastructure, independence and involvement. He fondly hopes that a burst of governance and accountability reforms akin to the explosion of the economic reforms of 1991 will put India on an accelerated path of growth. But he does not see this happening in the immediate future; the process of change will come about a good 10 to 15 years from now, well into a 2020-25 time frame. The moot question is whether the country can stretch this mending process that far, given the slowdown of the economy and the increasing restiveness in a large section of the people who find that the growth benefits have not trickled down to make a meaningful difference to their lives.

The book makes a welcome contribution to bolstering the low morale of Indians.