The cost of toilet paper bought for the Commonwealth Games next month is just one example of the rampant corruption that has transformed a once-ambitious project into a big fiasco. There is already much that has been said and written about these scandals to feed the popular feeling that most of what is wrong with India can be traced back to corruption. But I think there is also a bigger issue here that Saina Nehwal unwittingly alluded to in a clear statement that she later hastily withdrew: the basic inability to manage and execute large national projects.
“Looking at the stadiums and looking at the progress, I don’t think we are capable of holding such big tournaments because you know, I have seen many Games like the Commonwealth in Melbourne (in 2006) and Olympics in Beijing (in 2008). Compared to that it is not up to the mark,” the badminton champion told reporters in Hyderabad last week.
Any nation needs strong state capacity to deliver the goods—a political leadership to identify these goals and an efficient bureaucracy to meet them. The nature of the goals can change. The primary task of a development state is radically different from the primary task of a colonial state. The early decades of free India saw the state try to directly drive economic growth. It has (thankfully) more or less given up on that goal after the advent of economic reforms and allowed the private sector to do the job; the state should now be more focused on maintaining the rules of the game.
But we have seen ambitious commitments emerge in recent years that will, inevitably, need immense managerial and administrative capacity from the bureaucracy. The United Progressive Alliance has rolled out immense entitlement programmes while airily dismissing core issues such as the fiscal ability to fund these programmes and the managerial capability to administer them. Building state capacity is as important for effective redistribution as it is for growth. The record here is not very shining either. Consider two recent examples that have grabbed the headlines.
Exhibit 1: Major cities across the country tend to get felled by viruses every monsoon. An outbreak of influenza, malaria and dengue this year in Mumbai saw hospitals fill up. The city administration had to pitch tents outside two major municipal hospitals to treat patients. Even expensive private hospitals had to turn away patients. Any doctor will tell you that the main underlying cause of these illnesses is filth and stagnant water, both of which are in ample supply in our cities in the wet months, thanks to crumbling civic services.
Exhibit 2: Raging food inflation has been eating into the real purchasing power of the poor, even as food stocks are far beyond what is considered essential for food security. The state prefers to dominate the food economy because it believes its intervention is necessary to protect both farmers and poor consumers. The inability of the government to intervene effectively— either by selling grain in the open market or pushing more food into ration shops—is a shocking case of state failure.
Managing a market economy can be done pretty well by a narrow bureaucratic elite in the economic ministries, the central bank and major regulators. India has overall been well served in these areas because the cream of the bureaucracy has been of a high quality. Failures at the lower end of the bureaucracy do relatively less harm.
That is definitely not the case when it comes to running large entitlement programmes. It is hard to understand how providing quality education to every child or a certain basic minimum of subsidized food to all poor families can be done without efficiency at the lower level of the bureaucracy. The current political leadership seems to be banking on the Right to Information and the cooperation of voluntary civil society groups to keep an eye out for corruption in these welfare programmes. But this does not touch on the issue of whether the state machinery has the managerial capability to provide food, education and employment to anybody who asks for them.
There have been some well-run programmes, of course. I remember that when my daughters were below five years, we were always reminded through advertisements and direct contact by the local primary health centre that they had to be given polio drops on a particular day. Our car was once stopped at a river crossing in the heart of Maharashtra and local health officials were ready with polio drops.
However, the overall capacity of the Indian state to deliver services is poor. The task of building infrastructure has been increasingly outsourced to the private sector through public-private partnerships. The task of delivering entitlements cannot be outsourced that easily. State capacity may need to be re-engineered.
Niranjan Rajadhyaksha is managing editor of Mint. Your comments are welcome at email@example.com
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