For voters in Urban India, government is the first resort

Urban Indians might choose government services even when presented with other options, but may not always credit the state for these, finds study

Rukmini S.
Updated18 Dec 2018
While half of the urban households said they send their children to a government school because it was more affordable, a third did so because it was of better quality. Photo: HT
While half of the urban households said they send their children to a government school because it was more affordable, a third did so because it was of better quality. Photo: HT

Chennai: Urban residents in India use, with much praise and some criticism, several government programmes, and expect the government to provide basic amenities, but may not always credit the government for these programmes, according to the findings of a nationwide study.

The Lok Foundation-Oxford University large-scale, multi-year surveys, administered by the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy, covered more than 100,000 urban households.

Among other issues, a set of Lok Surveys conducted in the summer of 2016 asked respondents about their experiences in accessing government services.

Overall, nearly as many urban children go to private schools as those attending government schools, the survey showed. While half of the households said they send their children to a government school because it was more affordable, a third did so because it was of better quality.

In most better administered states—Kerala, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Uttarakhand, Delhi—more people chose government schools because of their quality rather than affordability, while in the poorest states with least administrative capacity, including Bihar and Jharkhand, the lack of money dictates the ‘choice’ of school.

Given a choice, urban respondents were divided down the middle over whether they would prefer to send their children to a government school that charged less fees, or be given cash to subsidize tuition fees at a school of their choice. The poorest overwhelmingly preferred subsidized government schools, while the rich preferred cash subsidies.

The story was similar for health, although in this case, a majority of urban respondents said that they would go to a government hospital for both a minor and a major illness. Given a choice, a majority again said that they would choose a government hospital, and the most important reason was affordable healthcare.

In the case of higher middle income and rich respondents, a majority went to private hospitals or doctors.

When asked whether the government should improve state health facilities or give citizens a fixed amount of money to go to the hospital of their choosing, a large majority wanted better government hospitals.

Three out of every four urban respondents saying that they had a ration card (including those with above-poverty-line cards) that they could use to access the public distribution system (PDS). Nearly 70% said that they used it to purchase subsidized rice, and nearly half said that it made up a significant amount of their monthly food budgets. Despite the denouncement of the PDS as creaky and failing, over two in three said that they were satisfied with its functioning. Nearly as many people said that they preferred getting subsidized grain from the ration shops as those who said they would prefer cash instead (49% to 51%).

Respondents also believed that the government should be responsible for providing electricity and piped water, and despite shortcomings in the provision of the two, most did not agree with paying extra for longer hours of electricity or water.

Across age, location, caste, and class—in fact, even more so for upper castes and the rich—the first preference of respondents in terms of employment was a government job for themselves, confirming findings of other surveys.

ALSO READ | What Young India wants: ‘Sarkari Naukri’

Over 60% of urban respondents felt that the way to fix the issue of poor growth in jobs was for the government, and not private companies, to create more employment.

Yet, Indians might not always believe that government programmes have benefitted them to the extent that they might credit a state or national government for it. Despite a majority across states saying that they use government schools and hospitals and a large majority saying that they use the PDS, 45% said in the Lok Survey that immediately followed the 2014 election that no government programme had benefitted their family in the last year, or they did not know if any had.

Sometimes, the blame or credit for the scheme is laid at the wrong door. Following the 2014 election, 20% of respondents to Lokniti’s nationally representative National Election Studies said that they had benefitted from the United Progressive Alliance’s Mahatma Gandhi National Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS), but over two out of three credited the local or state government for it. Over 20% benefitted from the National Rural Health Mission, but over half of them credited the state government for it.

Post-election analyses—as during the last week—abound with assertions that the presence or absence of “development” made all the difference. Yet, evidence for such claims remains weak. Before the 2014 Lo Sabha elections, urban respondents to the Lok Survey said economic growth would be the biggest issue influencing their voting choice (and another 13% cited changes in their personal income). After an election in which the incumbent was dislodged, however, more than half said that their financial situation was better than it was five years before.

Globally, too, the evidence on whether voters reward better government service provision is mixed.

In South Africa, a comprehensive study of post-apartheid service provision showed that voters did not systematically reward the African National Congress in constituencies where basic services reached or improved.

In Uganda, a government scheme to provide grants for skilled enterprises successfully raised employment and incomes, resulting in voters being able to free themselves from patronage systems. But this also made them more involved in opposition mobilization, research suggests.

Rukmini S. is a Chennai-based journalist.

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