My impression from three years of living in India was that it was striking of how much of the intellectual discussion around policy and priorities looked entirely conventional, with the usual left-right splits about what the government “should” do, argued out, particularly among in the English language media I was exposed to, as if the government of India could do roughly whatever it was proposed they should do.
Clearly India suffers from severely deficient parameters on health, law enforcement and education. The state’s failures to provide basic healthcare are reflected in the low life expectancy, the daily reports of rapes and crimes point to the ineffective rule of law, and survey after survey reminds us of the appalling learning levels among Indian school children. What is striking is the fact that at the very top of India’s administrative and political pyramid, there has been a great consensus on improving health and education. Project after project has been brainstormed, thought out and funded handsomely to improve these basic indicators, with very little to show for. Why is this so ?
The classic middle class response to this question, goes something like this. Money is allocated by the government, but ‘corrupt’ officials siphon off almost everything and it makes no impact. This conveniently made claim (buttressed by daily reports of egregious corruption in an unimaginably vast country) lays the blame at the moral failure of the political and administrative class. However, it cannot stand up to deeper scrutiny. Many other developing countries have as much or even much more corruption than India, but they do far better than India on these basic indicators. For example, Iraq, a country that has been the unfortunate victim of a dictator, then a long period of turmoil, and now a weak government and a continuing civil war, has a higher life expectancy than India. We clearly have to look for answers beyond corruption.
A Question of Capacity
The key point Lant Pritchett makes, and one we should pay careful attention to is that in India’s current situation, understanding what the government can do, is atleast as important as thinking about what the government should do. In his paper, Pritchett studies the behavior of government agents at the base level of the state, and concludes that their indiscipline and indifference to their duties is to blame. But the issue might be even more fundamental. It appears that the Indian state simply does not have enough personnel to perform the tasks of a basic modern nation state. The shortfall in personnel is not a matter of operating at half or even quarter of the required workforce in India, in certain areas the Indian state doesnt even have a tenth of the workers it needs to have to perform fundamental functions. Consider these facts:
- “India has 1,622.8 government servants for every 100,000 residents. In stark contrast, the U.S. has 7,681. The Central government, with 3.1 million employees, thus has 257 serving every 100,000 population, against the U.S. federal government’s 840.” – Praveen Swami in The Hindu.
- India had 9546 judges for a population of around a billion in the 90’s, at the same time, the US (which has a similar legal system) but a quarter of India’s population, had 28049 judges, more than three times as many. In other words, India has less than one-tenth the number of judges required to efficiently run the justice system. – John Armour & Priya Lele, – Law, Finance and Politics: The Case of India
- “On the basis of police per capita, India is the second lowest among 50 countries ranked using data from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime from 2010. Police forces around the world are commonly measured as the number of police per 100,000 people, and India has 129. Only Uganda fares worse.” – The New York Times The world average is close to 350, and it is possible that India’s figure include the CRPF, which does not do any direct policing. Anecdotally, any Indian in the US will tell you that they see cop cars patrolling the street far more frequently than in India.
Set aside even the efficiency and morality of each public servant, the Indian state simply has nowhere near the number of personnel needed to perform its functions.
Show Me The Money
How did we end up in this scenario, and what needs to be done to rectify this ? Lets perform a simple calculation. Suppose we want to increase the number of judges in India, so that we have the same number of judges per capita as the US. How much more would the expenditure be ? Assume that each judge gets paid Rs. 50,000 as salary every month, thats Rs. 600000 a year, and that there are 10,000 judges, all getting the same salary. This is a total current expenditure of Rs. 600 cr a year. If we were to increase the number of judges by a factor of 10, the expenditure would be Rs. 6000 cr a year, i.e. we would have to arrange for Rs. 5400 cr more per year.
It is difficult for me to see how this money can be arranged without economic growth. In fact, I would speculate that one of the main reasons the Indian state is so understaffed is that the historically low rates of economic growth have constrained recruitment. Unfortunately, fast economic growth comes with its own challenges in a country with a weak rule of law and historical inequalities like India. The very policies that encourage faster economic expansion, translate into exploitation and abuse at the ground level due to the weak rule of law. A catch-22 seems to arise here, we need economic growth to be able to enforce the rule of law, but in the short term at least, that very same economic growth can make a mockery of the rule of law.