1. transitive and intransitive verb thrash around: to thrash or swing something around violently or uncontrollably, or move in this way
The Indian state (i.e. the Union and State governments, various government departments, police etc.) is as confusing as the nation it represents and controls. Whereas on the one hand there are reports of its agents engaging in gross human rights abuses, it goes through enormous efforts to enable every individual to exercise the right to vote. While it conducts one of the most stringent entry tests anywhere in the world to induct officers into its elite Civil Service corp, many official positions are simply ‘sold’ off to the highest bidder (briber). In his recent paper, ‘Is India a Flailing State ?‘, Lant Pritchett of the Harvard Kennedy School describes India as a,
flailing state—a nation state in which the head, that is elite institutions at the national (and in some states) level remain sound and functional but that this head is no longer reliably connected via nerves and sinews to its own limbs.
So like a drowning animal, the head of the Indian state is desperately flapping its limbs, trying to stay at the surface while they try to drag it down to the bottom. One can see the instances of this flailing behavior in many recent events, notably the H1N1 scare recently. A weak and ineffective state coupled with a public paranoid of the state’s legendary incompetence and a reactionary media led to mass hysteria, when indeed a capable state would not have allowed the virus to enter the country in such large numbers in the first place.
Pritchett notes that in
police, tax collection, education, health, power, water supply – in nearly every routine service – there is rampant absenteeism, indifference, incompetence, and corruption …. the everyday actions of the field level agents of the state … are increasingly beyond the control of the administration at the national or state level.
That this is the case should be clear to anyone who has lived or worked in India, especially the North. Which brings us to the all important question of Why ? Why are the field level agents of the Indian state so lax and neglectful ? The answer to this question is a very complex one, varying due to many sectors, location, type of service, the awareness of the local population among others. Though one is tempted to give a broad brush explanation based on ‘culture’, this must be resisted and applied only when other, more verifiable explanations dont work.
I can attempt to talk about things in my own hometown of Mumbai. Compared to the rest of India, the field level workers of the Mumbai Municipal corporation are quite competent and diligent. For example, the Mumbai police has to deal with a huge population, the constant threat of terror, an unruly public while having the bare minimum of facilities and equipment. My personal belief is that the peculiar nature of Mumbai’s residents, most people in Mumbai are first generation Mumbaikars like me, recent migrants or people who migrated to Mumbai in the last 30 years. So in many ways, the city is very young. One would expect that as more and more people become second and third generation Mumbaikars, the citizens will start demanding more from the state.
I am afraid this might not happen. One reason is migration, rather the possibility of migration. Much of the middle class is not interested in the betterment of Mumbai simply because they are looking for a way out. The other reason is that the middle class of Mumbai (and indeed India) can simply buy or bribe its way out of a corrupt, decaying state. Pritchett notes that while debating what the Indian state should do, the rich of India often forget,
that their children were in private school, they used private health facilities, used agents for necessary interactions with the government. avoided the police (or paid bribes when stopped), relied on private coping mechanisms for water
, i.e. they fail to realize that its not about what the state should do, but what it can do. And indeed, with an uninterested middle class, there is little that the head of the Indian state can do.
But what about villages, Pritchett notes that in the villages,
differences in religious and caste identity may make it much more difficult for administrative modernism to take hold as it is impossible to separate seeming “technical” questions about eligibility for government programs from social identity …. the way in which administration has been designed almost exclusively as vertical programs from the state or central level leaves little deliberative space for the creation of a sense of common purpose and destiny
Thus, the twin forces of caste rivalry and centralized administration choke good governance in rural India. Nevertheless, it is in the villages that most of the initiatives that hold the potential to improve administration seem to have emerged, especially in the recent past. Notable among them are the RTI and the NREGA, both of which originated in rural Rajasthan. The RTI in particular has become a key tool for the civil society of urban India.
So what is the way forward ? Indians need to critically think not only about their politicians but also about the nature of their state. Indeed, it is in the success of democracy that one can find hope. If the Election Commission of India can conduct the daunting task of enlisting 500 million people, record and count the votes of 400 million over a mind-boggling array of terrains and ethnicities, then one can hope for better from the other arms of the Indian state. Being denied the right to vote brings out the activist in Indians across the sub-continent, people protest in large numbers for not just their but also others right to vote. Indians need to fight similarly for their right to good health, their kids right to education and their right to a dignified treatment by the officials of the state. Only then will India’s flailing state navigate to calm waters.