Posted by: Vikram | September 3, 2009

The flailing Indian state

flail: Definition:
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.

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Responses

  1. The problem with the Indian state is the lack of accountability.Anyone who goes on to the Govt pay list.becomes non-accountable from day one.The politicians have always been without any accountability.This eventually leads to corruption and if caught,they never get convicted because of political considerations or because of long drawn legal proceedings and old dated laws.
    Literary,India is in two state of existence…one those who have everything and about 80 crore people who still live with less than Rs 20/per day when the sugar is costing Rs 35/kg.Unless we realise that we have a voice,we will continue to be taken for granted.

  2. The civil service exams is tough primarily because a whole lot of Indians appear for it while the vacancies are very few. Of those who appear, manifestly a vast majority want to get in for the money that they can make over and above their salaries. Also, once they get in, accountability is negligible, speedy career progression is assured till the rank of additional secretary, and it is virtually impossible for anyone to “fire” you. So, after getting in, it is a question of landing up in the most “lucrative” appointments, for which hefty bribes have to be paid up front.

    The state is being held, just, by this vast army of officials. A state of acceptance and equilibrium prevail.

    One has to thank a few visionary individuals in the government and many outside due to whom India still works. But, as the study has noted, there are broadly two Indias today. The next big task is to ensure that they converge. If they don’t, there might be serious social upheaval at some statge.

    • Also, once they get in, accountability is negligible, speedy career progression is assured till the rank of additional secretary, and it is virtually impossible for anyone to “fire” you.

      Just want to say that this is no longer true; automatic promotion now only takes you up to the rank of Joint Secretary not Additional Secretary and nowadays many people are retiring at the rank of JS either because they come into service very late (ie multiple attempts) or are held up because of slow promotion adverse CR entries.

      A lot of my family members are IAS officers and they were raised on the old ICS ethic of the service being one of rigorous examination entry, integrity in service and massive responsibility. Unfortunately, this is no longer the case and hasn’t been for some time.

      We are still too colonial in the attitudes of our government and how the state should work; all too unfortunately when I see many IAS officers today, they seem to think that adding these 3 letters behind their name turns them into some sort of ‘heaven-born’ service. Observing the behaviour of various DMs in the districts and Directors and Joint Secretaries in the central ministries during my fieldwork was a very depressing experience. The bureacrats are so removed and insulated from the population they are meant to serve and the general point of contact invariably is some member of the public coming as a supplicant to beg for what should really be their entitlement – the whole set up distorts the psychology and the attitude of even idealistic and honest officers over time.

  3. […] Vikram explores the contradictions within the flailing Indian State. He explains that 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). […]

  4. @Chowla saab: One must ask oneself, are the mechanisms for accountability completely absent, are they inadequate or are they present but not used properly ? I think you will find that very often people dont demand accountability. This is because the section of the population that has the resources and organizational ability to demand accountability, simply doesnt care (the people who have everything).

    We cant put the entire blame on politicians, in fact, because the non-political means of holding the administration are in such decay, people vote for politicians simply to ensure that their minimal survival and security are guaranteed.

    @Sharmaji, here’s what Pritchett says about the top tier of the IAS,
    “the World Bank, which tries to recruit staff of high quality with international expertise (and pays handsomely to do so), was by and large over-matched at nearly every level by their counter-parts at the corresponding levels in the government.”

    So, Pritchett says that the top tier of the IAS does have some very clever people, although I am not fully aware of how that system works.

    But you have raised the all important question, how do we make the two Indias converge ? My guess is that there is no single answer, different states are in different positions with different political cultures. I would personally look at the best performing states (in terms of human development) and then try to see what is that they did, which can be replicated elsewhere.

  5. Vikram:

    Thanks for pointing out Pritchett’s article; I’ve added it to my reading list. But some quick observations: of course you are right when you say “That this is the case should be clear to anyone who has lived or worked in India”, and as you say the important question is Why.

    If you look at the behaviour of Indians, you get the sense that they don’t really believe the corrupt behaviour is wrong. It is reflected not only in official behaviour, but in common things like trying to get ahead when standing in line or pocketing the extra money if a shopkeeper returns too much change.

    I think you are absolutely right in saying these are not really cultural problems. A sense of what is right and what is wrong is quite strongly embedded in Indian popular culture, both old and new. Besides, people would never act this way with their friends, but have no problem doing this with strangers or with the government. So people know right from wrong, but willingly suspend moral judgment when not dealing with friends or family.

    I don’t think accountability is something that can be completely encoded within laws. Accountability is a culture where people look down upon someone who does something unethical. If coworkers are accepting of corruption no laws will stem it.

    I think the problem is with our education. All subjects in Indian schools are presented and taught “academically” — that is as though they don’t connect with real life, and are just meant for doing well in exams. This is also true of moral science. I think we need to get students to internalize the ethical principles and be less cynical about them right from primary school.

    And then I think it would be helpful if all working adults are also required to take a class and exam on ethics once every six months or so. Sure, they might still remain cynical. But being reminded that what they are doing is bad is bound to have some impact.

    • I think I have a reply now and something to add to your comment.

      I think we can try and separate ethics and morality as in the personal behaviour of Indians versus the same in the context of rule of law in India. You are right in saying that
      “A sense of what is right and what is wrong is quite strongly embedded in Indian popular culture, both old and new.”

      But what I would add is that this sense is in the context of relations between individuals (and derives mostly from religion) and is not really present in the context of the relationship of the individual with the state.

      So for many wealthy Indian families, giving chanda or starting a school seems more ethically necessary than paying taxes to the state.

      So it is not so much that Indians are okay with corrupt politicians as much as they are okay with a pliable state. I think this is the result of the nature of the Indian state and its colonial origins. Somehow Indians cant take ownership of the state, they dont feel comfortable with how powerful and arbitrary it can be at times. This is the responsibility of both the state and the citizens of the middle class, who have run away from the state and the poor.

      So I would say along with moral science Indian students should also be taught about the government in a different way. The new NCERT syllabus does attempt to do this.

      • “So for many wealthy Indian families, giving chanda or starting a school seems more ethically necessary than paying taxes to the state.”

        I think this is spot on. And I think the reasoning is partly that chanda or starting a school gets you some पुण्य while paying taxes doesn’t do anything for you. A lot of people will also justify tax evasion by saying most of the taxes are pilfered by bureaucrats. Which is also true. And finally, they’ll say the government won’t do anything good with the money. Also true.

        Like you said, I think the right way to change this is through education about how the government relates to the people. Maybe it’s even time NCERT addressed corruption a little.

  6. Vikram, good article and I agree with Armchair Guy’s comment too!
    Local governments need to grow stronger and so should communication between various departments, communities etc. at the local level. I admire the local-level type of governance here in the US and citizens are not made to feel disconnected from it. Citizens are also part of the decision making process with regards to the city or township. You know how we get newsletters from the local government on how our taxes are being spent…There are a lot of good things India could copy from the US as long as it is not completely alien to the sub-continent’s culture.

  7. @ Armchair Guy: Thank you for your perceptive comment. I really cant add much more at this point, need to think a bit more.

    @ wishtobeanon: Part of the disconnect comes from the top to down flow of funds in India. So not just administrative but also fiscal decentralization is needed.

  8. Vikram, I recently got an opportunity to attend a minister-constituency discussion forum in Singapore. The miniters of education and national development was the chief guest. The participants were representatives from housing communities. The participants brought up very sensitive issues such as race relations and behaviours that can thwart it. They spoke about problems such as loan sharks and crime. The minister’s responses were very sound, covering all analytical bases and at the same time well understood by everyone. I found the minister to be very knowledgeable and articulate. It’s almost as if one of India’s civil servants became a minister.

    Where citizens were unable to see beyond their limited perspectives, she was able to gently guide them to see the bigger picture. She went around freely mixing with one and all (I got to speak to her as well) and had no air of superiority about herself. She spoke in terms of ‘us’ rather than government. She emphasized citizen participation in fighting crime. She also brought officials from the administration (housing and police) to answer specific questions from the public.
    I had to leave the forum with a sense of awe at the minister and the forum itself.

  9. Where does this indifference start from? Where do we start looking for ways out?

    It starts in schools/colleges ( and having just began my college life, I can see the appalling gaps in the society..when I was school, we never got to interact with people from lesser economic, social etc backgrounds )..you start feeling its hopeless to take the system on, for its got a hierarchy almost as if its natural for such a thing to exist..

    They key to solve this in the long run would be to redefine our identity and see ourselves as humans first..we love the word values but hypocrisy seems a new value in itself…we can change all this by changing what our future is going to learn.

    The question is how to enough of the world, so that the kids know what exists and yet at the same time they don’t get eaten by it…

  10. We got to really appreciate for the work done, very informative! keep it up.

  11. […] At every level of Indian life, the city, the village, the state and the Union, in general there seems to be no collective vision. There are important, incremental improvements in many places, but the politics of the fractured Indian society is leads to a state, that is in general crippled and aimless. No wonder it flails. […]

  12. […] capacity of the Indian state to carry out its functions has been discussed earlier on this blog. Lant […]


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