Posted by: Vikram | April 7, 2013

More on the flailing Indian state

The capacity of the Indian state to carry out its functions has been discussed earlier on this blog. Lant Pritchett in his paper “Is India a flailing state ?” points out ,

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 ?

Beyond Corruption

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:

  1.  “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.
  2. 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
  3. “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.


  1. Vikram,

    First, I must congratulate you on being a voice of reason in this din. When people are busy trying to jump to conclusions and decide which political party and leader is more God-like, here is the first piece of writing I have read in a long time that talks about issues rather than political figures in a rational and fact-based manner. Thank you.

    Second, I am glad that you mentioned education as one of the areas in which India suffers. Do you have statistics and comparison about number of personnel etc. here?

    Third, how about the training of the personnel that are currently employed, in whatever insufficient number. Also, increasing the number of personnel in these areas without adequate and appropriate training brings a frightening picture to my mind. Throwing money at the issue and recruiting larger number of people, when they are grossly unskilled and untrained, cannot be the solution either, right?

  2. Thanks for sharing a link for the paper by Lant Pritchett. It provided a unique perspective to see the Indian administrative system. From this paper it seems that unless we get out the social system based on caste lines we cannot get rid of this system. This calls for complete overhauling of our current social system. I have little hope that we will be able to get out of this in the next say 50 or 100 years. The reason being is that our social system originates from our villages. Unless we bring changes in a village life, we cannot expect a permanent change at the state or national level. It is difficult to change attitudes in villages as there same people are living for years. So, there is no flow of new ideas etc. So, I don’t hope that things will improve in the short term. Rather it will take a long time for the India to be truly called a modern state. Regarding how to bring accountability in the government machinery, I have some hope in the decentralization of governance.

    Regarding data for education, one can get statistics from ,
    for elementary education. It provides data for enrollment wrt previous years together with data for different social categories like SC, OBC, Muslims etc.
    It is another thing whether this data is authentic or not. As Pritchett mentioned, Indian bureaucracy can write a better fiction as non-fiction.
    Anyway, over the years I am observing that today better data collection is there for education at least. Searching on internet one can find the statitisc for secondary education also per year.

    • Welcome sanpatel90. Yes, it is difficult for India to become a modern state unless the caste system is done away with. In fact, Dr. Ambedkar had pointed this fact out when the Constitution was adopted.

      ““On the 26th January 1950, we are going to enter into a life of contradictions. In politics we will have equality and in social and economic life we will have inequality. In politics we will be recognizing the principle of one man one vote and one vote one value. In our social and economic life, we shall by reason of our social and economic structure, continue to deny the principle of one man one value. How long shall we continue to live this life of contradictions ?”

      I am more optimistic on the time frame for eradicating caste than you are. There is ample evidence over the last twenty years that the salience of caste in deciding occupations is decreasing rapidly,

      Caste still persists in the choice of marriage partner, in fact, I think this is caste’s last stand in urban India atleast. There are some reasons I am hopeful that caste’s salience in this matter will decrease in the coming decade:
      1) As fertility rates decrease and people have only one or two children (which is already the norm across India now), people will rate the wishes of their children much above the constraints of society. In fact, the old arranged marriage system already seems to be in withdrawal mode, note the growth in popularity of matrimonial websites.

      2) There is a growing amount evidence in the social science literature that potential grooms and brides increasingly look at caste as a preference, and not a constraint.

  3. Vikram: I am glad you are discussing Lant Pritchett’s article here. I do have some disagreements with Pritchett but I am not fully convinced by the capacity argument in your post. One key issue is efficiency – most of these public servants are not really working two hours a day. So why can’t the flailing state get the most out of the resources it has?

    Second, how much Indian wealth is stashed outside India and how much additional capacity could that support? Why can’t the flailing state get some of that back?

    Third, why can’t the flailing state do a better job of enforcing law and order so that growth can yield its benefits? How have other states done so historically? What makes India different even from Sri Lanka let alone countries of the West?

    • Thanks SA. I agree that the capacity argument alone cannot explain the weakness of the Indian state. On the other hand, I dont see how one can expect a judicial system to be efficient when it has a tenth of the personnel that it needs to function. Also wanted to mention that in an article by Nilanjana Roy in The Hindu she mentions that increased security personnel were atleast partly responsible for the reduction in crime in America in the 90s.

      I dont know enough about the black money issue to be able to comment. But India’s tax to GDP ratio is about the same as that of the US and Germany, So I dont know if Indian’s have proportionally more money in tax havens than other nationalities.

      Talking about Sri Lanka, any idea why India’s infant mortality rate (159) was more than twice as high as Sri Lanka’s (71) as early as 1960 ? I think the status of women being better in Buddhist societies as compared to Hindu and Muslim ones might have something to do with it.

  4. Vikram: My point was that if there is a personnel shortage, the existing staff should be super-busy. But is it? So what would more personnel yield except get in each other’s way and consume more tea? The fact that the state cannot make existing staff work to full capacity is part of the problem of the flailing state.

    Tax to GDP ratio can be the same. What needs to be measured is the proportion of revenues leaking outside the national economy because it does nothing for growth.

    Sri Lanka’s literacy rate was also higher which I don’t think can be attributed to the status of women.

    • SA, I am not so sure your point applies to areas like the police, judiciary and railways. In these services, I dont think the average worker is under utilized. Your point applies more to the health and education sectors. I guess one way to proceed would be to correlate student achievement and literacy to pupil:teacher ratios state wise, and see if there is a trend.

      One data point on teacher absence rates is from this study from schools in India:
      Page 9 gives the absence rates in many states. I cant see a clear trend, but it does seem that higher income states have lower absence rates.

      Honestly, the problem of under utilization is one of accountability. And the struggle to hold the Indian government accountable to its people is ongoing.

  5. Hello Vikram,

    Thanks for pointing out that there are issues like capacity problems that are beyond corruption. Do you have any fixes for the issues? How should the government or people go about solving these capacity problems?


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