Less Government and Less Governance

Mohan Guruswamy

In 2014 Prime Minister Narendra Modi promised us "less government and better governance". He was implying that we suffered from too much government, as US Republican politicians are apt to. But do we have too much government? Not really. Consider this: India has 1,622.8 government servants for every 100,000 citizens. 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. 

Now look at the next tier at the state level. Bihar has just 457.60 per 100,000, Madhya Pradesh 826.47, Uttar Pradesh has 801.67, Orissa 1,191.97 and Chhattisgarh 1,174.62. This is not to suggest there is a causal link between poverty and low levels of public servants: Gujarat has just 826.47 per 100,000 and Punjab 1,263.34. The paradox here is that the least well off state in India, Bihar, has the least government. On the other hand much better off Gujarat has less government that relatively impoverished Chhattisgarh.

The three levels of government together employ about 185 lakh persons. The central government now directly employs 34 lakhs; all the state governments together employ another 72.18 lakhs; quasi-government agencies (including Railways) account for a further 58.14 lakhs; and at the local government level, a tier with the most interface with the common citizens, we have only 20.53 lakhs employees. Not only is there little government at the citizen-government interface level, the average understaffing in most of government is about a quarter of sanctioned strength. This picture of employee dispersal reveals how centralized government has become. Clearly we have too many people at levels where they tell us what to do, and too few at the level where they are required to do something for the citizenry. 

At some levels of government, this inadequacy of numbers is felt more than others. An analysis of the latest District Level Household Survey (DLHS-4) by researchers at IndiaSpend has revealed that 62% of government hospitals don’t have a gynecologist on staff and one fifth of all sub-centers don’t have enough auxiliary nurse midwives. Is it any surprise then that India’s Infant Mortality Rate (IMR) was 178 per 100,000 in 2011-12 against IMR’s of 30 for Sri Lanka, 148 for Bhutan, 27 for China and 44 for Brazil. That such a high level happens despite the fact that 80% of childbirths now take place in government hospitals reflects, both, on the paucity and quality of medical service.

And government doesn’t come cheap. A sum of Rs.1, 74,081 crores has been provisioned in the current budget to pay central government employees - about 10.45 per cent of its overall expenditure. The estimated wage bill of government at all tiers is around Rs.10.42 lakh crores or about 10% of the GDP. In effect what we now have is an expensive government and less governance.

The average entry-level salary in the government is at least twice as much as their counterparts in the private sector. Typically a data entry operator entering government can expect to be paid almost Rs.35000 pm against an average entry salary of about Rs.12000 pm in the private sector. A new government driver gets about Rs.25000 pm while his private sector counterpart can hope for Rs.11000 pm. Government nurses get Rs.52000 pm while private sector nurses get Rs.17000 pm. Government teachers start at Rs.44000 pm while private school teachers usually start at half that. Government employment has come a long way since the days when it was considered a poorly paid occupation. The late Sharad Joshi, leader of the Shetkari Sanghatana, used to say that a chaprasi in a  tehsil office earns more than a farmer makes with even ten acres of irrigated land. Little wonder then that a government job is the most aspired one.

Reading this along with guaranteed employment till retirement and lifelong benefits, government employment literally means entry into a golden-gated community, where entry is difficult and forced exit almost impossible. Thus, within the bureaucratic hierarchies the lines of authority are very blurred.  The impact of this on discipline is there for all to see everyday, be it in getting a municipal tap fixed or a police complain registered. 

Because of its centralized nature, government mostly exists in urban centers. In vast swathes of territory the government is barely visible. No sooner you get off the tarmac roads and highways, all signs of government disappear. Even the government primary schools when not locked, function mostly to provide the midday meals than any worthwhile education. There are very few signs of the police, irrigation, power and PWD departments. In most of the troubled Adivasi homelands the only presence of modern India is often the arrack contractor or the forest guard. Its as if a vast stateless nation exists within.

Even in urban areas, the Prime Ministers call for a Swachch Bharat goes unheeded because the systems to collect trash and dispose them just not exist. Does anybody wonder why Indians defecate everywhere? It’s such a commonplace sight that it doesn’t even repel us anymore. The PM’s call is timely, but to put it into effect we need the public systems that can carry away waste. The task is huge. 

For instance the city of Hyderabad, India’s fifth largest and fastest growing city with a population of close to 10 million and sprawled over about 650 sq.kms has just 382 public toilets. A recent survey reported that 58% of these are not usable. The central governments guidelines stipulate a toilet along every 500 meters of road. The greater Hyderabad area has about 280 kms. of state and national highways alone crisscrossing across it. Inner locality roads are over and above this.

This is why the reform of government is critical. The central and state governments must cede most of their authority and powers to a vastly expanded local government tier who will give us better governance and value for money. But the entrenched nature of bureaucratic power makes the reform of government a daunting task. And so far Narendra Modi has not shown the vision or courage to reform it. Till then government will be synonymous poor governance. 

(Facebook ... 25 February 2021

feb 27, 2021

Mohan Guruswamy

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