Connecting the dots, Comparing the 2 largest democracies

US-AND-INDIA

While working for members of parliament across various states in India, I used to prep for a meeting, by finding out some of the interesting programs started by the state . Those background researches were literally the inspiration for introducing the best practices section in Tamraptra “briefs”. By the end of my time at Swaniti, I had a rich repository of best practices across sectors and states and the attempts to visualize how could they scale up, formed the basis of many interesting conversations.

After coming to UofM, as an international student, I was excited about the prospect of learning the tools of policy analysis and public management. But, I was even more excited with the prospect of looking at comparative policies, which provide for most interesting learning experiences. Based on the feedback by fellow Fordies, our school hosted an inaugural session for international students to familiarize them with workings of US government. During classes, in my attempt to compare India and US, I found myself googling Indian systems as much as the American counterparts. I will try to synthesize some of interesting take-aways from that session.

1. The true decentralization: Whenever we speak of bureaucracy in India, an average Indian thinks of it as rent-seeking, slow moving machinery. We tend to perceive bureaucracy as a monolith. The local bureaucracy that we frequently come in contact with, becomes our guiding point to draw observations about them in general.  Having worked with both national and local bureaucracies in India, I find them to be two different worlds. While I was comparing the federal counterparts of both nations, I couldn’t see gaping differences in terms of competence. But, as soon as we started of speaking about local government – The empowered Mayor, the functioning city councils, the problem solving attitude and most importantly the emphasis on ethics. At least on the outset. At local levels in India, no body even tries to pretend that they are do-gooders and have a moral compass. The corruption seems rampant. It’s not as if corruption dosent exist in US, It’s not even in top 15 least corrupt countries in the list by Transparency International. But, what’s astonishing is how minimal (if any) corruption is at the local level. And citizens perceive a government through its day-to day interactions. The police officer who stopped you, the delays in getting drivers licence, ease of payment of property taxes. This law-fulness in every day interaction is what gives out the general law abiding sense. I therefore cannot contest Lance Pritchet’s calling India a flailing state. Yes, not failing, but flailing. And the sooner we fix our local problems the sooner we can realize the potential of an entrepreneurial nation raring to go!

2. Integrating academia into government: One of the biggest advantages that I could see of a presidential system of government how easily president could charge experts to execute projects. In our country ministries are very much dependent on coalition politics, which almost ensures that right man does not get the job. The elites end up running Panchayati Raj systems and Ministry of Infrastructure is allocated to business-“men” of varying reputations.  Why can’t we fix that? We can’t we have Shreedharan running Railways? What stops us from asking Ashok Gulati to take charge of dipping productivity in agriculture sector?  And technology, surely we can do better than ministers who aren’t even aware of CCtv’s capturing their activities in parliament, to have a digital backbone for the country which prides itself on being tech-savvy.

One should also recognize the challenge of simply copy pasting different best practices fro one country to another What academia does really well in US, is their complete integration with not just government but businesses, Not for profit boards etc. . They have as much practitioner experience as they have the academic one, how many universities in India can say that about their academia? Hence, the desirability of doing the former hinges substantially on the latter. It would be a great service to the nation by allocating responsibilities to people who can do it best.

3. Number of civil servants: This statistic was the key reason I began writing this piece.  Despite being a country, 1.2 Billion people strong, its the reason for manpower gap in governance is very much unclear to me.  In one of our classes our instructor casually referred the number of civil servants working to aid the elected representatives in US, and it comes close to 11,000 people. This would imply that every congressman/senator would have an access to a staff of 20 people. The corresponding number in India is an average of 3 (According to PRS Legislative). Yes our elected representatives are not lying when they say, that amount of work they are expected to do, dosen’t match up the resources they are allocated at all. If the government of India, provides the salary for only 3 member-ed staff, how would an elected representative look after the needs of a million people? Initiatives such as PRS and Swaniti, are wonderful aides for the resource-starved governance machinery. But, fixing this structural issue, is not even on the radar of the government, which is slightly worrying.

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One Comment Add yours

  1. Rahul Patidar says:

    Really like this article.

    On the issue itself – I agree with almost everything you have said. However, I wonder if you have anything to back up that at the top level there are no differences. While I agree the gap is not as stark as it is at the bottom of the pyramid – the lack of perfection seeking hurts our culture at every level.

    Also, just to put a different shade to what you said about lack of resources – I just wonder if the government has the budget to get things right at all. Can the government afford higher salaries for the bureaucracy and local officials? I am not sure, the current government officials can live with any level of financial security with the salaries they have [and hence the rent seeking]. And yet, in our country I don’t see anyone raising the lack of funds as a policy challenge.

    My sense is that the government’s income needs to be raised through taxation (and general growth in productivity). And to compliment this, parts of the machinery that can suitably privatized – should be done so as soon as possible.

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