State has been a huge let-downby Seetha
Should Indians really be complaining about the lack of a minimal state when a majority of us live in gated complexes with private security guards, have inverters for power back up and buy 20 litre bottles of water, and avoid going to the police or courts when in trouble? Was this not libertarian paradise, where people are managing quite well without the state fulfilling its basic responsibilities? This writer had posed this question at a conference session on rule of law in 2016 and it had resonated with the urban middle class audience. It would have resonated even more with those at the bottom of the pyramid.
The first writings on Indians not needing the state that this writer recalls go back to the early 1980s and were in the context of Delhi’s Sainik Farms, an illegal colony of the affluent which had managed to build its own roads and provide for its own power supply. There was much lamenting over that development then. Forty years later, that lamentation has been replaced by resigned acceptance as the phenomenon has proliferated to unimaginable proportions.
It is this phenomenon that Shankkar Aiyar’s gut-socking book deals with. There is a chapter each on the five areas where state failure has been most stark — water, power, health, education and security. In each of these, citizens have quietly made their own arrangements. Indeed, he points out that even government departments appear to prefer private providers of many of these services.
Across the five areas, the book shows how the state has totally and consistently failed its citizens, resulting in the emergence of what Aiyar calls “private solutions to public goods supply crisis”. He points out that in most countries this exodus from the state comes with rising incomes, but in India the poor had led this voting with the feet. True. But here it was also because the state abandoned the poor as it pandered to the middle class, which has also now seceded.
Each chapter starts with a recounting of horror facts guaranteed to shake one out of complacency. A man admitted for a head injury having his leg operated on. The irony of the wettest places in the country being starved of potable water. A village going without electricity just a month after much celebration about it being the last one to get electrified. Police stations without electricity or phones. The anecdotes run into three-four pages at times.
The only section that will remain unaffected by this will be bureaucrats and politicians. It is not as if they don’t know about this. Aiyar quotes political economist Albert Hirschmann saying, exits and voices of protest are signals for the state to recognise disillusionment and trigger corrective action. And then: “In the Indian context, . . . neither exit nor voice has materially altered the landscape of failure.” Ouch.
It’s clear from the book that none of these areas have been below the policy radar. They have also been the subject of numerous reports by sundry commissions and committees. Policing is the only area where a comprehensive study by a commission came after nearly 70 years. Aiyar’s meticulous research is simply outstanding. He goes back to British rule to trace the evolution of policy in all five areas. In the case of security, he goes even further to ancient and medieval Indian history. This book is a must have and must read for all those interested in policy formulation and execution.
Why things are so abysmal
So if there has been much policy action in these areas, why are things so abysmal? It is because of something Aiyar says in the context of power: the “Indian distance between declaration and delivery”. In sectors like water, structural problems continued for decades. In health, multiple objectives of policy led to multiple failures. And then he turns the knife in by citing instances upon instances of governments in other countries similarly placed (even worse placed) than India doing much better in providing public goods.
Alongside detailing well-known governance failures, Aiyar recounts how private providers came up. How Bisleri bottled water started in the 1960s and Sintex water storage tanks came up in the 1970s. How Prathap Reddy laid the foundation of a healthcare revolution. How Luminous and Su-Kam inverters started and how the first of the private security companies emerged on the scene. How technology is changing the way education and health will be delivered. These stories, which only business or tech journalists may be familiar with, add immense value to the book.
But the book is more than an extremely well written account of the various instances of private provision of public goods. It questions why this should be so; why should citizens first pay taxes for provision of these services and then also pay private providers.
Libertarians would probably take up issue on why the state should have the primary responsibility of delivering these services. Aiyar dismisses this view as “fallacious and gratuitous” and cites the examples of several countries where education, health, water and power are provided by the government. Sure, but given that the Indian state apparatus has not been able to deliver for over 70 years, isn’t it time to start thinking of new models or have, as he says in another context, private solutions adopted as policy? That Aiyar should continue to have faith in the Indian state apparatus after over 200 pages of documenting its failures is a tad puzzling.
One question that this book has not been able to answer is why this abject failure by successive governments at all levels, formed by parties across the ideological spectrum, has not led to any political costs for elected representatives. Aiyar cited the example of six Maharashtra villages that threatened a poll boycott over lack of water. But did that improve matters? Why are we not seeing more such examples? That’ll probably require a whole new book. As engaging and well researched as this one.
The writer is a senior journalist and author