The Crisis of Governance: What India can learn from America

We have been busy learning many a thing in adopting a Western lifestyle—among these consumerism, new means of environmental destruction and a fragmenting social structure—yet we haven’t emulated the American systems that are far more effective than those in India today—the systems of local governance. These systems of governance reflect a fundamental difference in the relationship between the people and the state between America and India, a difference that gets papered over in the talk about the “two great democracies.” In actual practice, these democratic systems have very little in common in terms of the accountability of the state to provide services to the people at large.

A few years ago, when I was living in Redmond in America, I misplaced my Indian passport. I queried the Indian embassy about issuing a replacement. They needed a police report documenting my missing passport. Having grown up in India, I was in a tizzy. From what I remembered getting a police report about anything at all was no easy feat even in the most pressing of matters—a process that required supplicating the sentries of the law, if not outright bribing them—let alone in a case where I was quite sure that my passport wasn’t even stolen but possibly just misplaced somewhere so that I was unable to find it.

With some trepidation I rang up the Redmond police department. What would I need to do to get a police report regarding a lost misplaced passport? Not a problem, they replied on the phone, an officer would be there right away. True to their word, within 15 minutes there was a police car at my door. The officer was polite and quickly wrote up the required report. “Is there anything else I can do to help” he asked after giving me instructions on how to obtain an official copy the report that he had written down. All I could do was to stare in amazement, so different was this experience from my expectations from India in dealing with the khaki agents of the state in India.

In April 2006, overzealous Haryana police lathi-charged people waiting to get inside for a cricket match between India and England outside the stadium in Faridabad, leaving a nine-year old girl and her mother, both holding valid tickets to the match, seriously injured. When questioned, the police chief declared that “the people needed to be taught discipline.” What exactly makes the police chief think that their job is to “teach lessons” using lathis to the general populace rather than be in the service of the people? The answer to this fundamental question of governance is not hard to find.

The Indian state remains a colonial state. The relationship of the officials of the government to the governed remains a colonial relationship. The colonial state, of course, was never designed for jan seva. It was designed for a singular purpose—the purpose of extortion—or how effectively to extract tax revenue from the people while keeping them under control with the power of force. After all, the official state representative at the district is still called the “collector.” Even though, after independence, there was an elected government at the very top, there have been few fundamental changes in the overall apparatus of the state that we inherited. The power of the viceroy was replaced by the power of the elected parliament and the cabinet of ministers at the very top. But the mechanism and attitude of administration and governance did not fundamentally change.

The American model was also, ironically, created by people migrating from Britain. However, the difference is that the American system was created by these British as a new model for governing themselves, while the Indian system was created by them for governing the “natives” who needed to be controlled and civilized. This difference is apparent in how local government operates in the United States and in India. In the United States civic power is far more decentralized and far more locally accountable. The Redmond police, in my example, report to the Redmond Mayor, who is elected by the people of the city. The Redmond police is not part of a huge state bureaucracy, as in India, where the police force is centralized at the state level, and everything reports up all the way to the Chief Minister. The reporting of the Redmond police ends at the Redmond Mayor, which creates far greater accountability to the local populace. There is also no overarching bureaucracy, such as the centralized Indian Administrative Service. The role of state-level administration is limited as are its powers and perks. The top administrative positions are filled by people who have risen from the ranks rather than from the civil services based class-structure perpetuated in the Indian administrative system.

Incidentally traditional systems of governance in India were also radically decentralized and local. Power devolved upwards from the village level. Villages or clusters of villages had their own systems for education, for managing public utilities such as water works—ponds, canals and catchments and other civic amenities and even for the management of land records and resolving disputes. The role of the king was relatively limited. This is why the boundaries of kingdoms could often changes without the general life of the people being affected. This local basis of power ensured that governance remained responsive to the people—unlike the case in modern-day India where a senior IAS officer lamented to me recently—“Even the transfer of a chaprassi gets pushed down from the Chief Minister.”

The other remarkable success of the American system is in public education. Growing up in the Indian middle class, it was an automatic assumption that parents would try to send their children to the best private schools they could afford or get into. No one would even want to visit a government school to consider it. When searching for schools for my children in the US I was surprised to find that government schools were at par or even better than many private schools. Again, the education system in the US is radically decentralized compared to India. Schools are governed by school districts that are at the level of cities or of a few cities. These school districts are governed by representatives directly elected to the school boards by the local residents. There is no overarching education hierarchy at the state level unlike in India, where such a hierarchy has essentially no direct accountability to the parents who would be paying taxes to run these schools and colleges and sending their children there.

There are far better lessons to learn from the United States than how to grow fat on pizza and put up billboards of under-dressed models. Understanding effective models of local governance is one of these lessons. Unless we are able to dismantle the colonial state very little will change for the ordinary people. It will be worthwhile for us in India to study these models so we can proceed towards dismantling the colonial state.

A version of this article was published in the Hindustan Times.


Copyright© 2008. Sankrant Sanu.

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