The ubiquitous role of the hyperactive Indian state has made deep inroads into most people's lives. As the state started affecting the lives of a very large number of people, influence peddling, and mediation through power brokers has become all too common. The citizens' dependence on state for livelihood became very common as the state had become the biggest employer of organised workers. The citizens' dependence on state for livelihood, inputs in agriculture, permits, licenses and quotas; the monopolies of public sector, the VIP quota culture for everything ranging from a railway ticket to a cricket match, needless restrictions on trade and marketing of agricultural products, state's monopoly in almost all public goods and amenities, its control and ownership of all public utilities, all these meant that civil society has become vulnerable to the depredations of state machinery as never before.
This spawned a centralised and anaemic culture and most state institutions became hotbeds of corruption, crime, intrigue and nepotism. Power has become an end itself, and is no longer the means to public good. Unbridled and irresponsible populism, knee-jerk opposition to those in power, unbridgeable chasm between rhetoric and action, endless opportunism, and shameless plunder of the state's resources have become the hallmarks of our governance system. All that matters is a hand in the till of state, and an opportunity to indulge in legal plunder and constitutional brigandage. Once in power by hook or by crook, principles, ideology or public opinion are of little consequence. Appointment of public servants to key offices, transfer of inconvenient employees, licensing, distribution of patronage in the form of subsidies and benefits to the poor, public distribution system, government contracts and tenders, mining licences, permission to exploit forest produce, maintenance of law and order, crime control, crime investigation and prosecution, execution of public works, toll gates, are the play things of state functionaries.
Public order has been a casualty with increasing lawlessness and near anarchy prevailing in many pockets of the country. Dispensing justice, which is a sovereign and critical function of state in any civilised society suffered grievously on account of state's preoccupation with the regulation and control of the economy and public ownership of means of production. More than 30 million cases are pending in various courts of law in India and most people have lost faith in the capacity of the justice system to resolve disputes amicably in time or to punish culprits. As the sanctity of contracts could not be upheld, and contractual obligations could not be enforced through courts of law, entrepreneurship suffered and economic activity stagnated. People were forced to depend on brute muscle power for rough and ready justice. With politics occupying centre stage in society and abuse of power unchecked, criminals soon made inroads into politics. The Election Commission estimates that more than 700 of the legislators (out of the total 4072) in States have a criminal record against them.
Control of the state exchequer, supervision over the employees of the state and the power to make laws are the three fundamental tools available to a government to discharge its functions. Every single day the Indian state, all governments put together spends about Rs.1500 crores. This amount is roughly equivalent to Rs. 5000 per head per annum, or about Rs.125,000 per family of five during a five-year term of an elected legislature! In fact if this money is properly utilised, we could easily provide basic amenities to most people and create the infrastructure required for universal school education of reasonable quality and primary health care accessible to all. It is by now universally acknowledged that very little of the huge quantity of public money spent everyday is actually translated into services and public goods. That is why basic infrastructure in power, road and rail transport and ports is in a state of disrepair, retarding our economic growth. This situation can only be described as constitutional brigandage and legal plunder. The state, instead of serving the citizen, is actually partaking in plunder.
School education and primary health care, which are symbols of civilization in a modern society and without which sustained economic growth is not possible, have been woefully neglected as the state had neither the resources nor the political will and attention span to provide these basic services to the public. By some figures, it is estimated that about 80 million (8 crores) children between the ages of 5 to 14 are outside the schools. If money alone is the issue, all it takes is an expenditure of about Rs.16000 crores (160 billion) to build 16 lakhs (1.6 million) class rooms as capital investment and further annual recurrent expenditure of about Rs.8000 crores (80 billion) to employ 16 lakhs (1.6 million) teachers. Arithmetically this is equivalent to about 11 days' and about 6 days' state expenditure respectively. And yet the Indian state has not made universal access to school education a reality even after more than five decades years of democratic experiment.
Similarly, if we take the issue of sanitation, some 70% of Indian people have no access to safe, hygienic toilets and are forced to defecate in public. Apart from the problems of health on account of lack of hygiene and sanitation, public defecation is aesthetically unpleasant, terribly inconvenient to citizens, and most of all offensive to human dignity. Again if money is the issue, to build a safe toilet in every one of the 14 crore (140 million) house-holds which are in need, it costs no more than Rs.35000 crores (350 billion) at Rs.2500 for toilet. Many organisations like Sulabh International have demonstrated that Rs.2500 is adequate for a safe, modern, hygienic toilet without any frills. And yet most Indians have no access to the basic public services and amenities which are taken for granted in any civilized society. Key physical infrastructure, entirely controlled by the state for over four decades, has languished for want of resources and managerial ability on account of state monopoly. There is an endemic shortage of power, ports, roads and railroad services.
In addition, cooperatives which were given a legal status at the turn of century during the British Raj were controlled rigorously after independence stifling individual and group initiative contrary to the freedom of association guaranteed under the constitution. Even formation of societies and their regulation became ever more restrictive in many pockets of India unlike during the colonial era, when a very liberal and humane societies law was enacted and enforced with clarity and fairness. Higher education was completely controlled by the state with very poor results in terms of promoting creativity, knowledge, skills and leadership in society.
While the state failed to perform its essential tasks, it showed a remarkable eagerness to needlessly regulate other facets of civil society. Complete monopoly of electronic media until the advent of satellite television, sporadic though largely unsuccessful attempts to muzzle free press by censorship and draconian laws, and several preventive detention laws applied with mindless rigor in arbitrary manner during the notorious 'emergency' period between 1975-77 are some of the striking examples of the state's attempts to curtail individual liberty. The extra-legal executions in the name of encounters, the abuse of police machinery by almost all parties in government, the habitual tortures and illegal detentions despite clear legal and constitutional provisions to the contrary are sad examples of state tyranny in an otherwise soft, ineffective governance structure.
The other facet of the dysfunctional state is its vast and labyrinthine bureaucracy which is self-perpetuating. Out of the nearly one billion population of India, the organised wage- earning sector accounts for only about 27 million workers, who in turn constitute only about 8% of work force in India. Out of these organised workers, as many as 19 million are employees of government. Such a large and overwhelming role of government as the principal employer in organised sector is unique to only South Asia. While the size of the government as a proportion of the population or its expenditure as a proportion of GDP are by no means unusual when compared to other countries, in reality most of the government employees do not provide any services of real value to the public.
Firstly the employment in government is highly is skewed in relation to the needs of the people. For instance in the State of Andhra Pradesh, out of the nearly 900,000 employees of state (excluding those working in public sector undertakings) as many as 280,000 are clerks who by definition are only support staff helping in decision making. A further 180,000 employees are attenders, peons and drivers who only serve their political and bureaucratic masters. Over 50%of employees are thus in the non-productive sector. There is a huge shortage of teachers and health workers in the government. Many schools function with only two teachers. And even those teachers employed in government often do not provide quality service. More than 95% of the teachers engaged in government schools do not send their children to the schools where they teach. Most primary health centres exist only in name, and provide little quality service to the public. There is an increasing disjunction between the needs of the public and those of the employees of government. As a result stake-holding and powerwielding are completely divorced from each other.
Only in telecommunications sector has there been significant improvement in the last decade, largely due to vigorous attempts to break the state monopoly and the relative ease of transplanting communications technology even in relatively backward societies.
In a country with rigid social hierarchies and vast poverty and illiteracy, any person with the advantages of education, and a regular wage-earning job automatically wields considerable power. When the job is in government with all its colonial hangover, the roles of the public servant and the citizen are easily reversed. The public servant is transformed into the master and the citizen becomes the subject. The extraordinary degree of life-time security given to a bureaucrat at every level, with virtually no chance of being brought to book, made it impossible for any government to enforce accountability. Added to this are the political compulsions to indulge in populism and direct subsidies, converting the citizen into a recipient and the government functionary into a giver. This promotes corruption and helps in reversing the roles between the master and the servant. Consequently most employees will be horrified to learn that they are intended to serve the public as they are paid from the public exchequer.
We have thousands of laws in our statute books. Most of them are archaic and obscure. Many are on paper and are never implemented. Even when the state desires to enforce a law, the institutional mechanisms have been so weakened that it is no longer possible to ensure compliance of citizens. The intellectual and moral resources available to the political and bureaucratic class are so limited that creative legislation to resolve national dilemmas is increasingly difficult. Needless political contention on otherwise fundamentally sound proposals makes new and effective legislation increasingly difficult. As justice system has all but collapsed, a whole new industry of administering rough and ready justice using strong-arm tactics has been setup by local hoodlums in most of India. The clout and money these hoodlums acquire makes sure that they are the ones who later enter political parties, and eventually acquire state power.
Clearly the state failed in discharging its obligations to the citizens and has acted as a stumbling block to the fulfillment of individual potential and group initiatives. Through the follies of omission and commission, inaction and excessive action and criminal neglect and draconian arbitrariness, the functioning of the state adversely affected civil society. As Gladstone observed, the proper function of government is to make it easy for people to do good, and difficult to do evil. In this respect the failure of Indian state is glaring and debilitating to the society. The positive authority of government to curb evil and promote good has become increasingly restricted, whereas the negative power of abuse for pelf, privilege, patronage, petty tyranny and nuisance value has been largely unhindered. As a consequence, the state became ineffectual in public eye and even legitimate reform efforts came to naught. Most social legislation for instance is mostly on paper and has had no impact on regulating or moderating human behaviour. Abolition of untouchability or dowry are two instances of the state's glaring failure despite pious intentions and sometimes genuine efforts.
This sorry state is unacceptable in any civilised society, much less in a democratic society. The citizen is the focal point of any democracy. We elect a government to serve our collective needs, to make and enforce laws to regulate human behavior, to promote the greatest public good possible and to provide us common services ranging from public order to education and health care. The citizen is the true and ultimate sovereign and the measure of government's functioning is a citizen's satisfaction. A government accountable to the citizens who are its true masters, and public servants responsive to the needs of the tax payers who are their paymasters are the essential elements of a democracy. The derailment of our democracy and the failure of Indian state resulting in stunting our potential as a society and a nation have caused immense misery to untold millions.
It is no surprise that most citizens have given up hope of the state acting effectively and in time to protect their legitimate interests. In fact the state has increasingly become an obstacle to people's march to progress. The anonymous tyranny experienced by almost every citizen who encounters government machinery at any level and the legal plunder of state resources just squandering much of national wealth have impoverished our society and the bulk of our people.
Still, it is the relative strength of civil society nurtured over centuries and the stability of social institutions like family and community which have largely withstood the vagaries of time, which are sustaining a modicum of order, peace and harmony in society and allowing a modest growth and economic prosperity. In the face of state's failure to perform creditably, the citizens have to assert their sovereignty and transform the nature of governance. The tools available to people to achieve this task are elections, political parties and citizen activism.