It takes two hands to clap. When citizens who are also consumers of public services are not watchful and are weak in asserting their rights, there is no pressure on the public agencies to improve. This is particularly significant since public services invariably operate as monopolies with the stimulus of market competition being absent.

By withholding information, public service agencies tend to weaken the bargaining power of their customers or the public they are meant to serve. The deadlines for providing a service or solving a problem, the standards pertaining to the quality of services and the rights of the customers with respect to service provisions are seldom disclosed to the people. Some observers believe that a weak civil society has encouraged those in authority to 'highjack' the government and its agencies to serve their narrow and sectarian interests rather than public well being in the true sense. The only time citizens are active is during elections. They may occasionally use the vote to throw out some political parties and leaders who exceed the limits. But between elections, people behave as if they are helpless spectators.

Elections are like a well rehearsed act. The sequences, choices, and arrangements are fairly clear and known. People know what their options are and how to act on this knowledge. But as customers of specific services, they do not know what they can do and how to proceed when they encounter problems. Customers need information, skills and group action to deal with these problems. In India, there are major gaps in all these areas.

Furthermore, these problems are exacerbated by certain handicaps of the people. When a majority of citizens are illiterate or semi-literate, they are unable to seek, process, and make use of the information necessary to deal with complex public agencies. Their past experiences of oppression and exploitation do not make them assertive or give them hope that they can challenge the status quo. Their expectations of what they can get from the different agencies that are meant to serve them are low. Higher standards or reference points with which citizens can compare the poor service quality are not tangibly felt. This last aspect is true even for the educated citizens. Instead of demanding change, citizens coexist peacefully with these practices.

Contrast this with factory workers who have a strong incentive to resort to collective action when faced with common problems. All are affected by a given problem and all of them stand to benefit if it is resolved soon enough. Similarly, farmers who need irrigation water every season have an incentive to come together for joint action in respect of water distribution. But the people who receive public services do not face the same problems together every day or every month. They are not in the same work place face to face with each other. I may have problem or billing dispute with the water supply or electricity on a given day. My neighbour may not have a similar problem at the same time. Sustaining collective action becomes difficult under these circumstances.

Even when a community faces a common problem, some people will wait to get a "free ride" from the efforts of a small band of people who invest their time and energy to resolve them. In many communities, it is a small number of committed persons who dialogue with the public authorities and achieve results, whether it be improved roads or drainage. Many others watch from the side and are happy to benefit from the good work of the small group. It is only in emergency situations when the consequences of a service failure are serious for all that many members of a community tend to come together for collective action.

The outcome of all this is that we have a civil society that for the most part is yet to see the need for collective action or an accepted code of civic life. Its members are therefore unable to set or sustain good standards and to demand similar conduct from their neighbours, let alone from the public agencies. Custom and tradition rather than laws and regulations govern our conduct. Tolerance is a celebrated virtue of Indian culture. Unfortunately, it has also meant a tolerance of corruption and of uncivil conduct in the public arena.

In brief, the weaknesses of our civil society have unwittingly delayed and stifled the development of standards and norms of conduct that are essential for the proper design and efficient delivery of public services. As a result, when the state fails to deliver, there is no one else to mobilise the people and demand new standards of conduct and performance.

Elections are like a well rehearsed act. People know what their options are and how to act on this knowledge. But as customers of specific public utilities and services, more often than not they do not know what they can do and how to proceed when they encounter problems.
India has produced some outstanding administrators, scientists, and professionals over the years and the country is rightly proud of their achievements and contributions. But the fact remains that the ability of a country to move forward depends much more on the capabilities of the average citizen than on the brilliance of a few. Even a cursory look at the more developed countries will show that their average citizens are better equipped to deal with their public agencies and demand what is their due. In many nations, they have been able to create civil society institutions and initiatives that play a watchdog function and demand greater public accountability. In respect of this, while our best people compare well with some of their best, our average citizen does not compare favorably with theirs. When a majority of our people are poorly informed about their responsibilities and unable to assert their rights, there will be serious constraints on our ability to act as responsible citizens. This is one reason that our public services are below acceptable standards or lack in responsiveness.

Series : Why are our Public Services Unsatisfactory?

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