Some will argue that the provision of essential public services is the government's responsibility and for ordinary citizens to be involved in this process is unrealistic. Government should set up the mechanisms for effective provision, find the resources for this purpose, and hold those responsible accountable for results. There are many countries where these services are relatively well organised and citizens take their efficient delivery for granted. How is it that India is unable to organise itself better to perform this job even with reference to the services with established technologies and management practices? Why is it that even routine activities like registration of land deeds, approval of housing permits or new electricity or water connections entail so much hassle and confusion?

These concerns which are widely shared by ordinary people raise an important question that we have not discussed so far. Are these concerns also shared by those at policy-making levels in government? Do those who plan, allocate, and manage the scarce resources of the country at the central and state levels ask themselves these questions? If these questions mattered to them, would they not have found ways to improve this intolerable situation?

Since we know that public services continue to be in a dismal state, it is reasonable to hypothesize that improving their productivity and the responsiveness of the public agencies to their customers is indeed not a priority for many at the top levels of government. The proof of the pudding is in what they do about it and not in the lip service being paid. What evidence can one find on this difficult issue?

"The existing planning system has essentially resulted in the central government acting as a giant financial intermediary, borrowing from the public to finance plan expenditure at centre and the states. In this system there is no connection between the viability of projects and their financing costs."
A good place to start is with the planning function in the Government of India. This role is performed not only by the Planning Commission at the Centre, but also by policy and planning groups in the sector ministries as well as the state governments. These are the focal points for asking basic questions about the objectives of development and where resource allocation and management are defined and settled. National planning in India has always had a strong focus on increasing the volume of goods and services in the economy as a whole. Planners have tried to achieve this goal primarily by channeling a growing proportion of the incomes of the people into productive investments. From a low investment rate of 15 per cent, the country now invests nearly a quarter of its incomes. This is a respectable figure, even when compared with the experience of fast growing East Asian countries.

But the real problem is that the planners’ influence, if any, is only at the investment end, not on what happens on the output side. Their priority is on mobilising resources for investment. Thus, public financial institutions such as the Life Insurance Corporation of India, transfer the people’s savings to the government. The planners in turn transfer resources to the state governments. The latter allocate funds to their various agencies and enterprises. But these transfers are seldom accompanied by tests of efficiency and performance. As economist Rakesh Mohan has noted: “The existing planning system has essentially resulted in the central government acting as a giant financial intermediary, borrowing from the public in different ways to finance plan expenditure at both the central and state levels. In this system there is no connection between the viability of projects and their financing costs. The consequence has been that returns from these investments have been consistently low”.

Who then influences the production and productivity of public goods and services? The responsibility for their quantity, quality and productivity rests with a wide range of government departments and agencies, both at the central and state levels. These public agencies are given budgets in support of their ongoing production and delivery of services and new investments. Agency managers are more likely to be questioned by their superiors for failing to meet the expenditure targets rather than for failing to meet the output or quality standards that in any case are more difficult to measure.

This behaviour is entirely consistent with the signals given by the planners and other allocators of resources in government. What this shows is that there are few champions for productivity, quality, and responsiveness of public services in the governmental system. Standards of service and their enforcement are seldom taken seriously. Our cities bear testimony to the consequences of this failure. A far cry indeed from what Jawaharlal Nehru noted in his Glimpses of World History about the state of our ancient cities in the Mauryan empire two millennia ago: “Whoever threw dirt in the street was punished with a fine. If anyone allowed mud or water to collect in the street, he was also fined. If these rules were enforced, Pataliputra and the other cities must have been fine, clean and sanitary”.

Series : Why are our Public Services Unsatisfactory?

(Next: VI, Conclusion)