When he came out of the meeting with the Prime Minister, Abhijit Banerjee made the following statement:
(Prime Minister) talked about his way of thinking about India. Which was quite unique. One hears about policy but one rarely hears about the thinking behind it. He talked about the way he sees governance in particular, and why in some sense the mistrust of the people on the ground colours our governance… and therefore creates structures of elite control over the governance process… not a responsive government.
In that process, he very nicely explained how he is trying to reform the bureaucracy in India to make it more responsive… to understand the ways in which people’s views need to be taken into account… to expose them (bureaucrats) more to the reality on the ground. I think it’s important for India to have a bureaucracy that lives on the ground and gets its stimulus from how life is on the ground and without that we get an unresponsive government. Thank you, PM. That was a unique experience for me.
Modiji is talking about a programme that he is trying to put in place. I think this is an important programme, which will also deal with the local-level corruption that many citizens are confronted with.
This corruption snowballs into corruption by the politicians, who use the power of appointment and promotion of bureaucrats at all levels to extract money from the person who is appointed and promoted.
Positions that have a higher level of opportunity to extract bribes from the citizen are also those where the politician in power can extract a higher price from those who are benefitted by the appointment or promotion.
This project of Modiji should be embraced by all because it will help every section of society and will lead to greater transparency. It is not just the members of industry and commerce that will benefit.
Thus, those who are proponents of the Right to Information Act should also make serious suggestions on how to improve transparency so that citizens need not have to approach any authority for getting their work done.
Transparency International publishes a ranking of countries with respect to openness in the government. But it has no suggestions on how to improve the rankings by those in the low levels of transparency.
Various administrative services should also involve themselves whole-heartedly in the programme. After all, they call themselves public servants, and so should do everything that is of benefit to the public.
In a paper titled, The Indian Administrative Service Meets Big Data (dated 1 September 2016), Milan Vaishnav and Shyam Khosla wrote: “When then Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh delivered his inaugural address to the nation in 2004, he called the reform of administrative and public institutions — including refurbishing the IAS — an ‘immediate priority’ for his government.”
In an article (dated 28 March 2018), I set out my views on why this approach by Vaishnav and Khosla was inadequate and that one has to go to the basic reason why the reform was needed.
At the very beginning of the article, I said the following regarding the ‘immediate priority’ of Manmohan Singh: “There is no mention about the contours of reform that the then prime minister had in mind.
“However, what is known is that nothing was done about this ‘immediate priority’. Was it due to lack of sincerity on part of the then prime minister, or did the system fight back?”
In the same article, I wrote: “In his 2003 budget speech, the then finance minister, Jaswant Singh, said: ‘Mr Speaker, Sir, this will be a move away from a suspicion-ridden, harassment generating, coercion-inclined regime to a trust-based, ‘green channel’ system. I do this entirely on the basis of my faith in my countrymen and women.’”
I am not sure if the budget speech did anything to really remove the ‘suspicion-ridden, harassment generating, coercion-inclined regime’.
Coming to the present, I think Modiji has gone to the heart of the problem when he talks about the lack of trust in the people. Others too have talked about the need for trust.
In an article published in August 2017, I had written about how in 1966, the second Sarsanghachalak had had an occasion to talk about his views on the need for trusting the people at large:
The second basis for the complexity in the system is the lack of trust in the citizens of the country. While we lament that the British left us with a system of control, we forget that we had a choice of either continuing it or dismantling it when we achieved our independence. Any coloniser has to, by definition, be very suspicious of those who they are ruling, because the ruled always aspires to remove the yoke of colonisation.
We should also not forget that while the British applied a system of control on their colonies, they based the system in their own country on the basis of trust. In this respect, I would like to quote a reply given by the second Sarsanghachalak of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, Guruji Golvalkar, when he was asked: “What happens if a particular farmer does not oblige? Secondly, if, as you said, there were to be free trade, where is the guarantee that the traders will distribute the food properly?”
This was in context of the serious shortage of food in India, when there was a talk about nationalising the food supply chain. The general charge was that it is the traders, and the large farmers, who were withholding the produce from coming in the market to create a shortage, when the fact was that there was a failure of crops.
The Sarsanghachalak first put the issue in the proper context, when he said: “Quite an amount of odium has been heaped on the dealer. All right, let’s suppose that all our dealers are dishonest and have no thought of their brethren. Many people have been saying that all those who are engaged in industry, are also dishonest. Then there are persons who say that the labour is not putting the efforts it should. The work which they turn out does not bear any comparison to the time they have given. And there has been a talk that some farmers have been successful in suppressing their produce, and are not allowing it to come into the free market……”
Having framed the issue thus, he proceeded as follows: “Thinking in this way we may come to the conclusion that in this great wide country, there is not one honest soul; I think this is a very uncharitable view. And if there is no honest soul, where do we get honest souls from, even to man state trading? So we have to put some faith in one another. As a matter of fact, our life can go on only if we have faith in one another. Let us take the dealers into confidence, all the villagers into confidence, all the people into confidence, to achieve all that we want.”
In both the articles quoted above, I have tried to express my thoughts on how trust in people will make the elite control redundant.
However, the refrain that people cannot be trusted exists not just amongst the elite who man the control systems, but also amongst others, who would also be considered elite.
The irony in this refrain is that each of them are implying that they themselves cannot be trusted. For example, the elite who manage the control system for Income Tax, say, cannot be trusted when it comes to Goods and Services Tax.
And they are also implying that they do not trust their own family and friends who are not part of the control system.
There is much work to be done to make trust as a central pillar in governance. Along with the others I mention above, I hope Banerjee and other economists also research the subject and write about it.
It will be a major step towards reducing opportunities for corruption, make the government transparent, make it easy to do business, and make the experience of interacting with the government a pleasant one.
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