Posted in Governance, Published Article

City tops Good Governance List, but here’s the reality

Published in Times of India, Pune on 6 June 2018. Lost and found. Posted here for you.

Citizens of Pune were quite pleased when they read a survey which made Pune the best governed city in India. Not so well known is the fact that it scored merely 5.1 out of 10, and all other Indian cities were below this midpoint. In comparison, London and New York scored 8.8!

Parameters such as urban capacities and resources, empowered and legitimate political representation, transparency, accountability, participation, urban planning and design were used to give marks.

Governance is one of those concepts that we all feel we understand. We also know that it is not merely ‘government’ but something more… We know that governance stretches beyond the political and bureaucratic framework and out into the various stakeholder groups in a city

Therefore, governance = government + citizen.

If this is the case, then the parameters of ‘good’ governance will also come in two categories: the first to measure the efficiency and effectiveness of the government machinery, and the second to measure how responsive, transparent, equitable and inclusive the citizen interface is.

Governance at all levels in a democracy is also expected to be participatory and accountable and to work on the basis of consensus orientation and the rule of law. These are the very criteria of good urban governance laid out by various UN bodies, and used in ranking cities across the world.

But is there any sense in comparing chalk and cheese?

Indian cities are hamstrung by laws which greatly curtail their autonomy and State Governments are in no hurry to devolve powers and resources to the local level despite 26 years of the 74 Constitutional Amendment. Our mayors continue to play a ceremonial role while real power vests almost exclusively with the Standing Committee and the bureaucracy. Compare this to western mayors who even control the local police, public health and education.

In other words, there isn’t much ‘governance’ a typical municipal body can deliver in India. No wonder then that the public perception of a local government is limited to water, sewerage, garbage and roads. Or as someone rather rudely expressed it: gutter, water, metre.

Even within this limited ambit, Pune could score higher than other cities just by enhancing its use of Information Technology in key administrative areas like granting building permissions, monitoring projects, redressing complaints and managing its finances. PMC has also undertaken several initiatives like municipal bonds for water supply schemes, supported by an elaborate techno-financial-legal policy framework, and this too has enhanced its ranking in terms of greater efficiency in governance.

While the efficiency of Urban Local Bodies has grown significantly in the last 10 years, the effectiveness of their actions is questionable. For example, we may be able to pay our Property Tax online in a jiffy, but is it possible to ever get a disputed assessment of your property tax looked at? Such efficiency without effectiveness is meaningless. The same is the case with access legislation, meant to enhance transparency. When the RTI became law in 2005, it met with great resistance in public bodies, but gradually, most government organisations have mastered the art of giving only the information asked for, often piecemeal and irrelevant, and good luck to the questioner if he wants to make any sense of it!

Most importantly, good governance should be both inclusive and equitable – and therein lies the rub. Just look at the social reality in India: With a mere 8% of India’s population holding a college degree, the knowledge divide in the country is enormous. And if you extend this further, it means that not only the entire senior bureaucracy and judiciary but an increasing number of Elected Representatives and almost all corporate businesses, mass media, NGOs and civil society groups are drawn from this 8%. As they between them take over 90% of the actions and decisions that profoundly affect the lives of the remaining 92%, how inclusive, equitable and participatory has our democracy really been?

Therefore, the inescapable conclusion is that merely making the government machinery more efficient will not hand us ‘good governance’ on a platter. It will have to flow from the ‘governed’ themselves, and how far they are enabled and empowered to expect and accept good governance…


Urbanization Trends in India

Posted in Governance, India

Ethical Consumption and Indian Industry 2.0

First published on 8 February 2015

I started this blog to counter the current Indian Government’s proclivity for mega pronouncements without thinking through the implications. The latest buzz phrase is ‘Make in India’. But make in India for whom? The domestic consumer or the European and American consumer, where India hopes to replace China as the key provider of the basic essentials of life?

Update 1:

Despite various bans and boycotts imposed by the Government of India on Chinese goods following a border clash, Indian imports from China in 2021 reached a whopping $97.5 Billion, a 30% rise from 2019. Moreover, these imports are largely ‘manufactured’ goods like electrical and mechanical machinery, auto components, pharmaceutical ingredients, and medical supplies like oxygen concentrators and PPEs.

So much for ‘Make in India’…

India is also not able to compete in export markets for manufactured goods because of its relatively poor infrastructure and tedious red tape, widespread petty corruption, an ill-educated workforce (by international standards) and the prevalence of child labour and forced labour somewhere in every corporate supply chain, which creates a very negative image of the country in the minds of the western consumer, who is tech-savvy, globally connected, well-informed and increasingly believes in conscious consumerism.

Update 2:

Need for Regulating Supply Chains

In the early years of this century, the movements for ethical supply chain management gathered momentum, and every time there was a furore in the western media about environmental damage, animal experimentation, poor labour practices, or unsafe working conditions anywhere down a long and trailing multinational supply chain, the most high-profile retailer bore the brunt of boycotts and protests. This was unacceptable in economic terms and extremely expensive in transnational legal terms, and so a global standard had to be put in place to assure ethical supply chain management.

The best known of these is the SA8000 initiated by Social Accountability International, a US-based non-profit. The SA8000 looks at human rights in the workplace, worker safety, child labour and forced labour and other issues, based upon ILO guidelines, the UN Declaration of Human Rights, and the UNICEF Convention on Rights of the Child.

Its 9 principles for certifying a business as SA8000 compliant are:

  1. Child Labour: No child labour; remediation of any child found working
  2. Forced Labour: No forced labour; no lodging of deposits or identity papers at employers or outside recruiters; no trafficking
  3. Health and Safety: Safe and healthy work environment; system to detect and prevent threats to health and safety; regular health and safety worker training; access to clean toilet facilities and potable water
  4. Freedom of Association and Right to Collective Bargaining: All personnel have the right to form and join trades unions and bargain collectively; where these rights are restricted under law, the company shall allow workers to freely elect their own representatives
  5. Discrimination: No discrimination based on gender, race, caste, origin, religion, disability, sexual orientation, marital status, family responsibilities, trade union or political affiliation, or age; no sexual harassment
  6. Discipline: No corporal punishment, mental or physical coercion or verbal abuse
  7. Working Hours: Compliant with applicable law, but, in any event, no more than 48 hours per week with at least one day off following every six consecutive days or work; voluntary overtime paid at a premium rate and not to exceed 12 hours per week; overtime may be mandatory if part of a collective bargaining agreement
  8. Remuneration: Wages paid for a standard work week must meet legal and industry standards and be sufficient to meet the basic needs of workers and their families and to provide some discretionary income
  9. Management Systems: To earn and sustain certification, facilities must go beyond simple compliance to integrate the requirements into documented management systems and into their supply chain, including complaints response, workplace dialogue, and stakeholder engagement.

Compliance with SA8000 includes compliance with ILO conventions, local and national law, openness to worker concerns, and a commitment to continuous improvement. Research I undertook in 2012 threw up the following interesting facts about the 614 SA8000 compliant businesses in India at that time:

  • The most common businesses opting for SA 8000 were small and medium enterprises, (the reasoning is that large, heavy manufacturing businesses already have the statutory framework in place in compliance with the existing labour legislation in India, and therefore do not require an SA 8000 type of certification for their international trade activity).
  • Most of the SA 8000 certified Indian businesses are essentially part of the supply chain of large multi-national retailers, who insist on such certification, while domestic retailers seldom do
  • Most of the SA 8000 certified Indian businesses manufacture consumer nondurables like apparel, textiles, footwear, processed foods, leather and sports goods
  • Most of the SA 8000 certified Indian businesses are likely to be located in the States with niche manufacturing small and medium sector enterprises, like Tamil Nadu, where the overwhelming number of SA8000 compliant companies were in Tirupur, a cotton apparel town, sometimes called the ‘ganji’ or capital of the world for its exclusive production of men’s vests and T-shirts.

However, just 600-700 ‘ethical’ businesses in a country with hundreds of thousands of small and medium enterprises is indeed laughable, and this ‘tokenism’ in the name of ethical supply chains by the manufacturing sector is bound to take its toll in the international market, where the conscious consumer is now king.

Whatever claims of equitable work conditions are made by corporate India, the sad fact is that India’s image abroad has steadily declined as it continues its downward slide in various international rankings like the World Hunger Index and the World Press Freedom Index; besides the negative press it gets abroad for its growing communalism, casteism, curtailment of dissent, and treatment of protesters.

The aftermath of the COVID19 pandemic too has added to India’s woes as huge masses of rural children have dropped out of the education system into forced and child labour, and general poverty, unemployment, informalisation and inequality have reached frightening levels.


Thus, before proclaiming grandiose schemes like ‘Make in India’, perhaps the Government should overcome its aversion to ‘leftist’ ideals of a rights-based approach to human development – especially, education, vocational training, and public health. This was the path so successfully followed by Japan, Singapore, South Korea and China. Let India not go down in history as the country which so carelessly threw away its priceless demographic dividend.

Posted in Governance

Demagogues and Democracy

Democracy and demagoguery have the same root: demos or Greek for ‘people’. So why is it that we value the first but decry the second?

The highly educated ‘citizens of the world’ from privileged backgrounds who became leaders of the newly decolonized countries of the 1950s and 60s, were nonetheless loved and re-elected by their people and became quintessential democrats, articulating the hopes and aspirations of the common woman and man. These leaders gave us the Non-aligned Movement and the OAU and strengthened the various institutions under the United Nations. Within their countries, they did their best to undo the ravages of centuries of colonial rule by institution-building, redistributive justice, and vast welfare and poverty alleviation programmes. They also endeavoured to bring their countries into the modern era by developing a scientific temper through modern and universal education. By providing greater inclusion and equity in society and a more people-friendly and responsive administration, these pioneering democrats left us with the templates of good governance.

This path of international cooperation led inevitably to a globalized and interconnected world in the last years of the previous century, and societies today have become irrevocably changed by the resulting technology and the concentration of capital in fewer and fewer hands. It was only to be expected that this new era of growing inequity and inequality and the corporatization of national policy would throw up its own leaders – and this has indeed come to pass from the Americas, through Europe, to Asia.

Despite the liberalization and privatization of national economies, we have seen the demise of the liberal, the democrat, and the rise of the demagogue – a preacher and practitioner of principles contrary to democratic ideals: exclusion instead of inclusion, inequality instead of equity, narrow nationalism, centralized decision-making, polarization of society at large, and a deep discontent not addressed but allowed to simmer, so that it can erupt at the ‘right’ moment. We are living in an era of poor governance and can do little to change this state of affairs.

This slide from democracy to demagoguery is as visible in the US today as in India. Does it mean that we subvert democracy to dislodge the demagogues, who remain immensely popular with large sections of their electorate, nonetheless. Or go back to the rule of an elite? That is the eternal dilemma facing all liberals today.

It is essential to understand how the mind of a demagogue works, so that he can survive failure after failure and still feel secure:

  • A demagogue (by definition) believes that he knows best so he will eschew advice, dismantle advisory bodies and institutions, tear up treaties, trade agreements and protocols, build walls and surround himself with those who entirely agree with him, stifling dissent and rewarding sycophancy. This deprives him of insights, knowledge and information which are necessary for making the right decisions.
  • Secondly, demagogues tend to believe their own rhetoric. This makes them incapable of objectively analyzing the ground reality and learning from their mistakes, so no corrective action is ever taken.

Take the case of India – the PM, a demagogue par excellence, promised to galvanize the Indian economy by bringing in Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) on an unprecedented scale, for which he travelled to every corner of the world. And soon the absolute figures were proudly touted around to show that the promise had been fulfilled. However, when economists began to query the authenticity of these claims, it emerged that absolute FDI figures were meaningless as all such figures grow from year to year like the population and GDP of a country. It is when we examine the FDI to GDP ratio that we notice how poor India’s performance has really been on this front. A clear case of believing one’s rhetoric without closer examination.


The Indian Government has also given great publicity to the fact that India has climbed in the ‘Ease of doing business’ rankings because of the government’s efforts to cut red tape. Therefore, the following assessment by its own agency (NCAER) is all the more damning:

Yet again, the demagogue cannot believe that his actions have directly or indirectly contributed to this state of affairs and instead of taking responsibility, will blame it upon his predecessors, the solar eclipse, the astral configuration, the Nehru family, whatever…

Let us look again at these constraints in the light of government’s actions/inaction:

Corruption: You cannot fight corruption on the one hand while institutionalizing it on the other by permitting unlimited, anonymous donations to political parties, where this money is brazenly used for buying votes in the villages and legislators in State Assemblies.

Clearances: You cannot expect the administration to act expeditiously or efficiently when all decision making is centralized in a few hands, and tools of greater transparency like the Right to Information Act are being diluted to total ineffectiveness.

Skilled Labour : You cannot launch instant solutions like Mission Skill India expecting it to produce a skilled workforce overnight, while grossly neglecting both universal primary and secondary education and vocational training, as these are long-term and resource-heavy commitments which do not fit into a 5-year electoral mindset.

Land acquisition : You cannot tinker with Land Laws. As the government’s fiasco in diluting the social impact analysis and consent elements of the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013 early in its tenure showed, land is an extremely emotive issue in rural India and can make or break a government. So, India’s land acquisition continues to be mired in endless red tape and litigation.

Policy issues : There is immense confusion about most tax and financial policies of the present government, and businesses need unambiguity and clarity. There is no clear cut tax policy and it gets chopped and changed in every annual budget.

Law and Order: This remains a great worry in an India where lynch mobs, communal riots, rapes and murders are the staple of daily news, and the government is increasingly perceived as being indifferent to the deteriorating situation.

A clear case of blatant and repeated failures of governance.

Does this mean that the next election will see a regime change? Unlikely. Please remember that the definition of a demagogue is: “… a leader who makes use of popular prejudices and false claims and promises in order to gain power”. So how long does it take to reawaken old prejudices about religion, caste, class, race or immigration to get re-elected? Meanwhile the ‘liberal democrat’ can go back to airing his discontent in 280 characters on Twitter. Sad indeed.

Posted in Governance

Power, Authority and Influence

My apologies for a recap of Anthropology 101, but it is necessary to understand what I mean by the title of this post.  Anthropologists define political organization as the way in which a society handles the distribution of power, to maintain order which will enable the peaceful social and economic functioning of society.  When this power is legitimized on the basis of culture/mores, it becomes traditional authority (as in a Council of Elders); and when it is legitimized through a modern legal-institutional framework, it is termed rational authority. In other words, if I have the power I can make you act in a particular way, whether you want to do so or not, and if I exercise authority over you then you must act in the way outlined, or face social and legal sanctions.  The third element in this triad is influence – a far more subtle ability to make others think and act in a particular way, of their own volition.

I was reminded of these lessons of long ago by the constant harping in the Indian media about the Trump Twitter forays and the ‘War of Thrones’ in State elections in key North Indian States – with a liberal use of words like ‘power’, ‘defeat’, ‘victory’ and ‘demolition’ ad nauseam. The two self-proclaimed greatest democracies on Earth, reducing the hopes and aspirations of over a billion and a half souls  to a tawdry reality show on commercial TV. And this is how it works – in theory:

But how much of this much vaunted ‘power’ is real? Given the quirky electoral systems in both countries, the US Presidential race was won with just 46% of the popular vote; and India’s General Elections of 2014 gave the present government a great number of seats with just 31% of the electoral vote. Since then, Indian State Government elections have become vital to strengthen the government’s hands in the Upper House. This is seen as very important, because the sitting government wishes to tweak the legal-institutional framework to enhance its authority in a way that will enable it to achieve its agenda before the next General Election, in 2019 – just as POTUS can affect the legal process there, by select appointments to the judiciary.

Whenever there is an attempt to put the cart before the horse (assuming authority before legitimizing power) it falls flat – like the Trump travel ban and the hasty amendments to India’s Land Laws. I doubt whether both countries will allow their basic systems of legitimacy to be tweaked quite as easily as the incumbents seem to imagine – there are far too many checks and balances in both Constitutions, too many dissenting voices, too much inbuilt inertia, and rampant multiculturalism – the only safeguard for democracy in a globalised, multipolar world.

However, there is a clear and present danger that until this much coveted legitimate authority materializes, there will be extra-legal efforts to intimidate and coerce, through the rewriting of history, the marginalization of immigrants and minorities, and the quelling of all dissent by questioning the integrity of all those who disagree – like the campus unrest in India and the media war in the US. It is again the bottom 20% in both countries who will bear the brunt of these ambitions.

What is surprising is the convergence of vision between two such disparate leaders – one wants to make America great again, the other wants Development for all – but through the common route of infrastructure! This sector is globally acknowledged as the greatest source of corruption, and has been used in both countries to win elections – taking clientelism and crony capitalism to a new high : support today, profit tomorrow.

In fact the American Society of Civil Engineers has already submitted a wish list by outlining the horrendous costs to the country of deteriorating infrastructure, and the aspiring classes in India too dream of totally unviable and expensive bullet train networks criss-crossing their vast country.

Infrastructure development provides both a carrot and a stick in times of elections: on the one hand, investment in physical infrastructure benefits large companies in the heavy engineering, construction and mining sectors, whose shareholders are among the richest and have the deepest pockets; and on the other hand, it keeps the recalcitrant and minorities in line through coercion – the highly centralized governance in India gives an immense advantage to the party in power at the Centre, and States that choose to go with other parties pay a very heavy price in terms of systematic deprivation of development funds.

The price paid by West Bengal for voting in the Communists for a quarter century was huge – and Kolkata as the consumptive dowager metropolis of India is living proof of this, while Delhi was lavished with beautifying additions at the cost of other cities. Further, it is not only the cities but the rural areas which are impacted adversely if the Central and State Government are political adversaries. The Ministry of Rural Development gets the bulk of Government subsidies and aid, and antagonizing the powers-that-be at the Centre can dry up a river, create a famine, isolate a village, target a community, unleash a deadly epidemic, or devastate an eco-system.

So as they forge new means to maximize the private profits from public investment in infrastructure, both countries will forget their shortcomings – like the world’s largest incarcerated population, child poverty, growing homelessness, deteriorating public schools, crippling student debts and unaffordable healthcare in the US; and the highest incidence of modern slavery, growing malnutrition, child labour, non-existent social security and rampant informalisation of the economy, in India.

And the poorest will continue to fall off the grid…


Posted in Governance

Formalizing the Informal – the only economic reform that matters

Two incidents last week: a friend’s enthusiastically launched ‘start-up’ is downsizing in less than a  year and will probably become ‘stop-down’ soon; and another friend’s 16 year old but spacious flat has been attracting great interest from the local small businessmen, even before she has put it on the market. In other words, the money in India is inexorably moving from the formal to the informal sector. With the advent of a hefty Goods and Services Tax, the situation will only get worse. And there is little the Government can do, or is willing to do, to stop this leaching away of its legitimate tax revenue.

Given that its traditional support base has always been the urban business class, the ruling party is unlikely to take stringent action against this class which is the biggest beneficiary of that twilight zone of the informal sector that now covers over 68% of the economy of India’s commercial capital – Mumbai.

By promising greater ease of business to attract domestic and foreign investors, the business-friendly and business-financed central government has weakened the regulatory framework to such an extent that it has opened the floodgates for environmentally irresponsible infrastructure projects, and the exploitation of child labour – now legitimized by allowing children to work in family businesses or ‘learn’ traditional crafts. (Though there is hardly any skill or craft to be learnt, at the cost of regular schooling, to serve tea in your uncle’s roadside cafe, is there?)

Not quite familiar with consumer preferences in the West and the growing importance of ethical supply chains (especially among EU importers), both the Indian Government and the Indian business community are at a loss to understand why foreign direct investment in the country continues to remain sluggish.

But domestic consumption continues to grow and this demand is increasingly being met by informal and semi-informal enterprise, both in services and light manufacturing. As a result, quality and safety standards are readily sacrificed to cut costs. Ever wondered why a plumber or carpenter brings along a drill with bare leads which he pushes into the nearest electric socket? Because there is no standardization in the electric fittings produced cheaply in some back alley, and no two plugs/sockets in India will ever be compatible… This haphazard style of ‘making do’ with whatever is available then gets eulogized in management books as the inherent Indian genius of ‘jugaad’ while its corollary of ‘Chalta hai’ or ‘anything goes’ is blamed for every social evil from corruption to traffic snarls… God save us from management gurus.

But what of the workers in the informal sector? Most of them are likely to be poor male migrants from the North, with little education and only the skill of their specialization – which means they are exclusively employed in the construction, interior design or garment sectors. They also tend to belong to the lower castes and religious and ethnic minorities who have few opportunities for education and development on their home soil. They are ready to live and work in abysmal conditions so long as they make good money, to look after their families back home. In essence, as the informal sectors of the economy expand, so do the slums and informal settlements in a city – with all the concomitant consequences of anomie, alienation, violence and crime.

And as the formal sector keeps shrinking under the onslaught of the informal, the job market shrinks, and those lucky enough to be born into a higher caste/class and able to afford the qualifications to work in the formal sector, are so grateful to find a job – any job – that Indian workers report the greatest sense of well-being in their jobs, while paradoxically also being the hardest working, as these two Statista infographics indicate:

Percentage expressing well-being at work:


Working hours of Millennials (20-34 age group):


The point is that no amount of policy tweaking can swing a country’s economy this way or that because the way the economy works is inexorably tied to the way that society is organised. And all economic reform must necessarily be underpinned by social reform – greater equality of opportunity, inclusion, universal education, equitable regulation … and so on…


Posted in Governance

Land and growing social malaise

The ongoing brouhaha in India about the amendments proposed to the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013 has concentrated on its potential for depriving small and marginal farmers of their meagre land-holdings, pushing several of them to desperation and even suicide. But addressing just one of the several major issues in Indian agriculture and the resultant endemic rural poverty is at best a short-sighted attempt to gain political brownie points. Nothing more.

Farmers’ suicides mainly occur in the more remote areas of States like Maharashtra, which are part of the great underdeveloped hinterland of India, and unlikely to attract large infrastructure projects in any case, so issues of land acquisition by government (whether under the unamended or amended Act) are moot. The major cause of farmers’ suicides continues to be great rural indebtedness. How many otherwise well informed urban Indians know that if a farmer wants to take a personal loan because of an illness or marriage in the family, the formal sector banks insist he put up his land as collateral? Otherwise he has no alternative but to approach the rapacious village money-lender, and either way, he is a hostage to the vagaries of weather and market forces, and a couple of failed crops seals his doom. (What ails Indian agriculture as a whole is a separate issue covered partly in my post ‘It’s all about the land…’, so I shall not dwell upon it here.)

The failure of successive governments to tertiarize the rural economy, through the development of agro-industries in the myriad small market towns which dot the countryside, is the primary reason for widespread poverty in rural India. This situation has been made worse by engendering a deep sense of dependency among the rural poor, so that they have lost all appetite for enterprise, risk-taking and innovation. And again, it suits successive governments to have a pliant and dependent peasantry, ready to accept its state of perpetual misery as karma, never revolting, never protesting; but ever grateful for any largesse that comes its way (like loan waivers) in the  year immediately before a General Election. That way, they will not demand their basic rights – like universal education and health care and access to higher education.

Suffice it to say that right now, the greater opposition to the Land Bill Amendments will come not from these crushed millions, but from relatively prosperous farmers, carrying out commercial rather than subsistence farming, closer to the big towns and definitely not prone to desperate measures like suicide! Theirs are the lands most likely to be acquired for industrial corridors, intercity expressways, new airports, ports and high speed transit systems. And this is also the group which has benefited the most from farm subsidies, and even cheap electricity, since the Green Revolution of the 1960s.

Of course small and marginal farmers in these catchment areas are also at risk of losing their sole means of livelihood, and forfeiting not just their own future but also that of their children and grandchildren, because all such laws basically speak only of monetary compensation and there is no provision for alternative and sustainable livelihoods included in the compensation package.

The real concern about the Amendments among grassroots NGOs and Community-based Organizations (CBOs) however, is the dilution of 2 provisions of the 2013 Act: The government has amended Section 10(A) of the Act to expand sectors where assessment and consent will NOT be required. These are: national security, defence, rural infrastructure (including electrification), industrial corridors and housing for the poor including PPP where ownership of land continues to be vested with the government. For these five sectors, the government or private individuals/companies will no longer need the mandatory 80% consent for land acquisition.

The more disturbing aspect of this amendment is that by omitting the mandatory social impact assessment, the government will be required to compensate only the land owner, not all those who are dependent on the land and likely to permanently lose their livelihoods; and who also needed to be compensated. To add insult to injury, the fertility or infertility of the land will NOT be taken into consideration while acquiring it for these five specific sectors. Thus, even if the land is extremely fertile, it can be acquired if it fits the criterion of these five sectors, no questions asked.

These Amendments have been opposed by several stakeholders, and their very legitimate concerns need to be addressed in totality, not piecemeal. Allowing these grievances to fester will not only stymie development through Public Interest Litigation (PIL), but will add further to the unrest and malaise seething just below the surface in Indian society, which manifests itself in increasing violence in day to day social transactions as much as in the sporadic skirmishes between extremists and law enforcement agencies in the ‘hot spots’.

The political class needs to stop playing its power games, and listen…

Posted in Governance

It’s all about the land…

An article I read on the ICH really shook me up, as it spoke about the real purpose behind the Ukraine coup and subsequent conflict – capturing the ‘granary’ of Europe, so that its lucrative agro-industries could be corporatized by western MNCs. And here we were naively assuming that wars were essentially fought over petrol and gas in the 21st Century!

This article resonated with me particularly, as India is currently in the throes of a great debate between corporate promoters of infrastructure development, and protectors of those who make a living from the land which will be needed to develop this infrastructure – the millions of small and marginal farmers across the country.

The occasion is the introduction in Parliament of the Bill amending the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013 in such a way, that the social impact analysis and consent elements (which gave a voice to land owners) have been greatly undermined.

So it boils down to the age-old rural-urban conflict, and how to allocate scarce resources like land in an equitable and just manner for the overall development of the nation.

However, it is my personal view as a mere citizen that this is a false dichotomy. Greater efficiency in urban land use; and higher productivity on agricultural land are both achievable with a little forethought and planning, and can mitigate a lot of this false conflict.

Let us look at urban land use first: Despite only 31% urbanization, India has the second largest urban population after China, and the differences in the Indian and Chinese approaches to urbanization have been amply covered in my earlier posts. (China and India: Two roads diverged… and China and India: Our cities, their cities)

Essentially, I make a case for better land management, empowering of local urban government, and the densification of Indian cities to make them more efficient and citizen-friendly.

Now look at the rural/agricultural scenario in these two countries, and one key indicator i.e. cereal production in kg/hectare:


(Source: World Bank)

Again, while Indian cereal production has remained consistently below the world average, China manages almost twice that. No wonder that 2013 estimates of the Indian economy put industry at 25.8%, the services sector at 56.9%, and agriculture at merely 17.4% of GDP.

Slow agricultural growth (and not smart cities) should be the top priority of any Indian Government, as two thirds of India’s population depends on rural employment for a living. Ministers should be considering why current agricultural practices are neither economically nor environmentally sustainable, and why India’s yields for many agricultural commodities are consistently low.

There are several reasons cited for this:

  • Firstly, acts of omission and commission by past governments (which a government promising ‘development’ and ‘good governance’ should be able to address, but won’t), like poorly maintained irrigation systems; absence of good extension services which facilitate the transfer of technology from the lab to the farm; poor roads; rudimentary market infrastructure; slow progress in implementing land reforms; inadequate or inefficient finance and marketing services for farm produce; and excessive regulation.
  • Secondly, the endemic poverty, illiteracy, general socio-economic backwardness of the Indian countryside. But as the current government has little time for advocates of human development like Dr Amartya Sen, I don’t see much hope there either…

So constrained by its corporate backers, does this Government really have the will to do something for India’s farmers? They could start off by taking a leaf out of China’s book and pool agriculture land for economies of scale – maybe not as communes or collectives, but as cooperatives, which have proved so successful for sugarcane plantation in Maharashtra.

Then there are alternatives to capital-intensive and heavy fertilizer dependent agriculture, which has only left behind a sad trail of rural indebtedness, despair and farmer suicides. Holistic farming systems which utilise locally appropriate knowledge, native wisdomand local labour  can successfully tertiarize rural economies and create significantly higher employment opportunities in the rural sector, thereby halting and reversing migration from rural to urban areas.

Empowering farmers to ensure their own food and livelihood security through holistic farming systems, and through dispersed small industry based on agricultural produce, seems to be the only way forward.

Sadly, instead of supporting small and marginal farmers through adequate budgetary allocations, the Central and State Governments have been expropriating their land for industrial corridors, townships and SEZs with huge incentives to their promoters, which eventually come out of the taxpayers’ pockets.

It is rumoured that the proposed new capital for the state of Andhra Pradesh will be initially acquiring 30,000 acres of fertile, food-producing land – surely an extravagance India can ill afford.

And the shiny new buildings there will produce a lot of food for thought perhaps, but none for the belly…

Posted in Governance

Good Governance

One has observed a gradual fading out of a defining corpus of knowledge as one moves from Left to Right on the ideological spectrum. Thus the Marxists have an absolute embarrassment of riches on EVERY aspect of politics, economics and social dynamics; while even the middle of the road parties like the Congress have a legacy bequeathed by Mahatma Gandhi, Pandit Nehru, Dr Ambedkar and numerous others. Mr Mani Shankar Aiyar and Dr Sashi Tharoor are of course internationally read authors today, while the BJP now has Mr M J Akbar – never mind that he spent almost his entire career spewing vitriol against his new friends…

Of course, the new regime in Delhi compensates by being ultra tech-savvy, but sadly a sound bite here and a tweet there do not a Corpus make… Underlying all the alliterative wisdom, slogans and campaigns, is one key word – Governance. We are told that the new Government will provide good governance, while the previous government was simply guilty of bad governance. Period.

In explanation we are assured of quicker decisions, fewer referrals, and faster file movement – in short, more efficiency. (That the efficiency or inefficiency of any government eventually rests upon the capacity and motivation of our permanent bureaucracy is a sad truth the Government will soon discover).

That aside, surely there is more to Governance than mere Government?

Of course there is – and that’s you and me…


So, to set the record straight on a complex concept like GOVERNANCE, let us look at the received wisdom on what constitutes GOOD GOVERNANCE, and what are its parameters… Thanks largely to the work of UN bodies like UNDP and UN-ESCAP, there is now a global consensus on these criteria:

For the GOVERNMENT component of GOVERNANCE, these are:

Efficiency and Effectiveness: Good governance means that processes and institutions produce results that meet needs, while making the best use of resources at their disposal. The concept of efficiency in the context of good governance also covers the sustainable use of natural resources and the protection of the environment. While efficiency is a relatively simple ratio of output upon input; effectiveness looks at outcomes and impact.

Decentralization, Security and Sustainability: Good governance also means devolution of powers and resources to the local level. Local governments should be empowered with sufficient resources and autonomy to meet their responsibilities. Further, every individual has the inalienable right to life, liberty and the security of person. Insecurity has a disproportionate impact in further marginalising poor communities. Cities must strive to avoid human conflicts and natural disasters by involving all stakeholders in crime and conflict prevention and disaster preparedness. Security also implies freedom from persecution, forced evictions, and provides for security of tenure. On their part, local bodies must balance the social, economic and environmental needs of present and future generations. This should include a clear commitment to urban poverty reduction. Leaders of all sections of urban society must have a long-term, strategic vision of sustainable human development and the ability to reconcile divergent interests for the common good.

For the CITIZENS’ INTERFACE component of Good Governance, we require:

Participation: All men and women should have a voice in decision-making, either directly or through legitimate intermediate institutions that represent their interests. People are the principal wealth of nations; they are both the object and the means of sustainable human development. Participation also means civic engagement, which implies that living together is not a passive exercise: in cities, people must actively contribute to the common good. Furthermore, the civic capital of the poor must be recognised and supported.

Accountability is a key requirement of good governance. Not only governmental institutions but also the private sector and civil society organisations must be accountable to the public and to their institutional stakeholders. In general an organisation or an institution is accountable to those who will be affected by its decisions or actions. (More on Social Accountability in a separate post…)

Transparency is built on the free flow of information. Access to information is fundamental to this understanding and to good governance. Laws and public policies should be applied in a transparent and predictable manner. Elected and appointed officials and other civil servant leaders need to set an example of high standards of professional and personal integrity.

Responsiveness: Good governance requires that institutions and processes try to serve all stakeholders within a reasonable time frame. The introduction of Citizens’ Charters and e-Governance are the first steps in measuring and monitoring the responsiveness of government bodies to the needs and demands of citizens.

Inclusion of ALL stakeholders in decision-making which affects the lives of all citizens is an essential criterion of good governance. A society’s well-being depends on ensuring that all its members feel that they have a stake in it and do not feel excluded from the mainstream of society. This requires that all groups, but particularly the most vulnerable, have opportunities to improve or maintain their quality of life.

Consensus Orientation: There are several actors (and as many viewpoints) in a given society, on what is in the best interest of the whole community and how this can be achieved. It also requires a broad and long-term perspective on what is needed for sustainable human development and how to achieve the goals of such development. This can only result from an understanding of the historical, cultural and social contexts of a given society or community, so that it becomes feasible to arrive on common ground and work together.

Rule of Law: Legal frameworks should be fair and enforced impartially, particularly the laws on human rights. Impartial enforcement of laws requires an independent judiciary and an impartial and incorruptible police force.

Equity: The enforcement of the rule of law and the distribution of public goods should not only be equitable, but perceived as such by all citizens. Inclusive societies provide everyone – be it the poor, the young or older persons, religious or ethnic minorities or the handicapped – with equitable access to nutrition, education, employment and livelihood, health care, shelter, safe drinking water, sanitation and other basic services.

So far, we are yet to see any major breakthroughs in meeting ANY of these criteria – in fact, words like inclusion and equity invite derision rather than support; and the approach tends to be confrontational, rather than consensus oriented.

The new Government really has its work cut out. Good Governance remains a distant dream, and 5 years may be too short a time to make good on extravagant electoral promises.

Please surprise us, and convince the 69% who did not vote for you…