The problem

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THERE are contesting narratives of the progress made on several socio-economic aspects of human development in India since independence. While substantial progress and dramatic growth in agriculture, industry and science and technology has taken place, the nature of poverty and marginalisation has become even more entrenched. Despite a wide range of centrally and provincially sponsored development schemes and programmes, their impact on the lives of the people, at best, has remained marginal.

As assessments of these development schemes and programmes began to emerge in the 1980s, direct participation of the intended beneficiaries in these development programmes was identified as a core lacuna. Through the persistent efforts of many voluntary organisations and social development professionals, both in the country and internationally, people’s direct participation in designing, implementing and monitoring development programmes meant for their own benefit began to be accepted as a part of mainstream policy. The 1990s, therefore, saw the emergence of many programmes meant for the well-being of tribals, women, children and other weaker sections of society to promote the idea of ‘development where people are at the centre.’

The experience of implementing these large scale participatory development programmes in India and elsewhere has highlighted the importance of institutional frameworks and processes within which such efforts are anchored. How are these institutions designed? How do they function? How transparent is the process of decision-making? How accountable are they for their policies and programmes? These questions are now being asked in a systematic manner. With the dismantling of the Berlin Wall and collapse of the former Soviet Union, the state-led model of socio-economic development has come under strong scrutiny and serious critique. A free market economy and the private sector have come to be acknowledged as the driving forces in economic development. Simultaneously, civil society, or the people’s sector, is seen as one of the key foundations of balanced socio-economic development. As a consequence, a major shift in the strategies for socio-economic improvements in the lives of people took place. This shift can best be described as ‘a shift from putting people at the centre of development’ to ‘governance where people matter.’

Till recently, the general belief was that governance is what governments do. However, many, even urban middle class, citizens have begun to feel alienated and distanced from their own democratically elected governments. Representative democracy has reduced citizens to mere ‘voters’ – the only time political leaders ever listen to ordinary citizens. For the remaining five years, they are treated as mere ‘beneficiaries’ of populist policies and programmes inefficiently implemented by a corrupt bureaucracy.

Questions have been raised about the relevance of democratic governance to the daily travails of ordinary Indians. In many parts of the world, where representative democracy has been an established form of governance for long, political innovations in participatory democracy have been attempted in recent decades. Democracy is thus not seen as a mere ‘spectator sport’ where a handful of elected representatives ‘perform’ while millions of citizens ‘clap from a distance.’

It has been increasingly argued that democratic governance as a whole implies an attention to the process of governance in all institutions of society. Governance is only partly the realm of agencies and institutions of the government. The transparency and accountability of government agencies – legislative, judiciary and executive – is of crucial importance. This is where serious public service reform in the design and functioning of bureaucracy, and appropriate judicial reform in the manner in which justice is delivered, is long over-due in India. Some democratisation of the legislative process has already begun with the 73rd and 74th Constitutional amendments. Nearly two million elected representatives from panchayats and municipalities have enlarged the scope of the legislative function.

As a result, representative political leadership has become more competitive. Prior to the 73rd and 74th Constitutional amendments, merely 5000 elected representatives reached state legislatures and Parliament. For a country of one billion, this was elite representation. Now, nearly two million elected representatives are involved in legislative functions. With significant reservation (one-third of all seats) for women in panchayats and municipalities, no political party can claim a ‘shortage’ in the supply of capable women leaders for contesting state and national elections.

However, the reality of devolution of power to local bodies leaves much to be desired. Despite a growing consensus among political parties (as demonstrated in the recent national convention of elected panchayat representatives in Delhi in early April 2002), the devolution of finances and functionaries remains highly inadequate. Unless the next generation of reforms in downsizing and localising the bureaucracy is carried out, local self-governance and curtailment of corruption in rural and urban development will remain a distant dream.

The challenge of governance in India today is to democratise the processes and structures of public decision-making for mobilisation and use of public resources for the common public good. Viewed in this sense, democratic governance will include for-profit institutions as well as the media, academia and civil society. The accountability of industry, both to its workers and shareholders on the one hand, and to the communities and consumers on the other, is an issue of urgent and pressing attention.

Industry faces the challenge of good governance as a result of globalisation. The process of ISO certification demands attention to social and environmental issues. But in the context of a weak consumer movement and declining trade union movement, industry is resisting societal accountability. From fraud in financial institutions and capital markets to poor quality of products and services, good governance of market- oriented, for-profit organisations in our society remains no more than a desirable goal, national conferences of FICCI and CII notwithstanding.

Likewise, media has an enormous responsibility in promoting as well as practising democratic governance. The process of holding journalists and media institutions accountable to a fair and authentic representation of societal events and issues remains dysfunctional, as is best illustrated through the growing criticism of media reporting during the recent communal violence in Gujarat.

There is growing societal cynicism about the practices of governance in civil society itself. Many development projects being implemented by NGOs raise questions about the process of participatory governance. Many self-seeking voluntary organisations have mushroomed in recent years to access development resources without adequate accountability.

The status of governance in some of the oldest civil society organisations leaves much to be desired. Take the case of trade unions. The annual audit of accounts, involvement of members in critical decision-making about the conduct of affairs of trade unions and so on remain unrealised standards.

Likewise, no political party publicises its annual audited accounts, or promotes members’ involvement in policy-making. The very notions of ‘high command’ and ‘politburo’ are manifestations of elite-controlled governance of political parties.

The underlying challenge of democratisation in governance applies to all levels, from local to global. Democratising institutions of global governance like the World Bank, IMF and WTO is as relevant as strengthening traditional and still relevant forms of communitarian democracy. The capacity of state institutions to present an inclusive argument for global governance remains weak. Many independent voices in the global arena challenge the formulation of positions with greater credibility.

At the base of this issue is the question of whether historical discriminations and structural inequities in our society can ever be transformed to enable democratic governance to take societal roots? Yet, reforms in the processes and structures of governance in all the different institutions of society today are far more pressing and urgent than ever before.

The challenge for ‘governance’ in India, in practice, is to move towards a new set of standards. From an elite-led model (as demonstrated by the IAS and other echelons of decision-making) to a mass base approach is quite a shift: a shift from an emphasis on national coherence to local relevance and initiatives, from a system of one-way accountability to the state to a process of mutual accountability to citizens. This requires a total culture shift in Indian governance. Such a shift, difficult and contentious as it may be, is the needed direction to move ‘governance to where people matter’ in India.