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India's Rural Economy Hobbled By Poor Governance

By Moin Qazi

25 September, 2015

Poor governance has become the albatross that is aiming to virtually strangulate the system. The poor and the illiterate are the worst sufferers because corruption and nepotism has seeped deep into the system. Official apathy has reached such alarming levels that more public money is spent on salaries or pensions of government employees, or on ministerial perks such as free houses and cars with flashy beacons, than on public health in India. In fact, it would be hard to find another democracy anywhere else in the world where bureaucrats -- an unelected, unrepresentative and essentially unanswerable elite -- have amassed so much power, privileges and entrenched immortality while hiding under the banner of 'governance.'

I recently found a school which had fire safety equipment but no building, feels there is a strong need for bottom-up planning. Decisions are taken somewhere very far away, and district authorities do not take adequate interest in drafting development plans. For her, the need of the hour is to spend money based on the actual demands. She is of the view that the government has not done enough to make use even of the existing infrastructure. Thus we have class V children who cannot read class II books and government doctors not putting in requisite time and effort to treat the poor. The Challenge is to ensure that doctors come to the clinics. The challenge is to ensure that teachers show up and teach .

The cosy ties between the government and politicians and affluence peddling and bribery had galled villagers. It was a jaw dropping experience; there were times when my good intentional plans would rub salt into the wounds of local leaders. I was badly savaged and I would share the grisly stories with my bosses who felt I was unnecessarily burning myself out. It took lot of time to get over the bitter scars.In my entire career as a rural banker, I have hardly come across a local political leader willing to be part of a solution. Even the local elite preferred an icy aloofness. The village sarpanch, whom I had obliged several times, also supported the villains as part of his populist politics. The rest of the villagers also seemed to look away. They were so beholden to the sarpanch that they dare not utter a word. No politician can afford to hurt his constituency. Village politicians have started using tactics that are normally a staple of ruffians and villains gaming the political system for their narrow self interest believing in the illusory knowledge that they are chipping away at poverty. Even the minor moment of pathos were inflected with politics Pericles I would keep remembering the words of "Just because you do not take an interest in politics doesn't mean politics won't take an interest in you."

If you keep your head down, India is a shining place. Ask questions, and you fall through a chute. The battles range from the quotidian to the gigantic. Corruption in every pore: in excise, in income tax, in ports, in highways, in check dams, in the PDS, in ration cards, in land encroachments, in pollutions of earth and water and sky. Nothing is safe. Greed is the only propeller. We are not a society really: we are a termite nest, eating at ourselves.

Every righteous action in this country brings on the wrath of the “system”: its deadly dance of intimidation and seduction; its crushing arsenal of transfers, suspensions, false cases, arrests, sudden deaths and financial squeeze. No one is immune.. Doing one’s duty is no longer an imperative in India. Nothing governs us as a society now except the miracle of individual choice. We are secured by the fact that some people choose to be good, no matter what. But there are myriad dangers in that. There is not just the might of the State to confront. There is also the temptation at every turn to just give up, part the skin and slip over into the silken side where one half of India is living a charmed life. If you don’t fight the ugliness of the State, it will behave in benign ways with you. That is one of the hardest lessons being good in India teaches you.

The police system at the village level is too ineffective to provide security. Many would tend to agree with the often made comment of villagers about police: “these tormentors whether living or dying, it makes no difference to them. When alive, they suck our blood and when dead, they bake their bread on our funeral pyres.” The arcane laws and the brute power that police enjoys, make it very difficult for people on the ground to work with total freedom.

This is where the local politician fits in. While the poor do not have the money to purchase services that are their right, or to bribe the public servant, they have a vote that the politician wants. The politician does a little bit to make life a little more tolerable for his poor constituents– a seat in a good school for the lucky few, a government job for the even luckier, on occasion the unexpected munificence of a loan waiver, or more commonly, a phone call that helps them get a police case registered. For all this, the politician gets the gratitude of his voters. But he then also has little reason to improve their lot more broadly by reforming the system – for that would do him out of his current job. No wonder so few politicians express enthusiasm about reforms.

Moreover, the poor understand the politician needs money to offer them these services. So they are willing to look the other way if he extorts bribes from corporations or the wealthy, or if he is a criminal. And the system is self-sustaining. Every village official must be paid not just to expedite the application-form for development schemes but specifically not obstruct it. A middle class idealist can stand for office promising reforms, but the poor voters know there is little one person can do. Moreover, who will provide the patronage while the incorruptible, but consequently poor, idealist is fighting the system? Why not stay with the devil you know.

The laws and regulations to apprehend and punish corrupt individuals seem to be ineffective. First, the poor who are the intended beneficiaries are mostly without a voice and cannot complain or appeal. Second, even when these individuals are apprehended, they tend to escape punishments because of corruption in the other parts of the system (police, judiciary, higher official and politicians).

Corruption also severely curtails the poor's access to various publicly provided goods and services like water, health care, credit and education. If access requires a bribe, only the better-off sections of society will consume of these goods and services. Moreover, corruption erodes the quality of public goods to such an extent that the population has to largely rely on private providers. Once again, the poor household loses out. This non-access to vital public goods not only affects the current generation of the poor, it also perpetuates poverty across future generations by depriving the children of poor households from education and good health.

Moin Qazi is a well known banker, author and Islamic researcher .He holds doctorates in Economics and English. He was Visiting Fellow at the University of Manchester. He has contributed articles to Indian and foreign publications including The Times of India, Statesman, Indian Express, The Hindu, Third World Features (Malaysia), SIDA Rapport (Sweden), Depth News (Philippines), Far Eastern Economic Review and Asiaweek (Hong Kong).He has authored several books on religion, rural finance, culture and handicrafts. He is also a recipient of UNESCO World Politics Essay Gold Medal and Rotary International’s Vocational Excellence Award. He is based in Nagpur and can be reached at [email protected]


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