Sanjeev S. Ahluwalia
Decentralisation, with all its limitations, is the way to go for India to make the state effective in fulfillment of its sovereign functions.
Context is everything. No one model exists of an effective State. Hugely diverse countries like India can benefit from a modular approach enabling sub-national jurisdictions to shape their State architecture taking into account their context, the available resources and their dreams. The last is important. “Dreams”, as opposed to short-term ambitions, are a mix of inherited drivers for action. They determine who we want to be, which is a long-term goal. Consider that in the long term – any period after 20 years – every factor of production that appears fixed today – technology, natural resource use, and human capital – can be changed.
Core sovereign functions
A large part of the modern sovereigns effort relates to overcoming negative “externalities” (war, insecurity, crime, environmental degradation) or enhancing positive “externalities” (sanitation, public health, basic education, transport, energy and communication networks). An externality is a cost which cannot be allocated to any one entity or a benefit which is not enjoyed by just one individual. This results in the need for “collective action” to finance and execute plans to deal with externalities.
Dealing with the problem of “collective action”
Using State executive agencies to deal with externalities was the pervasive form of “collective action” till the 1970s. Experience shows that those State interventions, which work “along the grain” and align with public sentiment are effective. Consider the baffling, continuing insecurity in Kashmir despite a massive deployment of security forces. A wider domestic and diplomatic engagement with the root causes of Kashmiri disaffection could help. Note that in sharp contrast, China deals with Uighur resentment in its Xinjiang province with a heavy, repressive hand. If the Economist is to be believed, it keeps 1 million Uighurs – more than 10 per cent of this Muslim minority group – in detention camps for “re-education”.
Hybrid options for “collective action”
Hybrid options for “collective action” have emerged over the last four decades. These unbundle the core sovereign functions from those which can be undertaken by private entities. Private contractors perform even routine security functions; lease out, maintain and even operate equipment for government agencies. The government can get things done by others rather than do them itself. But using this model extensively requires government agencies to change its skill set from project implementation to project design, contracts, finance and monitoring. There is insufficient evidence that the government is making that transition. Public-Private Participation (PPP), with the private sector putting in capital and bearing the implementation risk, has died in India. The government was unable to make the functional transition to design and manage contracts effectively for mutual gains. Private investors used the mechanism as a way of earning riskless returns using bank loans. The term “Public” in PPP gave banks carte blanche to extend loans to “lemons”- projects with dodgy financials.
Bridging information asymmetry
Managing information asymmetry is also a key sovereign function to reduce the transaction costs to efficient levels and allow the market to grow. Legislating standards like “weights and measures” makes trade more efficient; making rules for disclosures on operational and financial results by business, makes stock markets more efficient; regulations for public disclosure of product contents, as in medicines and food, protect public health. These are “in situ” measures to bridge the information gap between buyers and sellers within a given market structure.
Making markets competitive
Non -competitive markets induce inefficiency and impede growth. On the supply side, the government’s job is to avoid cartelisation by existing suppliers and regulate the level of market dominance of individual suppliers. The Competition Commission of India, backed by appropriate legislation is the vehicle for doing this.
Aggregating demand is the flip side option to keep markets competitive. User’s cooperatives are one traditional option. Government-owned demand aggregators, like the Energy Efficiency Services Limited (EESL), are another option. EESL reduced the retail sale price of energy efficient LED bulbs by 75 per cent over 2012 to 2015 just by buying and distributing at scale. Private demand and supply aggregators like Amazon and Flipkart are newer options which operate like mini-markets reducing transaction costs for both sellers and buyers.
Markets – building blocks of the future
Global ideological polarisation around the usefulness of markets for reducing transaction cost and spurring competition via innovation came when China, under Deng Xiaoping adopted, in 1979, what later came to be known as “capitalism with Chinese characteristics”. The collapse of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, signalled the end of Soviet Union style socialism and the ensuing ideological polarisation around markets.
Bumbling liberal democracy versus totalitarian efficiency
Political Science became simpler post-1990 as nations clustered around two major clusters. The larger chunk consists of nations which align with, or aspire to, the western model of governance – democracy, multi-party elections, citizen rights and public sector governance reform to minimize the direct intervention of the government in the economy. India fits squarely into this set.
A smaller set of nations, with China in the lead, subscribe to the supremacy of the Party as the mediator between the State and the people. State control remains pervasive via public investment and Party cadres in key positions in the private sector. The “national interest” dominates citizen interest. Controls on family size (till recently), continuing controls on domestic migration and a weak judiciary are the downsides.
The “middle kingdom” shines
The spectacular economic success of China over the last four decades, including in reducing poverty below 3 per cent, provides powerful evidence that the State can function as effectively as the private sector. This model produces results but also future tensions in an artificial short-term, trade-off between citizen rights and economic progress. If development empowers people, how will a system based on the sacrifices of the many for a few, shake-off the bonds of political subservience it engenders?
Listening to discordant voices or ignoring “noise”
China has the managerial freedom to implement decisions without catering to the “noise” from political opponents or muted public opinion. Curiously, this is not too different from what Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla wants. By taking Tesla private he can avoid the relentless scrutiny of shareholders and the discipline of market expectations. In India, the need for consensus is a brake distorting efficient solutions. Consider the case of the Goods and Services Tax. The GST, an efficient tax reform, languished for over a decade. In 2016 the Union government conceded managerial ground to the GST Council. It agreed to make implementation “revenue neutral” for state governments. A backstop Union government guarantee protects against a shortfall in tax revenues. The potential risk of “moral hazard” is the risk. Multiple tax rates, knowingly sacrifice the efficiency gains from a single rate of tax. But the architecture now exists; systems are stabilizing, the rates can be adjusted based on experience. Listening to the people via the state governments has paid off.
Living with the “nuisance” of judicial review
China has no patience for judicial review of its decisions. This makes the government and the Party supreme. India is a liberal democracy, even though we chose to call it “socialist” in 1976 via an amendment to the constitution. The power of “public interest litigation” effectively restricts the ability of the government to undertake significant change, except via constitutionally aligned legislation.
The initiative of the Vajpayee government to privatise State Owned Entities in 2000 quickly ground to a halt. It became impossible to implement the legislative changes required to change the public ownership of state-owned enterprises like ONGC, what have statutory status since 1956 or banks, which were nationalised by legislation in 1969 and select private industries nationalised in the 1970s. “Reform by stealth” – the Indian approach, truly has its limitations.
India, stolidly elephantine
It is instructive that one and a half decades after electricity reforms were initiated in 2003 there are privatised electricity distribution utilities in the national capital of New Delhi but a State Electricity Board, created under the Electricity Supply Act 1948, continues to function in the state of Kerala – the last bastion of the Left. India assimilates multiple ideological regimes, per the local context.
Local governments bring innovation and accountability
Successive Finance Commissions have devolved more resources and responsibilities to local bodies. But Panchayati Raj, the third level of government, embedded in the Constitution in 1992, remains sparingly implemented. One-third of the annual growth in the pool of Union tax revenue must be incrementally, directly devolved to local government, as shared benefits. This will enhance local ownership of the growth process and facilitate empowered grassroots leaders to grow into future national leaders.
A nation of itinerants
Decentralisation brings to the fore, multiple potential threats – the problem of equitable allocation of funds; ideological permissiveness and political dismemberment. These are real threats. But India has stabilizers built into the constitution– free migration and the rule of law. So long as our laws promote non-discrimination and equality, the market for work and liveability will make a person vote for national integration with her feet and move to a place, where she feels secure and productive.
One-fourth of Indians do not live in the place where they were born. This is why the Aadhar unique digital identity, with appropriate safeguards for private information, is vital to secure seamless access to public services anywhere in this country of itinerants.
There is a curious dichotomy today. The world looks at India as a major determinant of its future. But we, within India, are still staring at our navel awaiting enlightenment from without. It is time we claim our place in the Sun by making our actions speak for us.
Sanjeev S. Ahluwalia is Advisor, Observer Research Foundation. Formerly, he has been associated with the World Bank, having served as a Senior Specialist at the Africa Poverty Reduction and Economic Management Network of the bank, on deputation to East Africa. He has also been associated with the Government of India, in the capacity of Secretary to the Central Electricity Regulatory Commission and Joint-Secretary of Privatisation. He also served the Government of Uttar Pradesh as its Finance Secretary.
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