Perils of incompetence

  • 29/09/1997

High-level political corruption is today the big story in the Indian media. And in the minds of the politicians, too. At least that is what came out of the special session of parliament held to debate the future agenda for India. But the debate was of such a poor quality that it failed to enlighten anyone about the strategy we need to chart for the nation. Even on the issue of corruption that was repeatedly identified as a critical issue affecting India, there was little identification of the measures needed to deal with the problem. In fact, one could even ask the MPs whether they even understand what is the problem.

The media goes gung-ho about high- level corruption but one may ask: Is the public more harassed by high-level corruption or by the corruption that pervades the system? Is a person trying to get a completion certificate for a building or an electricity connection or a tribal woman collecting firewood from forests affected by high-level corruption or by low-level corruption? Are pollution control laws so ineffective because of high-level corruption? What sustains this type of systemic corruption?

One may even ask what kind of high-level corruption is worse and needs to be tackled first and fast - the alleged Pratap Singh Kairon type of corruption (cuts from projects in a growing economy) or the alleged Laloo Yadav type of corruption (which amounts to a loot of the treasury leaving behind starved cows or empty Ayurvedic dispensaries)?

Of course, ideally speaking, there should be no form of corruption. But there is a long way to go to reach that stage, if we ever do. What do we focus upon immediately? There was no effort to discuss these things at all. It was in the late 1960s that Swedish economist, Gunnar Myrdal, had written his magnum opus, Asian Drama, in which he had written a chapter on corruption. Myrdal had pointed out that corruption is an issue that everyone loves to talk about in India but there is hardly one research paper on it. Indeed, even 30 years later, there is more talk about corruption but hardly any serious thinking about it. As if a problem as deep-rooted as corruption will disappear without serious thinking and action.

The special session of parliament in fact revealed something even more serious than corruption. And that is incompetence. We are today dealing with politicians who are not just corrupt but also incompetent and the latter is a far more serious problem for the future of the country. An incompetent general will help us to lose the war faster than a corrupt general. There are so many environmental laws. Why don't they work? Why do environmentalists have to run to courts?

Not only does India have a lot of laws and government servants, it also spends an awful lot of money. Participants at a seminar held in 1991 by the Centre for Science and Environment had calculated that India needs a one time investment of about Rs. 30,000 crore to undertake afforestation, water and soil conservation and biomass regeneration over 100 hectares of land in each of the country's 5.6 lakh villages to deal with an important aspect of rural poverty. If the country's entire expenditure on rural development and rural employment programmes is put together, we will find that much more money would have been spent on this work. So why don't we see this investment and its impact at the field level? The government has invested a lot on literacy and health programmes, too - of course, not as much as required - but what is the result of what we have invested? None of the MPs raised these questions. What is the guarantee that even if the government pours more money down the drain on these worthy causes, any change will occur if the governance systems remain the same. In other words, what we were watching on TV during the long debates was a lot of populist rhetoric, breast-beating and hot air with no substance behind it. It is interesting that hardly any MP mentioned the degradation of our environment as a serious issue. The focus was on poverty and literacy. A major reason for the lack of depth is that no party today has MPs who are knowledgeable about or interested in these subjects. Party leaders have never tried to develop leaders with a track record in these fields. And this shows up when they form governments. When was the last time when India had an education, health, environment or anti-poverty programme minister who had prior knowledge and convictions about these subjects? The simple answer is: For long. As a result, ministers indulge in rhetoric and fail to command any respect and bring about any change. Go to any meeting in which such people are present. All that you will see them asking is more money. This is yet another element of the failure of our governance systems - not just at the bureaucratic level but also at the political level.

This lack of debate is a clear indicator that MPs don't want to change anything, including the issues they have identified themselves like corruption, illiteracy and poverty. Politicians simply want more allocations for programmes, a substantial part of it will be siphoned of and another substantial part of it will be spent incompetently - like on schools without teachers and primary health care centres with no doctors. The result at the field level will be 'no change'. Its quite depressing, even when they discuss things beyond petty politics.