Friday, 30 October 2009

Annual Forum of the UN Solution Exchange Decentralization Community, October 2009, Lucknow

Bala Posani

The Annual Forum of the UN Solution Exchange Decentralization Community was held this year between 22nd and 24th October in Lucknow. It was attended by 135 participants from 23 states, among whom were elected representatives from Panchayats in 15 states across the country. I had the opportunity to attend the forum, and in this post I have summarized my takeaways from it.

Solution Exchange (SE), is an initiative of the UN Agencies in India to harness the power of Communities of Practice to help attain national development goals and Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Decentralization Community of SE is facilitated by the UNDP and connects practitioners across the country working on Decentralization and Local Governance in India, providing them a non-partisan platform, helping them share and apply each other’s knowledge and experience, thereby increasing the effectiveness of their individual efforts.

The theme for this year’s Annual Forum was ‘Rights and Local Governance’. This was in consideration of the rights based framework within which various new initiatives of the government like the Right to Information Act, the Right to Employment, the Right to Food Security, and Access to Justice through Gram Nyayalayas have been conceived. The theme was timely and important, as all of these have direct implication for the local governance as local governments have a major role to play in realizing the objectives of these initiatives.

The plenary session on Day 1 had engaging talks centred on the ‘rights and local governance’ theme. Prof Meenakshisundaram, (Former Secretary, Ministry of Rural Development) spoke about how, so far, the local governments in India have not been recognized in practice as any real ‘unit of governance’, and how the increased role for them in the rights-based service delivery framework might help bring that recognition.

Mr. S.M. Vijayanand (Principal Secretary, Department of Local Self Government, Kerala) talked about the theoretical implications of the rights-based framework. He said that this kind of framework by definition involves a ‘covenant’ between the government and its citizens. On the one hand it recognizes citizens’ agency in asserting it, and on the other, forces the government to intervene in cases of non-compliance by making it a violation of a legal right.

Dr. S.C. Behar (Former Chief Secretary, Government of Madhya Pradesh), drew attention to the urgency of efforts to scrutinize and make suggestions to the Right to Education Act, the details of which are being formulated currently. He pointed out that even though in the new framework the funds are to be shared between the Centre and the States, there is yet no consensus on how these funds are going to be raised at these levels. He also suggested that local governments must go beyond their duties of governance and take up advocacy as well, to ensure that higher levels of government live up to their promises.

Dr. N.C. Saxena (Former Secretary, Planning Commission), spoke about the Food Security Act, and its three aspects – availability, accessibility and absorption, and pointed out how Panchayats have a rather limited role in all of these. He said that we must think beyond the 3Fs (functions, functionaries, and funds), and work to build Panchayats as institutions. Panchayats need to be able to generate their own revenue, which would foster responsibility and make them more directly accountable to the people. He also suggested that indicators need to be developed in health, education, nutrition etc., and Panchayats need to be graded along these indicators, and funding could be made contingent on these grades. He gave examples of ICDS in Himachal Pradesh and Education Programmes in Chhattisgarh where such indicators have been implemented. Also, citing the example of the Uttar Pradesh Assembly which met only 25 days in a year, he pointed out that the MLAs seem not to be interested as much in their legislative duties, as they are in doing more visible things like spending the MLALADS money, and sharing in the implementation of local level programmes – something which is the mandate of lower tiers of government. To reduce the conflict that this might create between the MLA and the Sarpanch, he made a pragmatic, if adventurous, suggestion of merging the MLA with the Block Presidency.

Following the plenary session, there were parallel sessions on the different working groups on rights and local governance, namely the Rights to Information, Education, Employment and Food Security, and Access to Justice. I attended the RTI session, in which some interesting suggestions came up on how Panchayats can improve transparency and proactive disclosure of records in their villages. One suggestion was that one day in the week could be designated when all the Panchayat records would be made available freely for anyone t o come and inspect. Nikhil Dey of MKSS cited the example of Delhi where this practice has been successfully implemented for the PDS records. Another suggestion was to designate a day in a month when a ‘local secretariat’ would be conducted where representatives of government department would come to the Panchayat office with the current records pertaining to the village, which would be open for inspection by anyone in the village. Steps like these, it was felt, would not only improve the transparency and ease of access of information, but also consolidate the importance of the Panchayat as an institution, as it requires the bureaucrats from higher levels of government to come there and be answerable every month.

Day 2 had sessions where we got a chance to hear from the elected representatives from different states about their experiences of running a government at the local level. There were also women representatives from Goa, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. Among other things, many Sarpanches spoke about their desire for public service which motivated them to contest the elections, and their everyday experience of being in office. They also spoke about the difficulties of dealing with the bureaucrats at the higher levels. Day 2 also had presentations by members on selected themes of decentralization like ‘Land, Water and Empowerment’, ‘Urban Governance’ and ‘Local Governance – the Way Forward’.

An interesting feature of Day 2 was the ‘Knowledge Mela’, which was a highly interactive way of learning from experiences. Members could walk around 6-10 tables and meet Resource Persons to network with and understand themes/topics that he/she was presenting. The themes ranged from gender equity in Panchayats, teaching local governance as an academic subject in higher education to climate change and local governance and capacity building through technology. There was also some discussion on how to take the Decentralization Community forward, and how to decentralize the decentralization community itself, so that there was greater ownership and diversity of voices from the local levels.

Forums such as these provide an important opportunity where policymakers, elected representatives and practitioners from local level, researchers and academics share a common platform. This enables a rich discussion full of perspectives from different stakeholders in governance, especially the practitioner perspective from the field. The 73rd and 74th Amendments may have set in motion the possibility of making governance meaningful at the local levels, but it is through deliberations and learnings from forums such as these that we can keep the momentum of reform going, so that local government is not just an electoral reality but also a substantive, capable, and responsive government for the citizens.

Bala Posani is Senior Research Analyst at Accountability Initiative

Monday, 26 October 2009

Experiences from the Bhilwara NREGA Social Audit

Abhijit Patnaik

The NREGA guarantees certain rights to all workers - 100 days work to each family in a year, full pay for full work, unemployment insurance if work is not given in the first fifteen days after applying, work within 5km of the village, the right to inspect employment registers and muster rolls at the panchayat office being some of them.

The recently concluded Bhilwara NREGA Social Audit Padyatra involved over 1600 Block and district resource personnel from all over Rajasthan, NGO workers and other volunteers from different parts of India including Orissa and Mizoram. The Social Audit has become an important means through which people can get involved in the planning, execution and monitoring of various aspects of the law. The experience of implementation of the law over the last three and a half years has shown that people’s involvement is crucial to the better implementation of the law and people’s ability to access their entitlements.

The 4 day training period involved explaining what the teams were supposed to do during the audit, a day of ‘’shramdhaan’’ involving physically working on NREGS worksites (in our case- digging holes ) to experience firsthand the effort involved in earning Rs.100 a day, distribution of teams (125 in all), speeches by representatives of the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangatahan (including Aruna Roy and Nikhil Dey) and the Government of Rajasthan on the importance of the NREGA for the rural poor and the Audit and how we were supposed to go about conducting it .The entire exercise was made possible by the cooperation, at various levels, of the government and especially the District Collector Manju Rajpal (the NREGA Social Audit in Dungarpur district of Rajasthan was also conducted when she was the DC there). However, there was news floating around of how prior to the audit various sarpanches and officials had gotten together to oppose it, and had purposely stopped all worksites during the audit to make inspections more difficult to conduct.

Our team consisted mainly of Block Resource Personnel from the Udaipur area. The teams were flagged off by the Panchayati Raj Minister Mr. Bharat Singh. 11 Special teams were also sent to the various blocks to conduct in-depth audits where muster rolls, job cards, works undertaken etc were scrutinized with a fine-tooth comb. Since the rest of the teams were spending 1.5 days per panchayat, in-depth technical audits of the work carried out under the NREGS was not always possible. However -armed with mobile microphone’s, flags, banners and more importantly, the Management Information System files for the villages (which includes financial and work-related information on all Job cards, construction works etc conducted in the villages) - we set out into our 3 panchayats. Staying in the village school, walking around taking complaints on job card or payment irregularities, requesting villagers to have one or two team members over for meals, inspecting and writing reports on the quality and efficacy of the work sites, checking whether standard practices were being followed by the ‘mate’ ( worksite in-charge), meeting the village secretary and doing a full check of all records -bills, job card information , employment registers etc- relating to the NREGS were all carried out by each team.


In general, worksites do not have boards with information on the amount of money spent on them (a requirement), workers are not divided into groups when working, are given more than the prescribed amount of work to earn Rs.100 a day ( and even then are not being paid the full rate) . In every village we went, workers were being paid the average rate, usually between 60-80%. Most mates were not properly trained on how to take measurements at worksites to judge each worker’s due.

Many job cards are not filled in properly. The payment column in job cards is usually missing. A majority of them are kept with the mate, a clear violation. Muster rolls have a lot of mistakes and things are crossed out, which is again against the rules. Information on payments made to job card holders and also on works in the village which are supposed to be displayed on the walls of the panchayat office are generally missing.

Form 6, which is to be used by those seeking employment, is basically never filled. Workers simply go and talk to the mate for work and he asks people to come by in an ad hoc fashion. This means that if they do not find work in 15 days, they are not eligible for unemployment insurance. In two villages people told us how some family members of the sarpanch were picking up payments for work but never show up. In fact, in Hurda block, the audit teams found 15% of job cards were forged. Of course, many people who are eligible for job cards don’t have them, and a large number of people had not received payments in over 3-4 months. In one extreme case in village Haled, someone who had applied for work and not received it for over 1.5 yrs received over Rs.4000 in unemployment insurance when this was discovered by the audit team. The worksites we inspected (mostly watershed management related) had been beneficial for animals in the area.

Knowledge of the public about their rights and entitlements under the NREGS is very poor. The teams walked around the villages spreading information and leaflets, talking to villagers about the same, but more needs to be done in this respect.

Reports from many villages came in that teams had to deal with sometimes unfriendly sarpanches and other village administration. In the village Bada Mahua we visited, the Sarpanch’s brother and loyalists constantly shadowed us as we made rounds through the village meeting people. As a result they were not willing to talk openly about issues they had. In fact, in the Aamli panchayat, around 50 sarpanch loyalists even slept in the school where the audit team was and interfered in their work. In Peepli village, the entire village administration work had been contracted out to one Madan Lal , a farmer, by the village secretary. Reecchda was one of the other villages assigned to us. Along with the illegal use of JCB (earth-digging) machines, we also uncovered financial fraud there. Apparently the ‘firm’ from which 6000 units of cement has been procured for a worksite was nothing more than the local cycle- repair shop!!

Several cases of untouchability practices were unearthed. Members of a certain caste were not allowed to sit under the shade provided at worksites or drink from the same vessel. Another major issue was that most procurement was done through ‘kuccha’ bills, with no CST, TIN or other tax /registration number for identification. Payments were made in cash which makes tracking problematic.

The audit was somewhat successful in its attempts at highlighting the problems within the implementation of the program -many FIRs were filed against officials, a lot of blocked payments were made, job cards issued and awareness created. Some of the useful recommendations that came out of this were the use of technology to overcome problems in payment using biometric methods (as done in parts of Andhra Pradesh), conducting social audits twice a year in all villages, adding photographs to passbooks to prevent any fraudulent handling of them, and most importantly the setting up of a social audit directorate within the Rajasthan government.

For more, see a recent article in the Hindu.

Abhijit Patnaik is Senior Researcher, Accountability Initiative

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

On Data, and its Relationship with Accountability and Transparency

Zainab Bawa

Notions of transparency and accountability have been evolving since late 1980s. It was advocated that people must be given information about budgets, especially details of heads where money was allocated and how it was spent. This would aid in enforcing transparency, accountability and participation. In the late 1990s, as cities developed, pressure on urban infrastructure increased and municipalities became unable to respond to people’s expectations owing to a variety of reasons. The prevalent view was that municipalities and local politicians are inefficient. Elected representatives were criticized for being corrupt and favouring their vote-banks by distributing city resources to them. It was also believed that use of discretionary powers perpetuates corruption. Contemporary accountability-transparency paradigm is aimed at making transparent to the public how and why discretion is exercised in different circumstances. This (presumably) will curb discretion as much as possible and tighten decision-making.

Publishing data in public domains as a way to enforce and enhance transparency and accountability has gained greater momentum in the current decade owing to the Right to Information (RTI) Act through which various kinds of information can be acquired. In this post, I am interested in exploring the concept of data to understand how accountability and transparency are reified by using data as a primary tool. With the help of examples, I will put forward the contention that what is presented as data is in fact produced through multiple histories and contexts. Organizing /interpreting data without an understanding of some of these histories can only enforce existing stereotypes and/or lead to oversight.

The Case of Discretionary Funds: In India, elected representatives are given discretionary funds annually. They can use this money, as per their discretion, to create infrastructure which will improve the condition of their constituencies. Information on how this money was spent has been gathered and made available in popular media. PRAJA Foundation has organized this information for Mumbai and has shown that most of the funds were spent on constructing community halls, anganwadis/crèches, toilets, roads and in the repairs of dilapidated buildings. It is evident that elected representatives have been spending part of the discretionary funds towards developing amenities for poorer populations in cities. This tends to get labeled as vote-bank politics. At the same time, this information is important for people residing in slums settlements so that they know of the claims they can make on their elected representatives.

Information of where and how discretionary funds were used cannot be interpreted holistically in the absence of geographical, historical, political, economic and social information about constituencies. Each area in the city has its own specificities. This implies that data have to be interpreted on the basis of local contexts. Moreover, administrative and institutional dynamics differ across the city. Further, some parts of the city are better endowed than others owing to age, location and patterns of urbanization. Here, we need to understand who institutes infrastructure, how much, for whom and who benefits from what. But these issues cannot be raised in the absence of contexts to the data. How then should data about the use of discretionary funds be presented? For now, it remains that discretion is exercised in particular social, economic and political contexts and therefore, presentation of latest data overlooks the historical, political and social context of constituencies in which various stakeholders and political actors are operating.

Data about Land Records: A few months ago, I met SL. He was running a garage in South Bangalore but he did not own it. One day, the owners asked him to vacate the premises. He decided to find out why he was asked to leave. The owners had invited a builder redevelop the property. SL decided to wage a legal battle to assert his claims. But he lost the case because the owners bribed the lawyer representing him. Thereafter, SL decided to find out the history of the land ownership to challenge the current owners. He found that the land was formerly part of a village. Later, different individuals and groups had reclaimed parts of the land from the nearby lake. Some of the historical records showed that at one point in time, the land belonged to the municipality but currently, it was being owned by private owners. The records which SL managed to obtain, through various means including RTI and by befriending clerks and junior officers in different administrative and planning departments, showed that at each point in time, different groups had owned, rented and/or used the land. This meant that ownership of the land was neither singular nor straightforward and that there were multiple claims on that single piece of land. SL’s findings that at a certain moment in history, the municipality was suddenly declared owner of the land put into jeopardy the ownership claims of the current owners.

SL’s story provides an interesting nuance for analyzing land record databases. Peruvian economist Hernando De Soto promoted the idea of developing national databases that contain information about transactions around every piece of land in the country. This would help to enforce the individual’s property rights. Around 1980s, new laws and regulations were being developed in India regarding land ownership and rights which individuals have over their properties. In this period, the government of Karnataka introduced legislation for regulating tenures and ownership of agricultural lands in order to transform the regime that existed in the colonial period and bring it up to date with the present. In 1990s, land records in rural Karnataka were digitized and a system was devised whereby farmers could now approach government offices in the taluks to procure copies of their land records. This system was known as Bhoomi. It was introduced to curb the petty corruption which agents and village accountants indulge in when they issue land record certificates to farmers. The goal of Bhoomi was to make the system of issuing land record certificates more efficient, transparent and accountable. However, such transparency led to drastic consequences for tenant farmers and small and marginal tillers and sharecroppers because their tenures and usufruct claims were not recognized under the new state legislation.

Information regarding ownership of land is rather sensitive because of the tremendous value associated with land and also because land in India is possessed and used under various arrangements known as tenure. Some tenure systems are recognized by government bodies but many others are not. This produces a condition of “illegality”. Further, ownership of land, as we have seen in SL’s case, is not only complicated but is also contested. This means that at any given point in time, those in positions of power and influence are able to exercise and fulfill their claims better than those who do not have the requisite political, social and economic capital. Besides this, there is never single and absolute ownership of land perpetually; possession and use of land changes hands of individuals, groups and political institutions from time to time. Databases and information repositories of land records and property transactions are situated in this highly fraught and political context. Moreover, as is evident from SL’s case, current land ownership data overlooks the multiple trajectories through which the present has been produced, i.e. there is no information about previous ownership and usufruct claims and about how the present has come to be the way it is today. But it is also rather difficult to obtain a thorough and exact account of such trajectories because official records can be fudged/appropriated/reproduced not only by the claimants but also by government officials. This is dependent on who is making what claims and which institution and/or group is more powerful in the conflict. Therefore attempts to make land transactions transparent by organizing information of past exchanges into databases can have negative consequences for those groups who do not have the resources and influence to defend their claims in the present.

My goal in citing this example is to show that data are located in temporal contexts i.e., data are produced and reproduced from time to time, by different groups and institutions, and that what is recorded as current data has several histories behind it which cannot be deciphered through streamlined databases. Data are also located in a political context – who produces what data, what is propagated as ‘information’ and who benefits/loses from the availability/publication of particular data are important questions for the accountability-transparency paradigm.

End Notes: I realize that this post is getting too long and that the discussion can be continued in further posts. However, before I conclude, it will be instructive to look into cases where data can have positive consequences for performance and accountability. In some cases, this impact may be known only in retrospect but it is useful to understand the process and to bear in the mind that sometimes, data presents a holistic picture only when reviewed over longer periods of time. In Mumbai, in 2003, a complaint management system was launched as a joint initiative of PRAJA Foundation and the municipality. The purpose of this system was to organize complaints (about civic issues) received through letters, telephone, fax, email and personal visits into one comprehensive system. This was known as the Online Complaint Management System (OCMS). Complaints were fed into this computerized system. Data regarding the resolution /non-resolution of complaints and pendency was also inputted into the system. OCMS also generated data about complaints made by citizens, top five complaints received in each month in every ward and performance of the wards in resolving complaints. OCMS thus enabled citizens and NGOs to monitor the working of the municipality and the ward offices.

In civic activism, negative perceptions of administration and government and long-held stereotypes influence the manner in which data is interpreted. The monthly complaints data was often used to shame the administration for non-performance and inefficiency. I will get into the details of the OCMS here. But it is interesting to note is that the complaints data in fact worked as a form of feedback for the administration. Four years after it had been implemented, the administration decided to take over the OCMS and to operate it unilaterally. The complaints data generated between 2003 and 2007 was collected and analyzed in PRAJA. The data about the nature of complaints made in every part of the city and the performance of each of the wards over the four-year period demonstrated that in some cases, some wards had actually managed to resolve certain complaint areas which had become chronic. At some points in time, repeated complaints about one or two issues had even alerted the administrative machinery which had managed to curb the issues in time before they could become chronic. Thus, the complaints data actually served as a form of feedback for the municipality.

To conclude then, data are situated within contexts. These contexts have been produced over time i.e., the present has come to be what it is today owing to many trajectories of the past. Therefore, data also needs to be organized and interpreted within the past and the present. Providing today’s data, whether it is weekly, monthly or annual, is only a partial account. Overlooking the histories which produced this present data can lead to short-sighted reading and action.

Zainab Bawa is a PhD student at Centre for the Study of Culture and Society in Bangalore, and Research Fellow at Centre for Internet and Society.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

Four Years of the RTI Act: Aspirations and Concerns

Shekhar Singh

As “RTI” turns four, it is yet another moment to reflect on our hopes from it and the worries we have. Unlike many other countries of the World, RTI in India was not a hesitant starter. People took to it like proverbial fish to water. Over 2 million applications were filed in just the first two and a half years, with a significant proportion (over 400,000) in rural areas. More impressively, the rate at which the number of applications is increasing is phenomenal and it would not be surprising if it doubles in the next one or two years. The term “RTI” has entered the Indian lexicon in a big way and is understood across languages and regions.

However, the success of an RTI Act cannot finally be judged on the number of applications filed. Certainly the first phase of the implementation requires growing awareness and enthusiasm, reflected through fast growing numbers of applications. But, soon, systemic solutions have to take over. Governments (and other public authorities) must recognize that this onslaught of RTI applications reveals a thirst in the public for information which they have for so long been deprived of. Even more disturbingly, it reveals a huge dissatisfaction with the way public authorities are functioning and dealing with the public and their grievances.

Therefore, our first aspiration is that public authorities start seriously reviewing the types of RTI applications being received and start putting out, proactively, the types of information that the public is regularly seeking. This would not only lower the pressure of RTI applications on the public authorities but also make it easier for people to access information without the travails of filing and pursuing applications.

They also need to analyse the reasons behind these applications – which are very often about unwarranted delays, arbitrary decisions, unfair action or apathy, inefficiency and indifference. As public authorities start making the required systemic changes to prevent such grievances from arising, many of the grievance related applications will cease.

If this does not happen, one concern is that the RTI regime will translate into an RTI divide – where those who file RTIs will get relief, often at the cost of those who do not or cannot, and consequently get even more ignored.

Another aspiration is that the bureaucracy will begin to realize that, despite some irritants and “misuse”, the RTI Act has the potential of transforming governance in a way that would not only make their work easier but would increase the credibility of governments. Unless this change comes, the concern is that RTI will remain a battlefield, with information providers fighting every inch to deny information to the information seekers – and neither side winning in the end.

Finally, the RTI Act has to be protected from all attacks. It is gratifying that there is so much interest among the government to weaken the Act – at least two attempts has been made to amend it and a third is now imminent. It is gratifying because it reassures us that we have finally got hold of an important right, one that hurts where it should. For, after all, this is the first law which does not further the control of the government over the people but gives some control to the people over the government.

However, the concern is that if the government succeeds in weakening the Act, even for a short while, they would give heart to the opponents and demoralize the people. They would open the doors to a gradual chipping away at the Act till finally it falls into line and becomes a farce, along with many other so-called pro-people legislations. This, clearly, cannot be allowed to happen.

Shekhar Singh is the founding member of the National Campaign for People's Right to Information and member of Right to Information Assessment and Analysis Group

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Grama Swaraj in Karnataka: How is it going?

Jeffrey Hammer

Checking in on the ongoing Gram Swaraj project in northern Karnataka recently raised a few interesting questions, re-enforced some prejudices of mine and pointed out some trouble spots of which we should all be aware.

The Grama Swaraj Project (GSP) is simple: it gives each Grama Panchayat 5-7 lakhs rupees to do with as it sees fit. The main requirement for spending the money is to make sure a Grama Sabha takes place ahead of the Grama Panchayat meeting that decides what to do with the money. 5-7 lakhs doesn’t sound like much in comparison to, say, NREGA funds (whose use was intended to be decided the same way but, in Karnataka, usually isn’t) but these are often the only untied, fully discretionary funds a GP has. Lots of money flows through a bank account with the GP’s name on it but almost all of that is earmarked for specific uses (they have to pay the teacher, they have to fund the digging of borewells). GSP money can be used for anything except a very short list of forbidden items like religious buildings, guns, drugs and other obvious restrictions.

How’s it going? Well, formal evaluations are currently in progress but I can tell you what I saw and heard while visiting.

First off, there were no complaints about misuse of these funds. Mention NREGA and you’ll get an earful of complaints but mention Grama Swaraj and you’ll hear “oh, that’s working much better”. Now, it is fully possible that GSP involves such small sums that it’s not even worth the trouble for the usual suspects to go after them. A perfectly good question to ask is what would happen if local autonomy were granted for spending substantial chunks of money. The sharks could certainly rise to that bait. But, so far, that hasn’t been an issue.

Second, people seem genuinely pleased to be able to fund items that would be too small for the relevant line ministry to even think about but which make a big difference in the lives of villages. In northern Karnataka, water and sanitation are perennial issues (even before this year’s disappointing monsoon) and these were common areas for the use of these funds.

Third, the technical quality of the work appears to be much higher under GSP than NREGA. Roads that look several years old and are an inch or two thick (checked scientifically by kicking at the edges of the road and seeing what pops up – literally) built within the past few months under NREGA auspices were noticeably worse than those built with the GP’s own money. NREGA funds are supposed to be their own money, too, but no one seemed to feel responsible for how that money was spent. In contrast, money that was perfectly transparent in the amount spent and the purpose to which it was put in GSP yielded solidly built and usable infrastructure.

So, is everything going just fine? Does this devolution of purchasing autonomy solve everything? Well, no – some problems are clearly worth worrying about.

The first is the interference of higher levels of government and bureaucratic processes that, actually, were not allowed under the design of the project. So, for example, one village wanted more public toilets. They figured, given that water was in very short supply, that covered pits were the most appropriate. There are plenty of designs for safe covered pit toilets. However, the Junior Engineer, with support from district health authorities, said they had to have a water-intensive septic tank system. This made the village change their minds (they knew they couldn’t spare the water for this) but they were not allowed to change projects though there is nothing in the program that should have prevented them changing their minds. So there is a lakh’s worth of well constructed but useless sanitation infrastructure sitting in the village. Local decisions were fully accountable. District and state decisions were not. Local discretion could have saved lives from water borne illness. State rules stopped it from happening.

So that I don’t sound too much like an advocate for local autonomy: the second problem is one of “too much” local discretion. Those good GSP roads with proper drainage ditches along the side we saw in a village in Gulbarga district stopped right in front of a little settlement of Scheduled Caste residents. Even with only the light early monsoon rains, the hamlet required stepping carefully to avoid puddles caused by those good-looking roads. The standing water is a health hazard for the SC residents of the village. Local autonomy doesn’t solve the problem of caste. That’s going to require checks and balances between governments than mere devolution of investment decisions won’t be able to handle.

But at least there will be roads in the village for a few years to come.

I’ll get back to you to report whether these observations are supported by systematic research or not. For the time being, it’s food for thought.

Jeffrey Hammer is Visiting Professor in Economic Development at Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Princeton University

Monday, 5 October 2009

Going Nowhere on Human Development

Anit Mukherjee

The latest Human Development Report released yesterday (5th October 2009) is depressing for every Indian. The Report ranks countries – 180 in total – in terms of three basic indicators of human development: per capita GDP (adjusted for purchasing power of the local currency), literacy rate and life expectancy at birth. They are meant to capture at an aggregate level the well-being of people in a particular country in terms of income, education and health. India ranks 134, below Bhutan and Laos, and just above Solomon Islands and Congo. This should be reason enough for the nation as a whole, and especially the politicians, bureaucrats and policy makers, to hang their heads in shame.

The usual practice of the apologists is to say that the rankings themselves are unfair – that the HDR does not take into account factors such as democracy, freedom of press, rule of law and other aspects of governance that India prides itself with. But the fact of the matter is that there has been no change in our HDI rank since last year, and a decline in the rank from the beginning of this decade. So, while in absolute terms the HDI index has increased by a few percentage points, our relative performance compared to other countries has become worse. At the same time, China’s HDI rank has gone up seven places in just one year – from 99 in 2006 to 92 in the latest one.

The data also shows that India’s GDP per capita rank is in fact higher than the combined HDI rank – 128 as compared to 134. This is even more worrying because the usual excuse of linking low human development and poverty does not strictly hold. The comparative figure for Sri Lanka is 14 and China 10, indicating that these countries did better at education and health than their comparative per capita GDP ranking suggests.

It is time to ask the hard questions: why is India going nowhere in human development in spite of large allocations to education, health and livelihood security? Why are flagship programs like SSA, NRHM and NREGA not delivering improvements in our comparative performance vis-à-vis other (supposedly much poorer) countries of the world? Why is there no revulsion at the complete impunity and lack of accountability of the political and administrative machinery using tax payers’ money for noble purposes such as education and health? What does it mean for our long-term standing in the world community? In short, who is (are) accountable for this dismal state of affairs and what is being done to fix this?

P.S. India’s HDI rank is common both in G20 and BRICs group of nations – LAST!!

Dr. Anit Mukherjee is a Fellow at National Institute of Public Finance and Policy, New Delhi