Between government and citizen

Despite technological fixes, citizens continue to need intermediaries to access public services

An expanding list of benefits, protections and opportunities is being promised by governments, Central and state. But getting any of things for oneself is hardly automatic and rarely costless. Our postcolonial bureaucracies follow maze-like procedures that seem arbitrary as if by design. Delays are routine. Humiliation is to be expected, particularly if one appears to be poor and is not given to being aggressive. "Dress up," my grandmother used to instruct me, "when you go into any government office." Or hire the services of a professional fixer.

A whole army of intermediaries has come up to help ordinary Indians get what, by law or public policy, should be their right. Every village and urban slum has one or more of these naya netas, people who make it their business to get other villagers' businesses transacted with diverse government agencies and with banks, insurance companies and other such operations. Few Indians would, for instance, go to a police station or government hospital without first trying to get the support of someone with inside access.

Pahunch and poochh are the currency of politics wherever ordinary people congregate. Pahunch (literally, reach) how widely an individual can influence government offices of different kinds gives rise to poochh (literally, request), the number of people who regularly request or beseech this individual for favours.

Wider poochh, in turn, by increasing the number of one's followers and favour-seekers, augments one's credibility as a leader, helping enhance pahunch. These terms are used in the north, but the dynamics are similar in the east, south and west. Politicians build their careers by developing larger stocks of pahunch and poochh. The greater the number of people who come asking you for favours a chit to the local hospital, a phone call to the BDO or the police the more assuredly you can count upon a bank of votes.

Consider what happens when an overzealous official initiates reforms that make it easier for ordinary citizens to have their grievances redressed. A personal example is both cautionary and illustrative. Years ago, while heading the municipal government of one medium-sized Indian city, I proposed to set up a network of neighbourhood offices with the resources and responsibility to respond immediately to routine complaints: dead animals, dead street lights, choked sewers, illegal constructions and the like. I should not have been surprised when the local minister scuttled the proposal. "Hamari kya poochh rahegi (Who will ask after us)?" he remonstrated.

The harder it is for ordinary citizens to get their legitimate concerns addressed, the greater is the scope for local leaders to build their political bases. National leaders may hold forth in support of more transparency and easier procedures, but their local counterparts are innately opposed providing one reason why top-down reforms come to sorry ends at the grassroots.

Few Indians have computers at home, and no more than 8 per cent have internet access. The nearest government dispensary, the nearest bank branch, the nearest land records office and police station, are all 10 or more kilometres distant from most Indians. To get a job card so she can work on a NREGA project, a poor villager can try to negotiate these physical and cognitive distances by herself, or, as is more often the case, she can entrust these negotiations to a local neta. Not all netas are corrupt, to be sure, but their transport costs and daily expenses, not to mention the speed money they pay to others, have to come from somewhere.

Transacting with the government is an expensive affair. Even when all one is seeking to obtain is a poverty benefit, upfront costs are involved, deterring the poorest.

Into this system of political exchanges, the government has decided to introduce a new technology-driven cash transfer programme. It is the government's hope that by replacing benefits in kind subsidised cereals and kerosene and so on and by being directly deposited in individual bank accounts, cash transfers will put an end to corruption, simultaneously bringing more genuinely deserving people inside the tent.

The trouble is that a frictionless world does not exist. Machines do not exist that can detect whether a family is below the poverty line and programme-eligible. To gain the cash benefit for herself, a newly poor individual will still have to visit a government office far from home filling out forms and offering other official papers in verification. Given that nothing else has changed, these encounters with the state bureaucracy will continue to benefit from, and most often require, the intervention of someone with inside access. The politics of pahunch and poochh will not easily go away.

Technological fixes can go only so far in improving the quality of governance experienced by ordinary Indians. Until the day comes when a poor village woman can walk unassisted and without fear into a police station, demanding to know why her son was picked up for questioning, and here's the kicker when the police feel compelled to give her a satisfactory answer, until then we will remain a notionally democratic nation, more democratic for some and much less for others.

To get there, pahunch itself will have to be democratised. And that will require root-and-branch changes in how the government, at the citizen-interface-level, does its business. It will also require investments in citizen education. The image of the government as mai baap, parent and provider, will have to be replaced by one of the government as tax-paid servant. None of it is easy, and all of it will take a long time to achieve. Expect no miracles from the kinds of technology-driven initiatives currently in vogue.

The writer is professor and associate dean of international academic programmes at the Sanford School of Public Policy, Duke University, US. He served in the IAS between 1982-96 and is the author, most recently, of 'One Illness Away: Why People Become Poor and How they Escape Poverty'

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