How the state can make life easier

Narendra Modi, arguably one of India's best performing chief ministers, recently deflected questions about his career plans by quipping that "10 good chief ministers are more important for India's destiny that one good prime minister", and that "anti-incumbency is just another name for non-performance". His statements recognised three new truths in state-level politics: first, that the Central alibi — no money or permission from Delhi — is increasingly ineffective in state elections; second, the next wave of public policy impact does not lie in poetry, but plumbing, because voters recognise that state governments control delivery systems; and third, most voters in state polls hold their noses while voting because candidates are often indistinguishable and weak.

Legislating at the intersection of state and Central governments is treacherous — Exhibit A and B are the GST rollout and labour law reform. But many state governments are losing the opportunity to use technology, in areas fully under their control, to remove the daily frustrations of voters. The Central government, meanwhile, has effectively used technology to re-engineer its few citizen interfaces — passports, income tax and railway reservations. This revolution is real — India became the first country in the world, in May 2012, where mobile internet crossed desktop internet usage.

But execution by state governments is handicapped by two birth defects: the low accountability of the executive to state legislatures and the perverse incentives and motivations of party workers. Low accountability arises because most state legislatures don't meet often enough for any attention to detail; annual legislative business days in Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat are 18, 16, 14 and 30 days annually. The second problem arises because party workers, the backbone of politics, are not unified by ideology or vision but sharing the spoils of power. Any party that stays out of power for long, like the Congress in UP and Bihar or the TDP in Andhra Pradesh, sees party workers disappear and the organisation disintegrate. But there is an emerging alternative to this low-level equilibrium of state politics — most Indians are moving beyond subsistence, voters are less swayed by promises that can't be kept, and despite Delhi's self-obsession, all politics is local. An ambitious and bold chief minister can use technology in many areas that would measurably change daily lives. Of a long list, four are listed below.

First, land legislation. Land law still lives in the colonial British thought-world of land revenues rather than land title. The notions of lal dora (land records only for uninhabited land), banjar qadim (land not cultivated that can be acquired after three years), hasab rasad (by equal share), rehan bakabja (mortgage with possession), dakhil kharij (approved), and khaatha maintenance (land use records of the patwart/ tehsildar) sabotage the emergence of a transparent and vibrant land market. Without process re-engineering, many current state government attempts to digitise land records are like ATM machines with a physical teller sitting behind the faηade, handing out cash. State governments that combine easing land use restrictions with unifying land title and revenue records on an open web platform with workflows (for transfer, name change, etc) will see higher registration revenues, enable low-cost housing by releasing locked land, and pleasantly surprise citizens.

Second, first information reports (FIRs). The current horrific experience in registering FIRs at police stations has roots in the kneejerk reaction of the British to 1857, which shifted the mandate of maintaining law-and-order from the military to police stations that had previously dealt only with petty crimes. Concepts like jama taalashi, dus numbri (the 10th of 24 registers required to be maintained), and discretion around registering FIRs under Section 307 vs 323 (violence with intent to murder, which is non-bailable, versus normal violence) echo the Indian Police Act of 1861. Combining the launch of an online web portal for FIRs — contrary to impression, they are only information for further investigation — with a directive to not exercise arrest powers in situations other than murder and national security without investigation will greatly increase transparency, lower corruption and grant the justice of being heard.

Third, procuring birth and death certificates. Many Indians can testify to how the joy of a new child and the sorrow of losing a loved one are compounded by the silly and humiliating process of obtaining birth and death certificates. In the case of deaths where post-mortems are required, releasing bodies from the morgue requires certificates that are often only possible to obtain with money or influence. While cross-referencing the records of hospitals or cemeteries may take time but should be the goal, it is easier to have municipal offices accepting birth or death information from a web portal after allowing individuals to upload copies of documents extracted from relevant registers.

Fourth, electricity choice. India's power losses arise in distribution. While the politically difficult decisions of improving retail recovery and unbundling should continue, state governments could use the internet to create choices for households by unpacking the monopoly last-mile distribution from front-end service and back-end supply. Enabling multiple providers to supply power via a portal for self-selection by households would create competition that would transition consumers from hostages to clients. And give policymakers important information about supplier capabilities and consumer choice.

India may have missed its "tryst with destiny". But over the next 20 years, younger, literate, prosperous and urban voters will force a new appointment with destiny by demanding more from politicians. Making this appointment depends on multiple chief ministers competing on action rather than words. Aadhaar creates a technology pipe that bypasses cholesterol for transferring money to voters. But pending the mother of all battles between state and Central governments for electoral credit of cash transfers, state governments can signal competence to voters by using technology in fixing land titles, FIRs, birth/ death certificates, power and much else. None of them need Delhi's money or permission.

The writer is chairman, Teamlease Services

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