Wednesday, 27 February 2013
Book Review: Swaraj By Arvind Kejriwal (Part-2)
In the first part of the review, I had given the outline of the book, and the overall approach. As I stated earlier, the book focuses on core issues of governance: giving people a say in the running of government in areas that directly impact them; control over governmental money, as well as the total lack of accountability in the cadres of the government servants in the state and central government. This is a hard fact; I am reminded of a news article of today wherein the police refused to take action against a person because he was a senior Mantralaya official - and in fact took action against a teenage girl over a matter of a football! This is the kind of environment we live in; each one of us can readily think up of several such cases. As another example: I still haven't got my Marraige Certificate; I dont know whom to approach to get it done - as I wont pay a bribe. There can be countless such experiences when a normal citizen feels totally helpless. And this is the area that Mr Kejriwal is attempting to solve.
But before that: let us be clear on one thing: The book Swaraj is about rural India. There is almost no focus on urban India. It is primarily about the villages of India, and how to provide better governance such that the lot of the people improves. Urban India has been looked at, but only in passing. That is what perhaps accounts for a lot of misunderstanding regarding Mr Kejriwal's policies. As I shall elucidate later on, the solution proffered is eminently practical and result-oriented; a decided improvement on the current state of affairs. As regards rural India, it is obvious that if the lot of the rural sections of society improves, the economy is bound to improve, as with improving governance standards - health, and education levels will go up. the entire spectrum of economic activity will go up in rural India. That is a no-brainer, and full marks to Mr Kejriwal for taking the bull by the horns. Inequality of income is indeed a major source of worry in the current economic structure. The other focus of the book is on the disenfranchised sections of society; the focus, the primary focus is on improving delivery of governance to the sections of society who genuinely need it, If anyone can actually deliver it without playing around too much with current economic policies, that is perhaps precisely what India needs. What we need from Mr Kejriwal is a clear manifesto on other matters that concern us as well; that should settle the butterflies that can currently be seen in a good many people regarding the Aam Aadmi Party.
Control over the Government
The central point here is that someone far removed from the reality in the villages of India makes senseless policies; frequently, these have nothing to do with what the villages really require. This is not a tall claim; there are several practical examples of largesse and needless expense that have been given. Furthermore, the current system is such that if the people providing basic services - health, anganwadi, PHC, schools etc dont do their job, or indulge in corruption, or simply dont work at all - there is very little that the people can do about it to bring about a positive change.
The suggested solution is a devolution of power to the Gram Sabhas. For example, the Gram Sabha should have the power to penalise the errant school teacher who never turns up to teach, or the doctor who does not attend hospital (or PHC) and runs his own clinic instead. The Gram Sabha can, in such cases, reprimand or even give instructions to stop the salary of the concerned official. This is an interesting solution, and merits a closer look. The Gram Sabha is a meeting of the entire village; quite simply, if the majority of the people feel or state that a teacher, or a doctor (for example) is not giving proper service, or not attending: then that official can have his salary stopped or some other disciplinary action contemplated.
This seemingly outrageous concept is on deeper thought, a stroke of genius; it makes the government officials the servants of the people - instead of a bureaucracy. It will enable a much greater focus on job performance and implementation of governmental programmes. The officials will then - albeit out of necessity and fear - start serving the people and taking care to attend to their duties. This is undeniable; and is very, very practical. This merits a deeper study and analysis beyond a shade of doubt.
He goes on to state that the power of appointment of officials located in villages should also be vested with the Gram Sabhas. This is one area where my views diverge; I have serious doubts as to its applicability. There are several questions that come to mind: what if there are simply no qualified local candidates? Wont it impact performance and implementation? And what about the city and town appointments? What about organisational growth? Employee growth and management? One way out of this could be - this is a suggestion from my side - could be the identification of jobs where the above objections will not be a factor; for example primary school teachers, anganwadi workers, gram sevaks etc. In these functions, a local person will actually be far more effective. With this caveat, I wholeheartedly concede the point made by Mr Kejriwal.
The book suggests a functional structure of Gram Sabhas going upto district and block level structures in simple language; if the suggestions are not upto the mark, they can be tweaked and made suitable. But the basic concept of power to the people with an objective of giving them greater control over their own destinies is laudable - and the basic concept is eminently doable. A defined set of rules, identifying precise roles and jobs that are directly under Gram Sabha control can be created. Salaries can be linked to Gram Sabha feedback; specified jobs can be filled by Gram Sabhas; all this is practical and welcome. It has the added advantage of giving village folk reason to stay in the villages, create employment opportunities, and prevent or limit the migration to towns and cities. It will engender positive change in the villages, bringing about a decided betterment.
Control over government money
This is where Mr Kejriwal is in his element - and this section is pretty much irrefutable. The book makes the simple, logical and lucid point that the requirements of each village are different; it is not a case of one size fits all. And this is an argument buttressed by several real-world examples. Add to this the reality that only a small percentage of the money allocated reaches the common man. The net result of the above is the current situation wherein important work remains undone. The solution is simple, and is another stroke of sheer genius. I cannot argue with it - I have read the book twice, and cannot locate a single flaw, or objection, anywhere. The argument laid forward is simply that instead of scheme-wise allocation of funds, the money should simply be allocated in toto to the Gram Sabha, to spend as per the requirements of the people and the local problems in the village. Instead of MNREGA, or Indira Awaas Yojana, the net money of all these schemes for each village is to be handed over the the Gram Sabha. And as proof that this works - you have Kerala, where already 40% of such funds are spent this way. That is an argument anyone will be hard put to negate. A village in need of irrigation can focus on that; a village in need of something else can focus on that. With a proper control process in place, this can work wonders. This has the added advantage of reducing corruption, improving implementation, reduction in funds leakage; and the spending of funds as per genuine need. For, the people will not (most of the time anyway) squander it away, they will put it to genuine use - since the decisions will be in a Gram Sabha.
Control over resources
Land: The usage of agricultural land for industrial purposes has always been a bone of contention between big business, politicians and the people. One can offhand recall several high-profile cases of this type. The solution - again, Gram Sabha - is spot on. It places the entire power in the hands of the Gram Sabha - it is, after all, their land. Rather than hinder development, the book makes the point that Gram Sabhas can then negotiate with the big industries It empowers the Gram Sabhas to decide whether the project is in favour of the people; and if so - under what conditions. However, I do have a query, or an objection: there may be cases wherein there is a conflict of interest between the local interest and the national interest. What would happen under those circumstances? For example: take the case of a car unit. The displacement of people and the attendant hardships can be ameliorated to some extent by the provision of jobs in the factory. The problem is that there may be a situation, given the educational and skill levels in the hinterland and the villages, when there may no fit for these people in the new unit. Thus, it is my belief that this needs to be accounted for; or that perhaps this step is a bit early. A possible solution could be limiting the power of the Gram Sabhas only to collective negotiation to ensure an amicable solution. Looked at it that way, this could indeed be a positive step forward.
These are the three main positives that I can derive from the book. If implemented, there will be a decided improvement in the human indices of development in rural India. There can be no doubt that this will have a very powerful positive impetus on our economy as a whole, as the spinoffs into various productivity improvements that are entailed by an educated and healthy population are too numerous to recount. Yes, Mr Kejriwal has suggested some aspects which I dont entirely agree with, which I shall briefly touch upon below. These are relatively smaller passages in the book, and hence I am not going into too much detail. My objective here is to engender a thought process, and encourage people to read this book, which enables a deeper understanding of an important public figure.
My main bone of contention the the section on Mining, Quarrying, Forests and Water Resources. I cannot see how these national treasures can be placed under a Gram Sabha. The book raises the point that all such resources that are small and localised should be totally under the Gram Sabha. How do you define a local forest? Even a small wood would touch several villages. Further the book also states that resources have to be mapped into village, block and district levels as per their size and spread. This sounds feasible and practical, I concede that readily. No issues on that score. However, the difficulties in implementing this will be tremendous; there will be few resources that are clearly localised to a single block or even a district. I do not think that this can be implemented. That apart, there is the section on taxation, which as per me requires a good deal more clarity
As to the rest, the book is fantabulous. The best aspect is that most stated solutions have already been implemented in some part of India; it is only a question of scaling it across the nation. The supportive facts have been given adequate coverage in the book. It also deals with almost all objections I could think of; those objections to which I did not find answers have been mentioned above. It analyses the impact of these steps on various problams facing society from Alchoholism & Corruption to Naxalism.
To summarise, Arvind Kejriwal has ideas, they are daring, bold and I daresay original. He is focussed on rural India, which is a welcome change from the rhetoric we are used to hearing. In closing - if Mr Kejriwal is reading this - I wish he would not only deal with the questions I have raised, but also pen his thoughts on the Urban part of India in equal detail,as also his thoughts (or his Party's) thoughts on Commerce, Economics, Defence, Foreign Affairs. You, sir, have proven your integrity; through this book you have proven your originality of concept, planning and understanding of the real problems facing India - namely Education, Health etc, that is the basic factors of Human Development. We would love to hear your views on infrastructure - especially infrastructure, since implementing infra improvement will cause friction.... Do revert if you are reading this, Arvindji...