Size of the State

8 Mar

One of the points made repeatedly by those in different fields of policy-making is to invest enough to make the Indian state more capable of governing the country properly.  This debate also finds some co-relation in the continuous debate in the USA where Democrats make the case for a larger government which regulates greater areas of public life, and Republicans plead for a smaller government which in turn leaves larger areas of social and economic life up to individual discretion.

In India, since no one disputes the need for a welfare state, there is no great debate over having a smaller state or a larger state.  However, many scholars keep advocating that India’s government is in fact, way too small to meet the demands of a modern democratic government.

For example, this is what one prominent scholar had to say while closing his article on the recent budget:

The one neglected area the government ought to focus on is state capacity itself. The biggest challenge for the Indian state is not reducing its size; it is increasing it appropriately. On any qualitative or quantitative measure of state capacity, whether it is the number of judges or the number of government functionaries, the Indian state is relatively small. Its lack of capacity has huge economic and political impact. It reduces its capacity to discharge sovereign functions like law and order and in vast areas it has very little capacity. Contrary to common perception, the single biggest crisis facing the state is not corruption, it is lack of capacity. This is true at virtually all levels of government. It does not often even have the full statistical base in some of the most vital areas of our well being, from health to urban economies, to be able to make intelligent interventions.

This point of view is interesting to an urban audience which is very strongly grounded in a ‘human rights’ point-of-view, and believes that most expansions of state-power are aimed at regulating individual freedoms and autonomy since they give the government more power to regulate individuals.  This is especially true when there is discussion of say, increasing the number of policemen in the country.  On that specific issue, there is an article by a noted economist in today’s paper:

The UN recommends a police/ population ratio of 1:450. This is a figure that floats around and can be traced back to a 2002 UN report on public sector management. Cross-country data on size of police forces seem dodgy. But on one such cross-country list, the size of the Indian police force is given as 1,129,200 in April 2009, which means instead of a ratio of 1:450, we have a ratio of 1:1040. The only other country which performs worse is Iran.”

While it is true that more policemen roughly translates into more uniformed officers to harass individuals who cannot seek effective redressal, the lack of enough policemen in itself gives the existing policemen greater clout because finding one is so rare.  Again, some reports, including the government’s own Comptroller and Auditor General has made periodic appraisals about the status of police stations in the country.  The picture that comes out is dismal.  Too large a number do not have telephone connections, vehicles, new weapons, and so on.  This also raises two issues:

One, that some amount of cases where citizens have been turned away by policemen may have been due to lack of capacity to address their problems.

Two, that this lack of infrastructure will remain a perpetual excuse to not address complaints effectively.

Therefore, an increase of the capacity of the state might in some cases, actually result in the betterment of systems deigned to promote individual liberties by ensuring greater and easier access to some of the services every individual needs to enjoy his liberties.

4 Responses to “Size of the State”

  1. uspandey March 8, 2010 at 3:29 pm #

    Its best to cleanse the rot rather than multiplying it with more rot. Democracy in India maybe fast arriving the critical point where it will burst into a free-for-all anarchy. Going by the kind of terror a band of three Thakres can unleash on an entire nation, I do not believe in further empowerment of the States. Or the police, for that matter. I recently read of a judgment given by a court in Naubasta advising use of the army to help vacate the premises illegally occupied by the police. That problem is going to intensify and mutiply, sooner than latter. No, sir, your police stuff is hard to swallow.

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    • aburman March 8, 2010 at 4:13 pm #

      1. It is naive to say democracy in India is crumbling. On any index on any indicator, and allowing for the fact that naxal violence affects a large part of the country, democracy in India is more stable than it was 30 years ago. Just because this is a time of great flux, and just because information regarding disturbances in different parts of the country reaches us better doesn’t indicate democracy in this country is in peril.
      2. The three Thakres manage to unleash divisve discourse, not terror. Indeed, their capacity to unleash violence on a large scale in any other place other than Mumbai is rather doubtful!! In fact, as recent elections indicate, they are used more as pawns, rather than being perceived as serious electoral opponents.
      3. Regarding the judgement, you may look at it both ways: either that the problem is going to intensify, or that the court has held the police force accountable for something illegal, and that courts might not have done so 10-15 years ago. The mere fact that one institution can hold another accountable, and that there is a large degree of compliance with the verdict of the courts indicates that democracy is on a stronger footing today than before.
      4. The problems that you take a grim outlook of are also a consequence of the state investing wrongly in wrong places. So the police has been given plenty of powers, but not the institutions that would hold them accountable. The same goes for other institutions like the army, the negligent doctors, and the babus who specialise in passing the buck. The obvious conclusion therefore is to invest a lot more in regulatory institutions. We need institutions that can regulate deviant practices in society effectively. And in an ideal scenario, the police would be one of them.

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  2. Hari March 9, 2010 at 1:43 am #

    I think the debate should be how to create an efficient government rather than a small vs big government.

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    • aburman March 9, 2010 at 8:59 am #

      Agreed. That is one of the electoral messages Obama sent to the American electorate too. His message was “well create whatever is necessary to make government efficient.” What he has done after that, is to try and increase oversight wherever possible. There has thus been an investment in making government more efficient.

      The Indian state on the other hand, is not 250 years old, but sixty. We need to create efficient institutions, or make existing ones more efficient. My argument is that in some cases this efficiency can only be brought about by capacity building, hence investing in government.

      Like

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