Can the state handle it?

16 Sep

This post was first published on http://logos.nationalinterest.in on September 15, 2013, and can be accessed here

 

A minimalist theory of state functions explains the main functions of the state as being (a) the function of collecting revenue, (b) the maintenance of law and order, and (c) the protection of a nation’s boundaries. State capacity is a pre-requisite to perform even these essential functions. The roles of states in contemporary times is not limited to these minimal functions. Most states perform these, as well as other roles, sometimes as facilitators, regulators, or direct market participants. In India, there is a broad existing consensus in favour of the state acting in all these capacities. Indeed, there is no clear consensus yet, on whether the state needs to withdraw from certain functions, towards a more liberal construct of the role of a state.

 

In this context, it is essential to connect the legitimacy of the state, to its capacity to deliver. As a social-welfare democracy, our constitutional goals mandate that the state perform roles that very few developed democracies were tasked with at their inception (the eradication of mass poverty, illiteracy and starvation). Therefore, the legitimacy of our state apparatus has never been measured merely against how well it provides the three minimal services of collecting revenue, maintaining law and order, and protecting our borders. These diverse and competing expectations from a fledgeling state apparatus may in fact have compromised its ability to deliver the essential three services in the first place. In short, because we asked our young state to do too much too soon, it may not have been able to deliver basic services expected of every state.

 

Therefore, if the state is to attain legitimacy, it has to perform its functions more efficiently. And since there is an existing consensus on asking it to do a multitude of things, there has to be a comprehensive analysis of the capacity of the state to deliver. In some instances, such as when police-population and judge-population ratios are measured, it is easy to estimate our current numbers, compare it with states who deliver law and order, and justice more efficiently, and estimate how well our current police-population ratio and judge-population ratios measure up against these countries. The police and the judiciary are however relatively homogenous departments that perform a limited number of tasks i.e. the police exists to prevent crimes from occurring, and investigating crimes which have already occurred, and judges exist to interpret the law, examine the facts and deliver justice.

 

But what about the state departments of health? They oversee and regulate private hospitals. They also own and supervise government hospitals. They have to ensure the genuineness of medicines, the operation of emergency health services. They also have to implement  food safety laws and standards. If the central government starts the National Rural Health Mission, they also have to implement the mission. In many cases, the same individuals comprising part of the bureaucracy may be performing these multiple tasks which require very different skills and much more manpower. If this is indeed true (and many commentators feel it is) then contrary to the pop-policy debate on reducing the role of the state, there is an argument for substantial investment in state capacity. In other words, most bureaucracies perform multiple, and heterogenous tasks. However, their internal design, and capacity has not evolved to take on the burden of the ever-expanding regulatory state.

 

One alternative would be to insist on a drastic overhaul of the bureaucracy, as many do. Another would be to insist, or formalize mechanisms for ensuring that any addition to the tasks of a state agency is complemented by an increase in state capacity. The law, rule or regulation that delegates a particular administrative function on a particular agency should do so only if it can justify that the agency is best placed (in terms of skills and resources) to perform this additional task. The latter may in the long run create a virtuous cycle leading to an internalization of the principle of manpower costs before new laws and rules are created.

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