Thursday, July 24, 2014

Let us think and Act with an open mind to
Develop a Vibrant Democracy – Article 6

Introduction: I have identified thirty obstacles which cause a distorted and ineffective democracy and possible solutions for these. Because very few people have time / inclination to read long articles, these are presented in separate brief articles for pointed attention and easier assimilation. I hope this will lead to spreading of awareness and facilitating point by point debate on each of these for saving our sinking democracy.
 (Please keep these articles within easy reach for referring back till the series is completed.)

How government works

Attitude constraints: In a democracy, government has to function by giving utmost attention to feeling the pulse of the people. To do this, government has to keep an open mind and obtain information and feed back by making full use of different sources available in the country such as MPs, MLAs, Panchayat Raj institutions, resident welfare organizations in urban areas, media, social activists, intelligentsia, groups of people who speak up about                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     their problems etc. But, government does not have a systematic proactive approach to make use of all these multiple agencies to feel the pulse of the people. What is worse, it is not inclined to set up an organization to do this.

Sad to say, whenever government’s actions are questioned or suggestions for improvement are made, the usual reaction is to reject these on the faulty premise that listening to these will be considered as a sign of weakness. This intolerant attitude is anti-democratic and shows a know-all dictatorial approach. It proves beyond doubt that government gives only lip service to democracy and do not at all care for democracy, while ironically boasting that it functions as a democratic government. It has not realized that the real strength of a democratic government lies in its ability to (1) listen to people, (2) accept useful ideas and (3) act on these with vision and commitment. This attitude and expertise are sadly lacking.

A democracy has also to ensure that public funds are used efficiently and for the intended purposes. For this purpose, the Constitution has set up an authority called Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG). Sad to say, the government has not acted to remove the large number of anomalies about misuse and enormous losses of public funds pointed out by CAG. This attitude of not acting on important information provided by even a constitutional authority is another instance of a dictatorial approach and is a serious blow to democracy.

Faced with other problems of faulty governance, a strategy of escapism and / or buying time is chosen by referring the matter to Commissions, Standing Committees of Parliament etc. The findings of these top expert bodies are more often put in cold storage than acted upon. Even worse, sometimes, actions contrary to their recommendations are taken. For instance, in 2005, Standing Committee on Energy of Parliament had urged government to reduce its reliance on petro-taxes. This was not only ignored but also revenue from petro-taxes was repeatedly increased, showing scant respect for Parliament. The fact that government has scant respect for Parliament is further confirmed by repeatedly breaking promises given during replies to questions in Parliament or discussions on bills and motions. During the last 10 years this immoral action was repeated 1,024 times, as reported by the Ministry of Parliamentary Affairs (DNA dated 16-09-13)!! Over a longer time period many more instances of disrespect could have happened. This speaks volumes about (1) government’s gross lack of respect for Parliament and (2) the latter spinelessly tolerating disrespect thousands of times, without the dignity expected from the august supreme body of democracy.

Another attitude towards listening to people is also lamentable. Who says is more important than what is said. As a result, many useful and innovative ideas had no chance of being heard, because important people or known persons or sycophants had not said these.

Considering listening to people, expert groups set up by government and even constitutional authorities as a weakness instead of strength is the ninth and very serious obstacle which resulted in a distorted and ineffective democracy.

To overcome this obstacle, an organization has to be set up to (1) encourage people to freely express their views (particularly innovative ideas), (2) analyze these and (3) sort out and accept important / useful ones for implementation with commitment. If any suggestion of expert groups or constitutional authorities is rejected by government, Parliament / Assembly should take the initiative immediately to either disallow the rejection or ratify it if there are valid reasons for rejection.

Lopsided mindset: Government is obsessed with GDP growth rate and revenue collection. It becomes upset if GDP growth rate falls but is not bothered if people continue to suffer. Sad to say, the fact that high GDP has only resulted in widening the gap between the rich and the poor is not its concern. Even the obsession with money seems to be selective because government has not taken any tangible action against the multiple scams which have resulted in enormous losses of public money which, otherwise, could have been used for welfare of the people.

Another problem is questionable use of public funds with a lopsided mindset. For example, a scheme named Sonia Gandhi Go Shiksha Yojana has been running for over eight years and almost Rs. 8,000 crores of tax payers’ money “has been spent in the name of teaching traffic rules to cows”!! (DNA dated 6-10-12).

Almost every year audit reports caution about large scale wastages and surrendering of budgeted amounts because of lack of commitment.  But, these reports gather dust and hardly result in suitable action. All these and some more undisclosed wastages of tax payers’ money still continue without even a semblance of efforts at least to reduce these let alone stopping these. To cover up the increase in deficit due to these inefficiencies, additional taxation has been resorted to.

Serious thinking for devising clever methods of collecting more revenue is laudable if these funds are used for welfare of people. But, realities are discomforting. Late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi had stated many years back that 85% of money spent on rural projects do not reach the beneficiaries. This colossal wastage is still continuing and depicts not only inefficiency but also a callous mind.

Because shortage of power is a serious problem, low priority and insufficient funds for alternate sources of power are maters for serious concern. Moreover, inefficient utilization of even the meagre funds allotted for various modes of power generation is another mater for even more serious concern. For example, capacity addition target for power generation was missed by 47% in 8th Plan, 54% in 9th Plan, 49% in 10th Plan and 30% in 11th Plan. Lack of commitment leading to the large number of instances of nonutilisation and misutilisation of public funds ought to be disconcerting but not so for government.

All these show that government is happy with its lopsided priorities and inefficiencies. A recent example of lopsided priority is the provision of Rs. 200 crores in the current budget for a statue of Sardar Patel and only Rs.100 crores for women’s safety, ignoring that the whole nation is crying hoarse for the latter. Besides being a lopsided priority, this is another example of ignoring peoples’ voice!!

The more efficient officers specially allotted to Finance Ministry have been super active to collect more revenues which are, sad to say, allowed to be wasted or misuilised by all ministries. To reduce fiscal deficit, emphasis has been on taxing more. The more healthy options of reducing fiscal deficit by preventing wastages and postponing projects with less priority hardly get attention.

The above aspects depict the tenth and very serious obstacle which resulted in a distorted and ineffective democracy.

This obstacle can be overcome only with a change in mindset to avoid lopsided priorities and inefficient implementation. Welfare of people (not GDP growth rate) should be the main guiding factor.

Illogical positioning: Successful governance requires qualified professionals to be completely in charge of various activities which can be properly handled by them only. But most of the technical departments are headed by IAS officers. This illogical positioning allows professionals to be supervised by non-professionals and thereby hinders progress as well as accountability.  In stead of facilitating performance of professional activities for welfare of people, this illogical positioning resulted in withholding required funds and other necessities and controlling professional persons and thereby hindering them in performing these activities. The emphasis is on administration of the professional department and not on facilitating effective performance of activities required for welfare of people.  One reason given is that professionals have no training in administration. This flimsy reasoning attaches more importance to administration of the department than to the activities to be performed for welfare of people!! Moreover, the obvious solution to improve efficiency of professional services to the people is to arrange for management training for professionals and to depute administrators to assist them only in administration of the department, in stead of smothering their work by illogical supervision and control of resources by administrators as is being done. 

This illogical positioning is the eleventh and very serious obstacle which resulted in a distorted and ineffective democracy.

To overcome this obstacle, highest priority should be given to various professional activities which are essential for welfare of people and not to administration of the departments. All departments carrying out professional services to the people should be headed by professionals who should be given training in management to organize effective professional services. In addition, they should be assisted by qualified administrators for tackling problems in administration within the department.

Comments (especially those which point out errors or deficiencies, if any, in this article and thereby help to improve it) and suggestions to overcome these very serious obstacles are welcome. Please send these to I shall make use of all befitting suggestions to prepare the last two articles of this series – Articled 23 will spell out the basic principles which will guide formulation of the revised system of democracy and Article 24 will outline the revised system of democracy for public debate to arrive at a consensus.

You can help to save our sinking democracy by making as many people as possible aware of these obstacles and possible solutions, through personal group discussions, newspaper articles, e-mail and social media like face book and twitter so that we can have healthy debates and arrive at some innovative ideas to save our sinking democracy.