Can we translate microeconomic outcomes into ‘mission mode’ in India?

7th November 2020 | Tarun Cherukuri

Can we translate microeconomic outcomes into ‘mission mode’ in India?

Our CEO Tarun Cherukuri has reviewed Prof. Devesh Kapur’s paper titled ‘Why Does the Indian State Both Fail and Succeed?’

The weekend has dawned on the election Tuesday in the United States(US), and we are awaiting results in the key States of Georgia, Nevada and Pennsylvania. This has prompted social commentary on lessons the US can learn from India’s Election Commission, and the efficient organising of 900 million votes in 2019, which got counted within a day’s work. 

The false equivalence between US and Indian elections notwithstanding, let’s focus on a second order question. If the Indian State can indeed succeed in organising elections and other complex tasks like vaccination campaigns, Kumbh Mela, largest biometric ID program like Aadhar, why is our daily experience of the State on our roads, in our schools & hospitals, and other service deliveries so uninspiring? Devesh Kapur in his latest paper offers an explanation for this heterogeneous performance of the Indian State.

Indian State has delivered better in “mission mode” on mostly macroeconomic outcomes, like Census, Delimitation, Elections, Polio campaign, Kumbh Mela to cite a few examples from the paper. In all these, the delivery is episodic and has an inbuilt exit, and hence can be driven in a short term mission mode. In microeconomic outcomes, where delivery and accountability are experienced on a daily basis, the state capacity at local levels is ‘flailing’*. 

All of us can attest to our rule of law experiences on the roads, the state of our public schools and hospitals. The most significant proxy for trust in government’s service delivery capabilities is the direct tax contributions by citizens. India, as seen in the figure below from the paper, is a negative outlier. Simply put: Citizens would rather avoid tax rather than pay for the State’s poor service delivery.



Prof. Kapur offers three explanations to why this might be the case. 

First, there are inadequate local government resources to effectively deliver on the frontline. The graph below illustrates the low share of civil servants at the local level. Even at an aggregate level, the comparison with other countries is stark. As of 2011, public employees’ share of total employment, formal and informal, was just 4.6 percent in India, compared with 15.9 percent in the US.




Second, India has a delicate equilibrium of democracy. Since India became a democracy before being economically developed, unlike other Western countries, the government’s legitimacy and trust in provisioning public goods is weak. The elites in India, including the middle class, exit in favor of private provisions and tax compliance. With the most powerful, in terms of social capital, exiting systems of public goods provision, the social contract is weakened with very little agency to hold the local governments accountable for delivery. A good example in this regard is the demography of students that attend government schools in India. Almost 99% of children in public schools come from economically and socially disadvantaged families, who have limited voice in demanding high-quality education. Since the middle class and elites send their children to private schools, there is no skin-in-the-game to push for accountability of public schools.

Third, India’s social cleavages of caste and gender persist and mirror in state failures. Any public good provision that requires upending local social norms of caste and gender by citizens, struggles to deliver on the social justice ambitions of the policies. For example, Swacch Bharat Abhiyan might have succeeded in building 100 million toilets but it has struggled to disrupt cultural norms of open defecation and manual scavenging. While more girls are in school and receive material benefits like bicycles and scholarships, our gender indices like sex ratio, female labor force participation and crimes against women have failed to improve significantly.     

All of these explanations resonate with our everyday experiences at Indus Action of enabling access to legislated rights for the most vulnerable citizens. In our campaigns, vulnerable citizens struggle for basic documents like income and employment certificates to claim their entitlements, often spending 10% of value of the entitlements or their monthly incomes in securing these eligibility documents through middlemen. Frontline civil servants in most local government offices are understaffed to redress grievances in a timely and effective manner. Correction queues for maternity entitlements for INR 2000 run up to millions across States (0.5 million in Uttar Pradesh as of date) in India. Identity barriers like caste, gender and class limit agency in terms of public awareness and demand of entitlements like education, health and social security. For example, Under the Building and Other Construction Workers Act 1996, a cess of close to INR 40,000 Cr has been collected over the last 24 years. More than INR 31,000 Cr still remain unutilized for workers benefits across the country and migrant workers struggle to collectively bargain for these rightful entitlements.  

As we can see, there is no single monolith or messiah to blame here for our structural failures. We, the people, are all part and responsible for this status quo. We need to translate the delivery of even microeconomic outcomes into “mission mode”, bringing together resources of State (sarkaar)- Civil society(samaaj)- Markets(bazaar) to solve these structural barriers to making citizen services world class. As individual citizens and organizations, we must bring our critical minds to trace the journey of our tax contributions to public goods like learning and health outcomes. We must put demand-side pressure in our wards and panchayats for setting up frontline workers for success. We must mobilize private resources to augment and improve motivation and managerial capabilities of the last mile State. 

Finally, we need to open up more spaces for authentic healing conversations on our social fault lines like caste, gender and religion. If we can learn something from the US elections, we need to address these social inequities before they polarise and breakdown the public sphere. 


*Pritchett (2009) describes Indian State as ‘flailing’, a strong head in terms of laws on paper but a weak body in terms of implementation capacity that is not in sync with it’s policy aspirations.

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