Sunday, December 28, 2014

Good Governance in India: Gandhian Economic Philosophy with Digitally Connected India

One of the election planks of Narendra Modi’s campaign has been ‘Minimum Government-Maximum Governance’. It is befitting that the elected Government of Narendra Modi has organized an essay competition for school children on good governance. Governance is a word that has become important in a business context as well. Corporate governance, for example, is taken very seriously by all progressive corporations. Governance is applicable for any and every organization, for that matter. At a broader level, of course, governance at a national level is the most relevant factor for national development. This blog post seeks to delve into the definition of governance and explore what could governance for India’s development and strategies to secure and institutionalize good governance.

Governance defined

The word ‘govern’ is defined in a national context. It means legal control of a country or its people with the responsibility for introducing new laws, organizing public services and managing economy. Governance is the activity of governing a country in terms of its various facets. At a company or organizational level it involves setting its articles and memorandum of association, forming its code of conduct, and establishing and operating the company as per the articles, business code and all applicable national and international laws.  Governance at the country level is extremely important for India as governments are formed by the parliamentary and legislative representatives of democratic India elected by its people as per the constitutional processes. With 29 States and 7 Union Territories having local State level governments and the nation as a whole having the Union government at the Centre, governance in India, however, tends to be quite plural.

The central theme of good governance is economic growth with social equity. There are, of course, other supportive themes such as gender equality, poverty elimination, people empowerment, modernity with tradition, globalization, employment generation, universal education, healthcare and sanitation, housing for all, rule of law etc. All such themes can be defined as integral inputs or outcomes to the central theme of economic growth with social justice, and in short - development. While people’s aspirations are expressed through elections, they can only be achieved through governance by the elected representatives. The structure and processes of governance are determined by the constitution while the strategies to execute on governance are determined by various laws, policies, schemes and procedures (together, governance tools). While the bureaucracy both creates and executes the governance tools and is accountable to the elected governments, they, in turn, are accountable to the people.       

Gandhian Governance

Mahatma Gandhi advocated a concept of good governance that emanates from the grassroots level. He held that the village is the smallest microcosm of the nation which must reflect good governance through empowerment and self-rule. His concept of Panchayat Raj is the structural definition of his concept. Gram Swaraj for Mahatma was very much a part of his concept of Poorna Swaraj for the nation. In one of his writings, Mahatma said, “Panchayat Raj represents true democracy realized. We would regard the humblest and the lowest Indian as being equally the ruler of India with the tallest in the land”. Successive governments have tried to provide constitutional and legislative enablement to Gandhi’s concept of Gram Swaraj and Panchayat Raj. That said, even after several decades of Indian independence, the rural population and the underprivileged continued to be left out of the mainstream of development which is reflected in recent governmental initiatives such as Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA).

MGNREGA seeks to guarantee 100 days of livelihood security to the population meeting prescribed criteria. While it is welcome, Mahatma’s goal of generating wealth through economic activity and good governance remains unfulfilled. Gandhiji gave several avenues, under the broad umbrella of Sarvodaya, to achieve economic self-sufficiency at the village level. He advocated ending poverty through improved agriculture and small scale cottage industries across all villages. Gandhian Economics focused on economic self-sufficiency at rural community level. He not only advocated Sarvodaya but gave relevant tools such as Charkha and Khadi to generate employment. Large scale industrialization that emphasizes machine made products vis-à-vis handmade products has pushed Gandhian economic tools to the background. The call by the Prime Minister Narendra Modi for Indians to patronize khadi is indeed a welcome exhortation. Good governance initiatives of the PM have a greater probability of success with a digital connect that would restore both gram swaraj and Gandhian economics.

Five principles

Governance, in its fundamental ambience, represents universal inclusiveness, transparency, access, simplicity, objectivity and ease. If we agree that India still lives in its villages (as it is true) and true empowerment must start with the indigent and downtrodden, whether rural or urban (as also it is true), whatever ideal governance we have must satisfy the six principles of inclusivity, transparency, accessibility, simplicity, and objectivity. Law and procedures, projects and schemes, structures and processes, administrators and enablers must have a system of governance that works for the layman as much as it does for the erudite. This can be achieved by imbuing simplicity in each second component of the four pairs mentioned above. For example, while laws would perforce need to be complex to envisage and address all eventualities, procedures at least must be simple and intelligible.

Similarly, while projects must be based on an overall developmental magnum opus, schemes must be those that touch the lives of all in a simple manner in an immediate and recurring timeframe. Again, in a large federal country like ours political and administrative structures cannot anything but be complex. However, the processes must be simple and speedy. Administrators who are required to work with multiple political systems may be cautious by instinct and training but those who are heads of agencies (district collectors, departmental secretaries or public sector heads) need to focus on being in touch for speedy delivery. This duality of foundation and purpose or of the institution and the individual requires that the back-end of the governance mechanism could be as complex is the wont but the front-end of people contact must be as simple as it can be. This balance of internal complexity and external simplicity can be achieved only with digitization.

Digital governance

Digital governance is a system of governance in which all laws, procedures, projects, schemes, structures, processes, administrators and enablers are connected with each other and the individual across India in a seamless way. This requires that the whole of India is a wifi village with broadband, fibre optics and tower systems connecting all of India. This also requires that every individual has a Unique Personal Identification Number (UPIN) and every institution will have a Unique Institutional Identification Number (UIIN). Needless to say, India is moving into a new future in that direction with the Central Government sponsored Aadhar Project. The governments would like to connect subsidies and benefits to Aadhar number, for example. AP Government has made supplies of sand for construction purposes a digitally enabled process administered through women self-help groups. However, much more needs to be done for total digital governance at a national level, in terms of hardware and software.

In the full digital model, every individual will possess at least one electronic device, one smart phone and one tablet. He or she would have Internet access wherever he or she is in India. Every transaction requiring interface between the individual and government would have an electronic form and processing system. Every individual would have opened a new Jan-Dhan Bank account or would convert one of his available accounts into a Jan-Dhan account. The entire landscape of laws, procedures, projects, schemes, structures and processes would be in the form of multi-language ready access portals, with easy to manage forms and processes for applications and approvals, queries and responses, and self-certifications and random evaluations. Every minister and public official should have a position-linked email ID based on which he or she can be communicated with. Each Minister and Officer should have an information processing assistant to handle queries and responses on a prioritized basis. The objective would be to enable a person of even ordinary literacy be a helpful and helped member of pan-Indian digital governance.

Connected India

Connected India is possible with a mammoth collaboration between global and Indian digital giants. The recent days have seen such global majors making a beeline to the Prime Minister Modi, Central and State Chief Ministers and officials. India must conceptualize collaborations between global majors such as Google, Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft, Cisco and such other digital enablers on one hand and Reliance, Bharti, Idea, Tata, Infosys, TCS, Wipro, HCL Technologies, Cognizant, BEL and such other Indian telecommunications and information technology companies on the other to develop a digitally connected India. Just as ‘Make in India’, ‘Connect India’ must be a campaign and execution platform for global and Indian corporate majors to receive support from India’s Union and State Governments.

Connected India would fulfil the Gandhian economic dream of Sarvodaya whereby the most distant and grassroots individual could be connected with the rest of the country and the highest echelons of the governments. It will connect the producers with the marketplace, and help identify and integrate inputs for producers and outputs for users. India has wrought an information technology revolution for the world; it is time that India did something digitally for itself. The Government may need to establish a major collaborative fund, with contributions by global and Indian governments and corporations, to finance the Connected India program. The programs will provide economic returns to contributors in terms of hardware and software sales. The only ask should be that the costs of connectivity should be extremely affordable. Gram Swaraj, Poorna Swaraj, Sarvodaya and Gandhian Economics and Good Governance will merge with, and enable, each other in a completely Connected India.

Posted by Dr CB Rao on December 28, 2014