Ways to cope with a mean state
Ash Narain Roy

Towards Improving Governance
Ed. S. K Agarwal. Academic Foundation
Pages 266. Rs 895.

Alexander Pope’s dictum that "for forms of government let fools contest, whatever is best administered is the best" aptly sums up what the current discourse on good governance is all about.

Good governance, largely understood as "a government that governs the least" entered our lexicon from the West, particularly from the international financial institutions in the context of aid to the developing world. Those who hold a counter view have taken recourse to Gandhi who said, "good government can never be a substitute for self-government." Today, despite democratic decentralisation and the advent of the Panchayati Raj, we have too much government and too little governance.

The irony is too stark. The state’s inability to deliver even the core governance functions to the satisfaction of the citizenry is palpable. And yet, we still expect the state to do practically everything. What we have is not a lean state, but a mean state. Despite democratic decentralisation, right to information and the citizens’ charter, the interface between the citizen and the state remains largely what it has been all along — the citizen as a supplicant, rather than an applicant.

Good governance has become a perfect sound bite for the present age. All governments swear by it. For the donor agencies and the civil society organisations, good governance has become a fashionable buzzword. But what is good governance? The traditional view of good governance was that a good government must preserve the rule of law, engage in physical and social infrastructure development, provide enabling environment for growth and ensure civil and political freedoms. Today, accountability, transparency, inclusion and equitability have become the key ingredients of good governance.

The book under review is an admirable effort to bring various facets of governance under critical scrutiny. The format of the volume is also unconventional. While the editor has acknowledged the contributions of eminent experts, the various chapters are not directly written by them, they are based on their views and/or lectures.

Admiral (Retd.) R.H Tahiliani says in his brief foreword that the book has been "compiled to create awareness about the current state and manner of governance in the country", improve it and to enable the common man to avail "the public services he is entitled to".

It has four sections. The first section deals with governance in general, including its historical perspective. The second part takes up four monopolistic services like police, judiciary, income tax and property registration. It is followed by an analysis of the various methods of improving governance, including the right to information, citizens’ charter, e-governance, citizens’ report cards, integrity pact and improving service delivery. The final section discusses some exemplary initiatives to improve governance in various fields, including the police department, judiciary, education, public distribution system, income tax etc.

All pervading corruption is eating into the vitals of our system. It has shaken the faith of the citizens. Judiciary is no exception. The Chief Justice of India said in March 2006, "The country’s justice-delivery system appears to be on the verge of a collapse." According to a Transparency International India survey of 2005, the amount of money paid by the people on petty corruption at the level of lower judiciary is about Rs 2,630 crore. Reasons for corruption are all too familiar — backlog of cases, shortage of judges, poor judge-population ratio and lack of accountability and transparency of judges.

The thrust of the book is that corruption "can be curbed by bringing systematic changes in governance by introducing participation, transparency, accountability and probity in administration." It provides detailed analysis of the various tools such as citizens’ charter, right to information, e-governance, report cards and social audits.

In the end, the book catalogues some exemplary success stories like Bhagidari, Lokvani, Lok Mitra etc. Some successful e-projects have also been briefly discussed.

These include Asha of Assam Government, Dharitree, the first web technology-based land record computerisation project, Khajane of Karnataka Government, e-Pension of Himachal Pradesh Government etc.

Best practices in police department, judiciary, health services and public distribution system have also been briefly analysed.

This volume is practically a guidebook that citizens will find extremely useful and handy. The appendices are even more helpful — how to file an application seeking information under the right to information, what is an Integrity Pact, what do we mean by Citizens’ Charter etc. It is a must for all the stakeholders. This timely volume is itself an empowering tool for the citizenry.