India’s Shifting Governance Structure:From Charter of Promises to Service Guarantee

Once synonymous with inefficiency and slothfulness, India's public service delivery system is finally being overhauled and put on the path of reforms. Ironically, these reforms are being spearheaded by a set of state governments. This paper attempts to capture the key trends of this impressive development which has far reaching consequences for democracy and governance in the country.

In the last six decades of its democratic existence, while the procedural or formal democracy (in the form of free and fair periodic elections) has taken strong roots in India, the substantive part of such democracy is yet to make a serious beginning. So, while elections are seen as a celebration of democracy in India and rightly viewed as a major success story of democratic experiment in Asia and the world at large, this has not translated into a corresponding improvement of democratic governance benefitting millions of citizens who continue to vote in good faith and with growing enthusiasm . This absence of substantive democracy is clearly visible at least in one key domain of state functioning: public service delivery. Service delivery, the most vital aspect of public administration, continues to be a weak link in India’s otherwise impressive democratic process. With some exceptions, the state of public service delivery in India has remained poor, sloppy and ineffective. Many official reports (like the Second Administrative Reform Commission 2008) and scores of studies have highlighted the glaring inadequacies in the state of service delivery in India.

In recent memory, India’s state of service delivery was aptly captured by Harvard development economist Lant Pritchett. The public service delivery situation convinced Pritchett to call India a ‘flailing state’ for its incapability to implement programmes and policies crucial to maintain public trust in governance .

According to Pritchett, “In police, tax collection, education, health, power, water supply—in nearly every routine service—there is rampant absenteeism, indifference, incompetence and corruption. In many parts of India, in many sectors, the everyday actions of the field—level agents of the state—policemen, engineers, teachers, health workers—are increasingly beyond the control of the administration at the national or state level”. In other words, India, according to Pritchett (2008) is perfectly capable of devising a governance system suited to its complex needs, but has been thrown out of gear under the weight of its enormous and incompetent bureaucracy. As a result, the State’s ability to deliver basic services and make the
administration citizen-friendly has received inadequate attention and treatment by successive governments at the Centre as well as the states for over six decades.

Lately, a major shift has been taking place in India’s much derided governance system, particularly with regard to service delivery. This has been triggered by a host of factors: growing disenchantment of the citizenry with the state of public service delivery; rise of civil society activism espousing governance reforms (access to basic services, entitlements); greater awareness among citizens; a series of policy measures serving as the founding pillars for other reforms (Right to Information Act 2005, setting up regulatory institutions, e-governance, etc); service delivery emerging as new touchstone of governance reforms globally in advanced and developing countries and, importantly, the positive convergence of competitive politics with good governance ideals in the last decade in India; all these factors have created a favourable climate for key governance reforms . Beginning before the Lokpal (an Ombudsman like institution) agitation by noted social activist Anna Hazare but taking major traction during the course of this year’s long anticorruption agitation, more than a dozen Indian states have launched a bold initiative in the form of service guarantee legislation to revamp critical service delivery functions. A large number of states enacting such bold legislations in quick succession (and taking them seriously) sends an unambiguous message that good governance has taken centre-stage in the country’s democratic politics.

After a long wait, the citizen-state relationship is being sought to be altered largely because of the changing nature of competitive politics in India . As things look now, the states are leading the new movement on governance reforms with regard to service delivery. Ironically, the Union which had laid the foundation for a paradigm shift in governance (through Citizens’ Charter initiative) in the last decade now seems to be following the initiatives taken by some of the state governments. While several states have already enacted service guarantee legislations that make access to services a matter of right, the Union Government is yet to debate a bill that it had proposed in the last winter session of Parliament.

This Paper attempts to capture some of the key developments with regard to new governance initiatives in the form of citizens’ charter and service guarantee Acts in improving the state of public service delivery. While the Paper tracks the global and national developments on key governance reforms, the emphasis is on capturing the key trends emerging from the states’ experiences of implementing service guarantee Acts. In conclusion, the paper juxtaposes state level initiatives with national efforts (in the form of the grievance redress bill) to see if both measures can converge at some point to help lay down an effective governance architecture in improving pressing service delivery challenges.

Editor(s) / Author(s)

Arjun Kapoor

Niranjan Sahoo