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Shyam Ponappa: Centre or state-driven development?

Federalism requires a strong Centre as well as strong states - and effective organisation and coordination using the Internet

Shyam Ponappa 

Shyam Ponappa

There are opposing views on the merits of centrally driven development compared with states developing on their own approach. At one level, some corporate leaders as well as politicians and members of civil society exhort states to compete for capital investment. This debate extends beyond states going their own way, to community-level local government, as in the Aam Aadmi Party's (AAP's) "Swaraj" through mohalla sabhas (town-hall meetings or open assemblies) for local government.

While the benefits of community-led initiatives for local issues are indisputable, advocates emphasising decentralisation perhaps overlook some fundamental aspects of our reality. These are the extent of the inadequacies in our infrastructure networks, our organisational set-up, and in our ability to achieve effective coordination. Years ago, when Swaran Singh was food and agriculture minister in 1964, he reportedly said that one of our basic weaknesses was "lack of adequate administrative coordination and absence of a unified set-up at different levels" and that it should be "possible to achieve more rapid and lasting progress through a comprehensive and integrated approach than through uncoordinated and isolated efforts of different agencies and organisations operating at different levels…." 1 He couldn't have been more right, even today.

The lack of unified organisation and effective coordination has a direct bearing on infrastructure. This is what people really need, no matter what else they might want. Take the current focus in Delhi on water and electricity. To these two, we must add roads, transport and communications as elements of essential first-order infrastructure services. People everywhere in the country need these services. Likewise, their second-order service needs include healthcare, education and finance. All these services are subject to network economics, and no local community can be self-sufficient without integration with external linkages. At the appropriate levels ("centres") of city, region, state and country (for example, for national highways or communications networks), these services need "centrally" organised supply and coordinated distribution for effective and efficient delivery. Aside from problems related to corruption, it is in ignoring organisation and coordination, or in handling them ineptly, that our governments fail. Centrally driven development is not just an option we fail at, mostly; it is an absolute necessity to empower ourselves, and until we get it right, we will be hamstrung by this deficiency.

As an aside, another major failure in not appreciating the systems required for basic infrastructure is in ignoring the linkage of water supply with sewerage and sanitation, historically and even now. Sewerage is concomitant with water supply; having water entails having to deal with sewage. Water and sanitation systems need significant "central" design - in the sense of overarching integrated systems at the appropriate level - with expert inputs in system development and implementation. This is usually not feasible at the local-community level alone. Ignoring this results in open sewage, polluted water bodies, unhygienic conditions and stinking surroundings. In this context, while building new smart cities is good, the dire need is to upgrade the systems in our existing cities, towns and villages, so that we live better. Such steps may not grab the headlines, but this is the stuff of our lives.

Next, consider the approach to community participation in local government. There is certainly considerable potential for community participation, but not through methods like the "janata darbar" open assembly last month by the AAP in Delhi, or the Nationalist Congress Party's limited online interaction sessions. Doing so effectively and with efficiency is likely to require well-designed and deployed processes using Web-based technologies and methods, rather than, by way of example, the AAP's approach of live mohalla sabhas. Press reports suggest the AAP plans 2,700 mohalla sabhas in Delhi, the idea being that government representatives will attend these open assemblies, where issues will be discussed and resolved.2 This seems like it would be very difficult, if not impossible, to achieve in practice. Instead, if the proponents of these ideas adopted the approach of online town-hall meetings or virtual mohalla sabhas, governments could design and implement Internet-based systems using asynchronous communications - eliciting inputs and recommendations from domain experts and discussion by citizens for decision making by authorised functionaries. Such systems could also allow for realistic project time frames and ensure follow-ups on water and sanitation, electricity, transport, health, education, or whatever else. If political parties, especially the experienced administrators and engineers/MBAs supporting these parties, bend their minds to these tasks, we are likely to have better systems with more impressive results on the ground.

For instance, take garbage clearing. This might well improve if ward committees oversaw the work of sanitation workers, as mentioned here 3; but the prerequisite is a system-wide design in place with processes that work, as suggested in this broad critique 4. These services need overarching system design and implementation far beyond the scope of any mohalla sabha, except at the local deployment level.

Many political parties use Internet technology for fund-raising and membership mobilisation. It should be feasible for them to consider extending this to governance - although this will be quite a stretch in terms of their understanding and adopting the principles of organisation, logical processes and systems when compared with the relatively simple tasks of membership drives and fund-raising. But this is how our politics and governance need to evolve. We need systematic processes using the Internet. This could facilitate and channel discussions to explore and define objectives, generate and evaluate alternatives, make trade-offs, order priorities, and arrive at actionable decisions implemented over an extended period, with sound project management methodologies and tools. There's off-the-shelf software available, such as Microsoft's TownHall and others like OnlineTownHalls and MindMixer. Perhaps there's scope for systems developed specifically for our purposes. What's needed is to adopt this systems approach, regardless of the software.
(1) "Lack of coordination", Swaran Singh, 1964, The Hindu:

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First Published: Wed, February 05 2014. 21:50 IST