Problems with a bottom-up approach to governance reform: Evidence from India

There is a neoliberal consensus pioneered by Hayek and Tiebout in the 1940s and 1950s in the idea that a market economy-like organisation of sub-national units in a federation will result in overall gains in institutional performance. Literature has focused on the efficiency gains to be derived from making sub-national units competitive guided by the principle that devolved government is better able to respond to voters’ choices. This rests on the assumption that local and national needs vary significantly. In this article, I ask whether the prioritisation of service delivery in healthcare and education sectors is indeed something that varies across states in India. The Indian federal system has been increasingly under pressure to devolve power to the states since the economy was set on a path to liberalisation. Initially, this pressure came from the outside, through international institutions (Bretton Woods, largely) but this opportunity was instantaneously accepted by sub-national politicians who promoted, rightly, the cause of their constituencies. This has taken shape in the form of reduced centralised monitoring of service delivery, and the funds previously allocated to this end are now being directly transferred to states who have unconditional leeway to allocate it to various uses. This occurred too suddenly without a mechanism in place to safeguard and ensure the equitable delivery of essential services in healthcare and education, and an ever widening gap among states.

fig1Source: Data from CMIE States of India, RBI

Building on to this, we also have inter-regional issues due to clustering economies. Some states benefit whilst others (often, the poorer ones) lose out by disgraceful margins. There is a race to the bottom on regulatory easing for corporations, and inter-state bargaining for central resources is competitive, rather than cooperative. Transplantation of a European approach to governance and institutions in the Indian context has meant that natural resources are being plundered by sub-national governments to promote corporate interests, as their citizens remain deprived. Public hospitals and primary healthcare infrastructure are slowly decaying into obscurity as shiny, private health players enter the market. This is the same case within the education sector, cheap, private schools largely targeting the middle class are driving away resources and interest away from the public school system, which in its crippled state cannot justify a case to be the recipient of sub-national governments’ interest. Read More »