Raising the Accountability Bar by Nimmi Kurian, Associate Professor, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, India.
Nimmi Kurian is Associate Professor at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, India. Her research interests include border studies, India-China borderlands; approaches to regionalism; transborder resource governance particularly water. Her recent publications include: India and China: Rethinking Borders and Security (co-authored) University of Michigan Press, 2016; The India China Borderlands: Conversations Beyond the Centre, Sage, 2014; ‘River Diplomacy on Test’, Indian Express, 04 October 2016; ‘Co-opted Federalism? Border States and Resource Revenue Sharing Bargains’, CPR Policy Brief, October 2016.
Rising social mobilisations and protests against dispossession today stands for a loss of public trust that confronts the state in India. Across India’s borderlands, resource interventions that do not respect the supply potential of mountain ecologies are creating and reinforcing interlocking webs of environmental and socio-economic vulnerability. These resource peripheries have tended by and large to be seen through a ‘specific national lens’ without ‘political or cultural referents’, virtually emptying these spaces of people. These are resulting in an increasing role for the state, deepening centralisation of control and bureaucratisation that threatens to displace long traditions of community resource management and constitutional safeguards for local autonomy.
Reframing the accountability question holds the potential to broaden the agenda to include issues that typically go missing in technocratic and legalistic notions of governance. Top-down moves to enhance accountability only capture the formal, legal-technocratic arena of responsiveness. Such cosmetic forms of community engagement ‘from the top’ often end up lip-syncing the language of a bottom-up paradigm. To be viable, these need to be seen in conjunction with the bottom-up, societal push factors and the role played by associational groups in incentivising state institutions to be more responsive.
The conventional focus on the formal domain has also meant that informal innovation tends to remain unacknowledged and ‘hidden from view’. Interesting recent experiments in co-governance in India’s eastern borderlands could help rework some of these assumptions in modest but potentially dramatic ways. For instance, the Communitisation Initiative in the state of Nagaland is an ongoing experiment in co-governance wherein the government and the community work as partners to share development activities and responsibilities. It emerged as an innovative response to a serious crisis in public administration in the state plagued by poor service delivery across key sectors such as elementary education, primary health care, rural drinking water supply, and biodiversity conservation. This was manifested in the strong public frustration with a dysfunctional delivery system that lacked accountability to people and was marked by high absenteeism levels, crumbling infrastructure, employee indifference and non-existent monitoring capacity.
The sub-text of regaining public trust is evident from the fact that the Communitisation Initiative has been self-consciously presented as an accountability-enhancing measure as seen from the programme’s declared focus on the three Ts, namely trust, train and transfer. The Nagaland State Assembly passed the Nagaland Communitisation of Public Services and Institutions Bill in 2002 as a measure to improve public service delivery at the grassroots level. The government handed over, in a phased manner, the ownership and management of three sectors namely, education, health care and power utilities to village communities. The role of the government was to be more of a supportive, supervisory and regulatory one. A brief deliberative process preceded the enactment of the Act during which officials and a cross-section of civil society actors engaged in debating and discussing the concept’s policy viability.
The innovative use of social capital has been a clear hallmark of the programme. Choosing to build on existing traditional civic institutions rather than design parallel institutional frameworks has proved to be one of its key strengths. Local self-governance institutions have traditionally been strong in the state with well-defined systems of village administration. The Nagaland Village and Area Councils Act of 1978 provides for strong state support and statutory recognition of traditional local governance institutions. This builds on the constitutional guarantee enshrined under Article 371A that safeguards Naga customary law4. These have reinforced the central authority of the village and of the Village Council in Naga society.
Based on an essentially simple institutional design, the programme has scripted an improvement in the performance of grassroots level public utilities across the state. These have brought all-round benefits ranging from significant improvements in service delivery; to greater checks and accountability over government funds and an overall enhancement in the quality of rural governance. Improved public service delivery gains include increased enrolment rates in schools, higher revenue generation in electricity dues, improved healthcare facilities, staff attendance, payment of staff salaries, and availability of medicines. These have also led to an overall increase in awareness levels of the average villager of entitlements under various government and development schemes. In recognition of its successes, the Nagaland government won the United Nations Public Service Award for innovative use of social capital in 2008.
There are interesting takeaways from this ongoing experiment for rethinking the link between institutions, incentives and innovation. Recognising the social license to operate in resource-rich regions and sensitising policy makers to obtain ‘free prior informed consent’ of local communities for resource development activities in the region will be critical in ensuring that they are not on the sidelines of the growth experience. Connecting what may otherwise remain disparate dots in the development framework can help raise the accountability bar in innovative ways from below.
© Nimmi Kurian