Volume 17 Number 3
Indians Get to Grips With Good Governance
01 June 2004

Natasha Davis meets Indians who are determined to empower the underprivilaged
Chandrashekhar Prabhu was a gold medalist student of architecture and town-planning in America’s Ivy League when former Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi sent two emissaries to tempt him back to his country of birth. He wasn’t interested—he had just got his Green Card and accepted a post at Massachussets Institute of Technology. Finally, the Prime Minister confronted him in person. ‘What if you could change the fate of your city?’ she asked. He was on the plane home to Mumbai next day.

It’s a question that stirs many high-achieving Indians. But, as Prabhu found when he dug into the realities of his city of 12 million, whole systems of corruption and vested interests make bringing change daunting if not downright impossible.

‘Creating ethical business in India is like trying to grow strawberries on Mars,’ says Mumbai businessman Suresh Vazirani. ‘You may be able to do it in a controlled environment. But at what cost and effort!’

Neither man is giving up though. Vazirini’s high-tech biomedical equipment company has won national awards for quality and exports—all done without paying bribes. Prabhu has battled the coalitions of corrupt politicians, developers and mafia which keep Mumbai’s urban development mired in unmanageable problems. As Chairman of the Maharashtra State Advisory Committee to the Department of Housing, which works steadily to resettle Mumbai’s six million slum-dwellers, he has instigated over 60 legal cases to make government answerable, and promises to do ‘whatever one can’ against systemic corruption.

The two reformers joined others at a conference on ‘Better Governance: from fear to opportunity’ at the Initiatives of Change conference centre in Panchgani, India, during March. It was organized by the Asia Pacific and Africa Regional Group of Caux Initiatives for Business (CIB-APARG).

The conference brought together a growing network of senior government officials, social workers and NGOs, media and industrial leaders who have launched a Centre for Governance to act as a national thinktank to provoke government reforms in India. They first came together a year ago to grapple with the social and policy challenges confronting India under globalization, and decided that it came down to better governance. (See FAC, Apr/May 2003 and Apr/May 2004).

As Prabhat Kumar, former Cabinet Secretary, put it: ‘If any country wants to derive maximum benefit from globalization, it must put its own house in order—with good political and corporate governance.’

Opening this year’s conference, Kumar highlighted the huge disparities between Indian states in critical areas like child mortality rates, illiteracy and poverty. Punjab, for instance, has 130 times the per-capita income of Jharkand, a tribal state of which Kumar was until recently Governor.

While India basks in the ‘shining’ achievements of high growth rates, unprecedented foreign exchange reserves and a booming IT industry, ‘the debit side of indifferent and unresponsive governments far outweighs the innovative measures’, argued Kumar.

Through the March meeting two major agenda directions emerged for the Centre for Governance. RD Mathur, one of its convenors, summed these up as:

  • Tackling corruption at both a symptomatic and a systemic level by enlisting civil society, the business sector and all stakeholders involved.

  • Working to improve the ethics and values of individuals and organizations. Roundtable meetings held during the past year, together with training programmes at various levels of government and industry, could begin to help meet this need, he said.

  • Conference participants found an emerging synergy between senior bureaucrats and NGO activists like Arvind Kejriwal from Parivarten (see p7). Sunita Nadhamuni, coordinator of BalaJanaagraha—‘a citizens’ movement for better governance’— described a partnership programme called PROOF (Public Record of Operating Finance) which tracks public disclosures of municipal accounts, performance indicators and government spending in Bangalore. The challenge of moving ‘from representative democracy to participatory democracy’, she believes, is most appropriate at the level of local government.

    A rapidly expanding area of governance is ‘e-governance’ (the control of procedures and workflow via computers). The benefits are already evident, argued Nadadur Janardhan who, through a UN agency, has advised over 30 governments on introducing ecommerce in international trade. Through a vast network of fibreoptic cables, the state of Andhra Pradesh has made government records available in English and local languages. Already, it has brought a dramatic reduction in land disputes, which occupy 70 per cent of court cases, claimed Janardhan. Medical records available state-wide are improving health care for the poorest. Employment opportunities and better marketing of primary products were bringing significant benefits.

    But, warned Asheesh Khaneja, who as an executive with Oracle South Asia has also been involved in bringing this software revolution to Andhra, ‘E-governance is not a short-cut to budget savings or a clean and efficient government.... It often presents both costs and risks.’ Its implementation was best preceded bydeveloping ethical leadership and standards, he suggested.

    That ties in with the Centre for Governance’s second line of strategy. The Secretary of the Ministry of Parliamentary Affairs, Vivek Agnihotri, described a training programme to introduce ‘drivers for service quality’ into one huge government bureaucracy, the Department of Public Works. It involved getting people together to think holistically of how to bring quality, he said. ‘We are so busy pushing on files, we do not take the time to look within in the search for solutions.’

    Business speakers at the conference seemed committed to improving their own standards of integrity. A specialist in corporate governance, Ram Babu of PriceWaterhouseCoopers, spoke about ‘triple-line accounting’, and ‘Global Reporting Indicators’ (GRI) which track the environmental and social as well as economic performance of companies. Of the Fortune 500 companies around the world 140 are now using GRI, as are an increasing number of Indian companies, said Babu.

    Economics professor Arun Kumar argued passionately that such rethinking needs to be applied to India’s whole economic planning. He challenged the notion of ‘homo economus’—of man being economically determined. ‘The market and the state are creations of society. They are not to be viewed as independent of society, and therefore it is up to society to decide how to use them for the wider welfare of society,’ said Kumar, who is Chair of the Centre for Economic Studies and Planning at Jawaharlal Nehru University and author of The Black Economy in India.

    As Arun Wakhlu, founder of Pragati Leadership Institute, put it: ‘This is where the spiritual dimension comes in.’ He brought the conference back to governing one’s self as the basis of collective governance—a theme also stressed during early morning sessions on ‘Inner Governance’, where individuals could give personal insights into finding integrity in their own lives.

    These sessions mapped the essence of creating better governance, said Yogendra Narain, Secretary-General of India’s upper house of Parliament, the Rajya Sabha. ‘What’s important is not your external power but the power over your own feelings... the connection between your personal life and official life. My dharma (righteous action/truth) is to fight evil. These sessions have added to my storehouse of spiritual experience that I have tried to bring together in my life.’

    Alongside the Centre for Governance, Prabhat Kumar and his colleagues are soon to launch a Centre for Training in Ethical Leadership (CENTREL). They plan to make that fight for better governance practical as well as personal.

    John Freebury is a cultural management consultant from Canada.
    Mike Brown is an Australian writer.

    INDIA’S GRASSROOTS STRUGGLE FOR JUSTICEIndia is a country that shares many of the world’s problems... and also offers many solutions. For many years I have been passionate about finding creative
    solutions to poverty, communal violence,environmental destruction and corruption. My journey to India was partly a quest to see how ‘change-makers’ operate in a country confronted by such challenges. I was particularly drawn to the country of Mahatma Gandhi, who advocated personal transformation and sacrifice as part of social action.

    I have spent five rich months in India, with ‘Action for Life’, a ten-month programme for mainly young people who want to explore the relationship between personal transformation and the commitment to building a better world. During this time I have discovered that fighting the web of corruption and giving a voice to the ‘common person’ is at the heart of social change movements in India. The shocking reality is that up to 85 per cent of the money allocated to food rations, sanitation, or education is syphoned off by people at all levels of government. Poor governance is the single biggest contributing factor to social, environmental and economic distress. Misappropriation and lack of accountability for public money keeps the poorest poor.

    If this is the problem, one solution lies with common people reclaiming a share in power and decisions. Our journey brought us into contact with inspiring groups in Delhi, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan who are making grassroots democracy a reality.

    ‘The right to information is the right to live’ is the slogan of Masdoor Kissan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS), who have spearheaded the Right to Information movement in India from their base in rural Rajasthan. Right to Information legislation now exists in seven states in India. Meeting a group of MKSS workers revealed how this simple but powerful tool puts power into the people. The new laws enable citizens to demand access to government information— from village expenditure to food ration records—and removes the veil of secrecy around government officials and elected representatives.

    Mystical sunrise vistas of rural India provided the perfect backdrop for our visit to villages outside Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, where we met with the group Asha (Hope). (See www.ashanet.org). It was started by ‘nonresident Indians’ studying in California. One of them, Sandeep Pandey, realized his doctoral research on rocket science was assisting the arms industry. So he quit, and moved to rural India to live in apparently joyful poverty with his band of volunteers. Their emphasis was, and is, education (one village we stopped at was 90 per cent illiterate). Asha supports over 250 village schools. But other more basic needs began to focus their agenda.

    Using the Right to Information legislation to campaign for fair wages and the ‘right to food’, they demanded access to panchayat (village government) expenditure records. As in other parts of India, the struggle brought a violent response. But communities are clearly buoyed by the success of the movement. In one village, the panchayat chief was forced to resign after
    misappropriation of over Rs200,000 (US$4,300) was revealed. In different villages witnessed the creative approach of Asha volunteers who engaged children with songs and chanting such lyrics as ‘this is the land of milk and curd, not the land of Pepsi Cola’.

    The Right to Information movement is enthusiastically championed in Delhi by a small, energetic people’s movement called Parivartan (Change). It started when Arvind Kejriwal resigned as an Assistant Collector in the Indian Revenue Service. In partnership with locals, Parivartan undertook painstaking audits of civil works in two slum districts of Delhi, ‘ground-truthing’ the documented expenditure with public hearings involving thousands of residents. In 64 out of 68 works audited, almost half the expenditure was unaccounted for. As a result of their campaign the Municipal Corporation of Delhi now requires public accounts of any civil work to be displayed on site. (See www.parivartan.com )

    Having worked in watershed management for the past five years in Australia, a highlight for me was a visit to the Alwar district of eastern Rajasthan, where a 20-year programme of restoring traditional water-harvesting systems has transformed a desert landscape into a green oasis. The most exciting aspect of this project is the grassroots participation in local resource management. Who would dream of a ‘river parliament’? Well, that’s what the locals formed when the Rajasthan government, delighted to find the once dry Arvari River now flowing and full of fish, decided to make a quick buck by selling fishing licenses. The villagers took on the government—and won. This unconventional parliament now meets regularly with representatives from all the villages in the region to set the rules for managing the natural resources and resolving any disputes.

    It is not only the grassroots and gutsy approach of these groups which inspired us, but their integrity and commitment to empowering the poor through the Gandhian philosophy of sacrifice and justice in action. In Australia ‘community capacity building’ is the latest jargon—but how rare are examples of empowering communities to take up their own battles such as I have been privileged to see in India.

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