'Governments in Maharashtra have short-changed cities for decades'

Updated: Jun 07, 2020, 07:57 IST | Jane Borges | Mumbai

Political economy analyst Shankkar Aiyar's new book examines what he believes is the root cause of all our present-day problems-the inability of states to fulfil five critical obligations

Shankkar Aiyar. Pic /Kashish Parpiani
Shankkar Aiyar. Pic /Kashish Parpiani

In the opening lines of his new book, The Gated Republic (HarperCollins India), political economy analyst and author-columnist Shankkar Aiyar, says, "The truism about India is that for everything that you see, that you hear, frequently, the opposite is equally true." This, in essence, encapsulates Aiyar's investigative non-fiction that released this month, and looks at how the policies adopted by successive Indian governments since independence have failed on five basic counts—health, water, education, power and security. Aiyar's book comes at a crucial juncture for India, which is being seen as a major economic power, by advanced economies of the world. Only earlier this week, US President Donald Trump extended an invitation to PM Narendra Modi to attend the G7 summit, while hinting at expanding the forum, which currently comprises Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK, and the US.

With three decades of journalism behind him, Pune-based Aiyar, who is most remembered for his 1991 expose on India pledging its gold reserves to the Bank of England, examines why the poor have been unable to break the shackles of poverty. "Year after year, governments launch new avatars of old promises to deliver public goods and services and taxpayer money is poured into these avatars, but at every milestone of per capita income and affordability, there are public policy failures," he writes in the book.

In an email interview, he says that India's gated republics are, but "enclaves of refuge" for the poor and middle class to shield themselves from the consequences of these failed policies. If anything, he hopes people push their elected representatives to be more accountable and fulfil their obligations.

Edited excerpts from the interview.

The book exposes glaring failures of public policy since Independence. Why did you choose to write it now?

There is an inflection point in every nation's history. India aspires to be at the high table of world powers. Can India vault orbits without a healthy and educated workforce, without assured delivery of water, electricity and personal security? The magnitude of failure and apathy compel interrogation of the history politics and economics of failure.

In the health chapter you bring out data on pneumonia and diarrhoea deaths—33 and 26 per hour. There is much attention on COVID-19, but not on these deaths. Why?

Governments in India are known to respond to crisis, but only those which threaten their political existence and future. Unfortunately, issues such as health and education are neither politically profitable nor electorally damaging.

Do you feel the pandemic will change the way we look at health care systems?

The state of health care is manifest in the management of this pandemic. The laws of physics tell us momentum is mass multiplied by velocity. Much depends on public pressure on politicians and governments. One can only hope this realisation will lead to transformation.

In the book, Aiyar reveals how poor health care, has made Indians vulnerable to all kinds of diseases for decades. The pneumonia and diarrhoea deaths are at 33 and 26 per hour. Yet, these numbers, unlike COVID-19, have barely received any attention. “Governments in India are known to respond to crisis, but only those which threaten their political existence and future,” he says. PIC/GETTY IMAGES
In the book, Aiyar reveals how poor health care, has made Indians vulnerable to all kinds of diseases for decades. The pneumonia and diarrhoea deaths are at 33 and 26 per hour. Yet, these numbers, unlike COVID-19, have barely received any attention. "Governments in India are known to respond to crisis, but only those which threaten their political existence and future," he says. Pic/ Getty Images

Mumbai is one of India's earliest cities and one which was built with a proper distribution channel for drinking and waste water. The advantage has been wasted, not built upon. What went wrong?

The list of villainous causes is long. Just look at the decades of delay between drafting and passing of development plans for the city. This has led to poor mapping of supply and demand, in housing and essential services. Add politically blessed amoebic expansion of slums, poor pricing of services and inadequate investment. Governments in Maharashtra have short-changed cities for decades.

Expenditure on education has shot up yet parents are seeking private education for children. The pandemic has forced the shutting of schools. Will it force governments to reinvent the primary education system?

The problem with education is of quantity and quality. Over the years, governments have focused on buildings, but not on building quality of education. There are many reasons—teacher absenteeism, poor teacher training and antiquated systems. Induction of technology can address both capacity and quality gaps. Smartphones are ubiquitous and apps can be used to adopt/adapt improved teaching for teachers and students.

Of water, health, security, power and education which one will play a defining role in the development of the country?

Each of them is vital—one cannot do without expansion and success of the other. The interplay of the five critical obligations of the state and their impact on human development and economic growth cannot be understated. Public policy focus must be to bring all into play to deliver success.

Do you think the promises and programmes of the present-day government—Swachh Bharat, Jal Jivan, etc—will succeed?

The issue with Indian governments has rarely been about intent but about execution and outcomes. Success calls for decentralisation, the decolonisation of states.

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