The changing geopolitical structure of the contemporary world will expect India to play a larger role in world affairs. Coupling this with the call made by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to make India a $5 trillion economy, we are looking at a scenario where India is a potential superpower candidate in the 21st century. And Indians have always believed, owing to the rich civilisational heritage the country had in the past, that they deserve to lead the world – becoming the viswaguru ('lord of the world'). For this, India must present its world view and leverage its soft power to influence the world. At the same time, it is important for the country to get its ducks in a row; for, without resolving its domestic problems, we can forget about leading the world. In this article, I try to highlight some crucial problems that need immediate attention.
Law and Order
The first major roadblock pertains to law and order in India. With the Indian police, the issues pertain to distrust, understaffing, accountability and inefficiency. First, there is a lot of distrust towards the police among the public. A 2018 survey found that less than 25% of Indians trust the police. This distrust can be attributed to the prevalent corruption in the police departments, the police-politician nexus and the abuse of power by the police. In the Indian Corruption Survey 2019, the police department was found to be the second most corrupt department in the country.
The second issue is the understaffing of the police force. As recently as in 2017, 30% of all the sanctioned posts were vacant in the country. The police-to-population ratio, therefore, is low in the country and makes the Indian police force one of the weakest in the world. From delays in investigation, increased response time and an increased toll on the mental health of the police, this issue births many other problems which leads to grave consequences.
The third issue is accountability. Many-a-times there is no action taken against a police officer when a complaint is lodged against them for various reasons. Often times, higher officials tend to overlook such complaints due to political pressure or for being complicit with the accused. There is no other mechanism available to lodge complaints against the police. Lack of accountability also includes the cases of fake encounters and deaths in police custody (a Google search shows that as recently as last year, two custodial deaths took place in Telangana, India).
The fourth problem is that of inefficiency. The educational qualifications for a constable, the lowest cadre in the police – who account for almost 85% of the police force, is passing class 10 or 12 in many states. But the responsibilities of constables are wide-ranging. They are expected to exercise their judgement in intelligence gathering, assist with investigations and maintain public contact. It is often the case that these constables are insensitive and rude to the public.
It is not that there are no solutions. There have been many committees which made several recommendations, only to find the politicians to dump them in the dustbin. In 2006, the Supreme Court of India issued seven directions to reform the police force. Though states have implemented some of them, in practice they have been rendered useless. There are four things that have to be done. First, an increase in the size of the police force 6-10 times than the current number. Second, investment in police training which should focus on getting the police personnel to clearly understand the law of the land and also be sensitive to the public. Third, giving a greater degree of autonomy to the police.
To reduce the police’s dependence on politicians, the Supreme Court recommended the setting up of a Police Establishment Board in every state that will decide postings, transfers and promotions for officers below the rank of Deputy Superintendent of Police, and make recommendations to the state government for officers of higher ranks. The fourth recommendation is to make the police accountable. For this, the Supreme Court recommended constituting Police Complaints Authorities at the state and district levels to inquire into allegations of serious misconduct and abuse of power by police personnel. Police reforms are the most important area to focus on.
Education, particularly primary education, is one area where India has failed enormously. While it succeeded in building prominent universities like IITs and IISCs, it is unable to provide primary education to everyone. The primary school system in India also focuses more on getting done with the syllabus and scoring marks in the exam. Problem-solving doesn’t come automatically to us because we are not equipped with the necessary tools in the classroom. Students are made to, encouraged in some cases, to mug up answers rather than think.
Pratham surveys frequently indicate how school students, mainly from government schools, fail at basic math and writing their name in English. However, the idea that government schools cannot produce results but only the private sector can, is false. My own experience tells me how corporate state board schools operate. In most of the cases, teachers do not have a Bachelors of Education degree. The management often sets unrealistic targets for the teachers to complete the syllabus and leave no time for the students for other extracurricular activities. Students are segregated based on their ability to score marks and the slow-learners (euphemism for those students that can’t score well) are put in one section and are hardly cared for. Private schools can also be pretty bad. If one looks at the school system in Sri Lanka, one can find that government schools can also achieve success and all it needs is initiative on the part of political leadership.
There is a simple solution. Invest in primary education heavily. Both in terms of infrastructure building and teacher training. In many instances, it was found that government school teachers in some states could not even get the basics right. Also, the new education policy revealed by the Indian government assumes that there is manoeuvre for the teachers to engage in skills-based education. This is a classic example of a third'world country looking for first-world solutions. Teachers in many government schools, who are highly qualified, are unable to do this, let alone the private schools. This is why investing in teacher training is crucial to get Indian education on to the right track.
When asked to propose solutions to any social problems, often the first solution that comes up is to create awareness. By investing in primary education and educating the people, that goal can be successfully accomplished. Also, education is the most important tool for social mobility. Neglecting it does not make sense. Third, caste politics and this sense of belonging to the same caste can be countered by educating your people. Caste politics depends on a patronage system. The moment we ensure basic things are available to everyone, it acts as a deterrent to caste politics.
India is undergoing rapid urbanisation. Since 2009, the rate of urbanisation in the country has been around 30%. With such a high rate of urbanisation, Indian urban areas are becoming increasingly crowded and haphazard. For all the talk about how asli Bharat gaaon mein basta hein ('real India lives in villages'), we must not forget that it is cities that are the centres of economic activity and result in economies of scale for the firms operating in them. However, with rapid urbanisation new challenges have emerged in city management in India. First and foremost is the problem of pollution. Indian cities are one of the most polluted in the world. The national capital Delhi regularly figures in the list of most polluted cities, mostly in the top ten spots. The second problem is that most of the cities that exist today are naturally formed and they were not planned. This in itself led to problems like a lack of proper sanitation systems, waste disposal systems, the inability to regulate traffic efficiently, illegal constructions and many more. The third problem is that there are many departments to regulate various aspects of the cities and due to lack of coordination among them there is inefficient planning and land use. Often, these departments are also zones of rampant corruption. The fourth and other important problem is lack of availability of funds. In most of the cases, the cities have very poor budgetary allocations and the revenue they get in the form of taxes is also low.
To solve the funding problems, governments can consider transferring the revenue they get from public transport to the city development authorities. About 50% of the expenditure incurred by the city administrations is on administrative expenditures like salary, pensions, operation and maintenance of offices, and property, among other things. One solution is to cut personnel wherever it is possible by moving the services online. Certain departments, like water and sanitation, can be clubbed so as to cut staff. It is important to recognise that the bottom-up approach is best and hence there should be a transfer of greater funds to the local bodies. Creating a strong bond market and leveraging the land-based instruments can also be considered to raise revenue.
Equally important is the concentration on city planning. As was mentioned earlier, many of the top Indian cities were not planned and the consequences of that are for everyone to see. Many state governments and local bodies do have planning departments and planning officials. The problem is either they are under-equipped or the staff has no proper knowledge regarding urban planning. It is therefore also important to invest in and encourage people to pursue degrees in urban planning.
Apart from the three areas, which need the Indian state's immediate attention, there are three more which I think have high importance in facilitating India onto the superpower path. I will discuss those in the next part.
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