What is the impact of illiteracy and ignorance of citizens on governance? Or is the state of governance itself responsible for low levels of literacy? Is economic liberalization enough to improve governance?

Is illiteracy cause or consequence?

An informed citizenry, active citizenship and collective assertion are critical civil society functions in a mature democracy. However the very low levels of literacy prevalent even today despite decades of rhetoric have made ordinary citizen very tiny and weak in the face of the might of the state. Many people secretly believe that universal adult franchise in a largely illiterate society is not desirable. However the reality is that the verdict of the poor and illiterate people is roughly the same as that of the literate and informed population in society. Human beings are endowed with the same amount of dignity and they have the same democratic right and freedom of choice irrespective of their origins, level of literacy, wealth, talent and accomplishments.

In fact it can be argued that illiteracy is not a cause of mis-governance in society but is actually perpetuated by failure of governance. The literacy levels of many countries which had comparable human development indices some fifty years ago have dramatically improved after the second world war. The fault of perpetuation of illiteracy, if anything, lies at the doorstep of incompetent administration and dysfunctional political process. To argue that illiterate population is the cause of failure of governance is a clever inversion of logic wholly devoid of merit.

Apart from examples like South East Asia, Sri Lanka and the State of Kerala, the experience of Tamilnadu in recent years clearly demonstrates that a few strategic interventions by the state will make a spectacular difference to literacy in a relatively short span of time. Some time in early 1980s the MGR Government in Tamilnadu introduced the mid-day meal programme at schools. The motives were probably to attract the votes of the poor, to enhance the image of the ruling party and the leader, and the genuine concern for the plight of the poor coupled with a desire to promote literacy. Unlike many other usual government promises and programes bureaucratically implemented, the mid-day meals scheme in Tamilnadu was genuinely well-implemented. There was a lot of political attention focused on this scheme. As a result, the poor sent their children to schools.

A well-conceived programme genuinely implemented thus altered the behaviour of people. As the schools became the centre of political attention the quality of schooling went up significantly. Simultaneously greater investments were made in school education. As a result literacy levels went up and in particular female literacy made rapid strides. Today Tamilnadu has the second highest level of literacy in India among the major States. In the past few years this higher level of literacy has translated itself into low levels of population growth. Tamilnadu is now very close to reaching a stable population level. All this transformation has taken place in less than two decades. This change resulted in higher skill levels, greater investment, greater employment creation and rapid economic growth.

Let us compare this with the State of Andhra Pradesh where populist programmes of a different kind were implemented with equal sincerity and vigour. In 1983 the NTR government introduced the subsidized rice programme at Rs.2 a kilogram. The scheme was equally well-implemented and the motives were perhaps similar. However people simply consumed subsidized rice and it did not alter their behaviour in any positive way. As a consequence the poor largely remained poor and their skill levels and literacy have not gone up. In fact it is possible to argue that the savings by the poor went for alcoholic consumption and such other unproductive, and sometimes harmful activities. Andhra Pradesh today has the third lowest literacy among all States of India. Only Bihar and Orissa have lower levels of literacy. It is clear therefore that literacy level cannot be a precondition for democracy and universal adult franchise. In fact good governance and sensible strategic initiatives are the preconditions for higher literacy and the positive benefits that flow from it.

Can economic liberalization address the governance crisis?

There is no substitute to good governance characterised by liberty to all citizens, self-governing institutions, empowerment of people and stakeholders, rule of law and institutional safeguards against abuse of authority.
Many believe that the economic liberalisation process initiated in 1991 would somehow find answers to our governance crisis. Economic reforms, while they are necessary, are by no means sufficient to resolve our national dilemmas. Even if the role of the state is redefined with sharper role in a narrower area, an efficient and just state in a free society is a vital precondition for economic growth and human happiness. Even in a liberalised economic environment, the state still has the duty to discharge vital responsibilities. Public order, crime investigation, speedy justice, good quality school education accessible to all children, universal primary healthcare, maintenance of minimal standards of sanitation and civic amenities, and building of vital infrastructure like roads and facilitating economic growth through other infrastructure development like power and ports - all these are the legitimate functions of the state irrespective of the economic system we choose.

This situation is further complicated as these critical sovereign areas of state function are witnessing abuse of power. In the earlier days of the license-quota-permit raj, economic patronage of state was abused for personal gain. Since 1991 the role of Indian state in licensing and other related economic activities has been on the decline. The state has a wide latitude in areas of sovereign functioning like public order, crime control, administration justice, crime investigation and related matters, in the absence of effective institutional checks against abuse of authority. No matter how much we limit the role of state, these are vital areas which will always will be within the state sphere and when conditions for good governance are not fulfilled, abuse of power in these areas becomes the norm.

Over the past several years there is mounting evidence of such a phenomenon resulting in increased criminalisation of politics, greater politicisation of crime investigation, and increasing nexus between political class, state agencies and organised criminal gangs and operators. In effect such abuse of power in the critical areas of state functioning leads to complete lawlessness and undermines the firm foundations of our society and civilisation. A rogue state whose legitimacy is in question, whose appetite for ill-gotten funds is uncontrollable, and whose actions are not accountable to the people will continue to use the limited economic decision making power under its control for private gain and personal ends at the cost of public good and economic growth.

In fact, it is this failure that explains in a large measure the limited success of economic reforms. In the absence of good governance, economic reform in itself will lead to modest growth at best for some period and the fruits of reform will be transient and self-limiting. Inadequate human development and the failure of our delivery systems have led to appallingly low levels of literacy and skills, poor health coverage and hopelessly inadequate infrastructure. The vast majority of Indians are thus left outside the pale of the productive process of the nation. Besides, even with economic liberalisation the state will continue to play an important role to ensure fair competition.

Therefore mere economic liberalisation in itself is not a panacea to resolve our governance crisis. There is no substitute to good governance characterised by liberty to all citizens, self-governing institutions, empowerment of people and stakeholders, rule of law and institutional safeguards against abuse of authority.

Next : Obstacles to active citizenship