As February approaches, development-speak in the nation is getting louder. Policy and planning activity are also hitting a peak; the Finance Ministry will have everyone's eyes and ears in a few weeks time, and the Planning Commission has been busy with preparations for the 11th Five Year Plan. Also, state governments have sent their own development plans to New Delhi for "approval" - an anachronistic and anti-federal practice - and a number of development promises result from these too. Clearly, there is no shortage of professed good intentions.
But what of outcomes? Do citizens trust that the multiple development plans emanating from various levels of governments and their departments will produce good outcomes? Hardly. The common man has always known the million slips between the proverbial cup and lip. In every area - health, education, infrastructure, jobs, law enforcement and justice - there is much greater talk, analysis and articulation than there is of results. Citizens' trust in politics might once have existed - perhaps after the early euphoria of Independence - but what little trust there may have been was then surely squandered away, leaving a deep deficit of credulity around all things in government. Moreover, it is not lost on anyone that much of our planning and speechmaking happens in this atmosphere of distrust.
The road to disbelief
All deficits exact a price on the people who bear them, and a trust deficit is no different. Our governments face mistrust, cynicism, and opposition from citizens and their associations, as well as within, and even good plans are often defeated by this.
Take infrastructure, always a hot topic at this time of the year. Politicians offer grand ideas to tackle the innumerable problems we face as a result of our crumbling infrastructure, but their plans have difficulty in even getting off the ground, let alone seeing the light of good implementation. Why? Because the first hurdle to cross is opposition and concern from citizens. Be it a metro transport system, an expressway, a 'reformed' water supply system or anything else, no sooner is a 'reform' initiative proposed, than opposition arises from some quarter or the other.
This may seem counter-productive - after all, don't citizens crying for improvements want them? - but on closer scrutiny it becomes plain that sometimes, opposition is the most sensible recourse. The typical infrastructure project in our country is years late, riddled with corruption, and eventually costs quite a bit more than the original estimate. Very often, one finds that a proposal has inadequately considered the public good. Even worse than this, the process is deliberately designed to exclude citizens from decision-making, and does not rationally argue between multiple choices in favour of the path chosen. Instead, the decisions are arbitrary, asking the public to trust that whatever choices are made ultimately reflect good intentions and purposeful action by public servants.
• How many bullets make a dam?
• A qualified freedom As if this were not bad enough, the history of implementing grand ideas around the country is full of failures that were quite predictable long before the promised outcomes were defeated. As a result, citizens have become quite adept at judging from the first few steps of any new initiative how successful it will be. The first public meeting to seek citizens' input on a new development project is almost always enough to judge whether the goal is being sought fairly and purposefully, or if the whole thing is simply the usual charade that will predictably fall prey to corruption and mismanagement.
Under these circumstances, even good plans and projects face enormous cynicism from frustrated citizens. Taxpayers don't look at new projects as solutions to their worries. Instead they see them as likely to compound the misery that already marks their lives. Imagine a property developer with an undisputed track record of poor quality houses proposing rosier and more secure homes for people to live in, and expecting citizens to trust their money with him. This is how our public officials often sound in their claims. The fact that in recent years a few scrupulous officers in the public sector have lost their lives in exposing corruption has only widened the trust deficit.
What is most conspicuous by its absence during our public conversations about development is discussion on the trust deficit itself. Even the Prime Minister's speech at the National Development Council - the apex body of state chief ministers and the union executive -- talked of cooperation, but not winning the public's trust. In most civil spheres, private or public, trust between people is a key ingredient; without it the expectation of good outcomes can only be wishful. Without trust, all bets on cooperative progress are off, and few of our developmental objectives will be achieved.
What's the solution? What can bring citizens' trust back so that governments can move forward together with the people on development plans? What will ensure that the infrastructure needed to serve our crumbling public spaces and pathways will get built, if the citizens for whose benefit they are advocated are sceptical?
The answer: Our trust deficit too large to be bridged even by relatively honest and successful new initiatives. We need more successes, no doubt, and those will help. But these are in any event too few in comparison to the failures, and thus do not seriously erode the scepticism of citizens. What is needed is a bridge across this abyss. Before we erect physical infrastructure, we must first build the infrastructure from which citizens' trust in government institutions will return and can then be marshalled for the public good.
But what is this infrastructure of trust? Can we find its pillars and even its nuts and bolts, so that we're not simply arguing for an impossible ideal, but speaking of things we can actually do? It turns out, yes. The credibility of public institutions can be earned and retained in much the same way as it is in any other arena.
One, eliminate, or at least reduce, the need for trust. Transparent organisations automatically command a degree of trust, by subjecting their operations to public scrutiny voluntarily. Seeing is believing. When citizens see that public servants and politicians have nothing to hide, they become more trusting of their intentions. For civil servants and politicians too, openness acts as a restraint on their own actions, an important factor in all powerful offices. If instead, administration and decision-making happens behind a curtain of secrecy, citizens are left to judge the virtue of the decision-makers from promises and outcomes alone. And as we said earlier, that scorecard is now predictable at the very time a promise is made.
It isn't that societies with far better track records of governance accomplish their outcomes because citizens line up public offices every morning to look through the books and terrorise officials into honesty. The mere fact that books remain open forces the majority of officials to stay faithful to the good imperatives they were put in office for. This is the premise of transparency.
Like in other nations, in India too Right-to-Information campaigners have seized on the power of transparency more urgently in recent years, demanding and obtaining more power to scrutinise public servants. Still, even this is complementary to the real thing; the eventual goal is - and must be - to ensure that government departments at every tier voluntarily disclose as much of the information at their command as possible, without being asked. Citizens should see government to be serving their interests, and it follows therefore that governments must make a strong effort to keep citizens informed.
Two, stop promising outcomes; these don't matter as much as processes do. The standard notions of progress we see around us - in government proclamations, in the promotional hoardings of new apartment communities, in career advertising of new age jobs, etc. - all begin with a promise of the ideal world we plan to inhabit. But a promise to upgrade our lives by 10,000 per cent is not a plan, it is not even a bet. Citizens must have sustained opportunities to provide informed input and consent along the way to attaining the promised outcomes. Too often, our governments shirk their legal responsibilities to establish citizens' committees that can oversee the government's proposals and projects. They tell citizens instead that as public officials, they are above due process and law. Few developmental milestones in any nation have been accomplished on these terms.
This isn't a long list, containing just two entries. Informed citizenship requires only that governments earnestly seek to inform the people, obtain their inputs, and act on them in a transparent manner. Whatever follows is democracy. We should try it sometime soon, lest this round of planning too leaves behind another bucketful of woe, in the form of delayed projects, leakier schemes, new road cave-ins, and flood-induced building collapses.