Dialogue  April - June, 2004 , Volume 5  No. 4

Governance: approach issues innovatively, with pro-people emphasis


Sanjoy Hazarika*


In a recent conversation, Sikkim Chief Minister Pawan Chamling spoke of the criticality of governance in our states and the need to deliver basic services to people in need.  He talked about sustainable development and the need to protect the environment and ensure the public interest.

Sounds familiar – but tough.  Few states in the country, let alone the North-east, have been able to implement such a simple charter.  Yet, it is a platform with which no political party could possibly argue with: who is opposed to conserving natural resources and using them competently and in an environmentally-friendly manner?  Who is opposed to ensuring that the public are the main beneficiaries of government programming? Can anyone object to the delivery of basic services to the vulnerable and poor?  

But, across India and especially in the North-east, this has failed to happen. There are many factors responsible for this failure and this issue will be packed with learned articles, imposing essays, critical facts and statistics by well-informed people which will analyse them at length, discuss them threadbare and propose specific changes.  I will not seek to do that for I do not have that competence.  But I will try and develop this brief essay, based on personal experience and understanding of the region, on a few different parameters.  It is also my view that one need not take too much space writing about such questions: the problems are not new and are well-known – we need to clearly and briefly assess how to deal with them.

One is the need to think innovatively on many issues, especially the way in which we address well-known problems in a predictable manner – the knee-jerk approach needs to be jettisoned. Second, we need to ally natural resources to locational advantages and human resource skills – especially by upgrading the latter.  A third is to enforce a system of review, a mechanism to ensure transparency, accountability and to monitor funds which are being spent in the name of the people or the government.

One wishes to illustrate the problems and potential answers with specific examples to these questions of governance and delivery. At the very outset, as one has argued elsewhere, one would assert that Indians (and I am including all North-eastern groups here) – and fellow South Asians for that matter – are good at dreaming and designing projects, programmes and policies (the three Ps).  But we are abysmal failures, on the whole, when it comes to the question of delivery of services, programme completion and policy implementation.  This is true barring some honourable exceptions, in and outside the government sectors. There are many factors for this and a range of problems can be blamed for underperformance or failure: insurgency, natural calamities, obdurate politicians and bureaucracy, corruption.  The list goes on.


Thinking Innovatively:

Let us take the example of floods in Assam.  Every year, hundreds of crores of rupees of government and private property is devastated, livestock swept away, people are hit by water-borne disease without access to basic health services, education systems collapse with high water entering schools and colleges.  Every year, the state and central governments spend more money in building embankments of sand and rock which do not work and vanish at the first surge of floods; there are other protection devices which also do nothing but are also constructed including planting bamboo trunks along eroded banks and triangular bamboo structures with sandbags (some are empty) to stop erosion and divert currents: these, also needless to say, do not work, especially with a vast river like the Brahmaputra and its equally fierce tributaries which wash away human interventions to control with relentless ease.

Funds which are supposed to go to building bundhs, embankments and other protection systems are a farce and failure because of the high scale of corruption at every level and the low quality of inputs such as basic building materials.  Can an embankment of sand in Majuli island, the large island in the heart of the Brahmaputra, resist the fast-flowing currents of the river, which resemble the assaults of a furious army?  A single visit to this and other vulnerable sites is enough to clarify issues.  People are fed up and despairing; they are cynical to government and as a result, the young become potential recruits to those groups which promise liberation from oppression through violent means.  The story and the cycle is as old as human society but we still do not learn.

The point here is not just the impact of the floods in terms of displacement and that too is considerable. An estimated 10 percent of the population of Assam is displaced by flooding every year, or about 25 lakh (2.5 million).  In a bad year, it can be as high as 30 lakh and over.  These figures may be small compared to the scale of flooding in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh but no less significant because the Brahmaputra and its tributaries flow into and drain a narrow valley and flood plain, almost shaped like a open pipe, which is flanked by hills on either side. 

Displacement brings with it many miseries, among the worst being ill-health and lack of services.  The response of governments and administrations to such emergencies is the usual knee-jerk approach: take a few boats, pack them with relief supplies, send out doctors and medicines and hope for the best.

But why has no one thought of dedicated and designed ships/country boats which ca be used just to reach basic medical services at times of flood?  These can be part of the district administration’s emergency responses as well as that of the state government.  At the Centre for North East Studies and Policy Research, having thought about the issue of floods and vulnerability especially to disease, we developed a model for a “Ship of Hope” which could deliver basic services during floods and be used as a documentation and health campaign vehicle during the lean season.  The idea was simple: why not use local knowledge, technology and abilities in terms of boat building, improve them with technical upgrades which would ensure safety and stability as well as speed that could make a large country boat or middle-sized ferry capable of delivering these services throughout the year.  It would be sustainable since it would directly benefit boat builders and river communities as well as vulnerable groups in floods and other times; it could be “owned” by panchayats and district administrations as well as the state government and it could bring better health, if not save lives, to tens of thousands of people.  The concept is that this would be a prototype that would be built locally but with more powerful engines and capable of accommodating health personnel and professionals as well as medical stores and have space for on-board treatment of basic health problems and even take a few emergency cases back to the nearest referral or district hospital.  It would not be an evacuation or rescue ship, which would have to be designed completely differently. But it could take basic services to those in need.  There is a need for a fleet of such boats: each boat could serve a cluster of villages and thus reach tens of thousands; the fleet could reach lakhs.

We heard about a competition for innovative ideas which if implemented could transform rural communities.  This was organized by the World Bank for India at a national level.  Despite some reservations about the Bank and its programs, we decided to enter the competition.  “The Ship of Hope in a Valley of Flood” was finally selected as one of  20 winners after a rigorous process involving two juries and a selection committee.  We consider this as an opportunity to put a unique idea into reality and test its potential for change and, along with the other winners, will get some modest funding in building, designing and seeking to deliver our dream.

It always is a source of amazement to me why no one has thought of such a simple intervention when the river teaches us every year, every day that it is important to listen to it and its people, instead of imposing half-baked solutions like river linking (which is one of the most undemocratic and technically obtuse approaches to tackling the problem of floods and water shortages).  The answers to most of the problems created by the river lie within it; all we have to do is to observe well, listen closely and work with dedication.

Different kinds of boats can be used on the river for many applications instead of just being a bunch of poorly designed and catered floating restaurants in Guwahati. They can, for example, take tourists at low cost to national parks and places of interest, promoting eco-tourism.  They can be used for cultural documentation and education campaigns. The list is endless, the opportunities limitless – what holds us back is our inability to think innovatively and clearly, to plan with vision and realistically.


Allying resources, locations and skills

Each part of each district of the North-east has unique features.  Most parts are exceptionally beautiful.  Let us look here at one area which can marry natural resources to location advantages and local skills while generating incomes and improving knowledge as well as conserving the environment.  Despite the beauty of the region, few tourists especially foreign visitors come apart from the beaten track to places like Shillong, Kaziranga and Guwahati. Few venture into Shillong’s neighbourhood, beyond Cherrapunji and Elephant Falls or the picturesque Umiam Dam.  There is a problem with image, of concerns about safety.  Few realize that despite the media and government created image – and there is a basis to such concerns – the situation in most parts of the region is far better than Bihar or the badlands of Uttar Pradesh where village feuds, killings in rural areas and oppression of the poor by the landed and rich is a “normal” way of life.  In fact, I remember with outrage and incredulity that a senior journalist from Bihar spoke nonchalantly in a television discussion about how occurrences as the rape and beating of North-easterners in Bihar who were traveling by train was a normal occurrence. I objected vehemently saying that such an attitude showed that people there had begun to tolerate the intolerable but that this could not be expected of other parts of the country.

Returning to the issue of tourism: instead of building new expensive complexes in different parts of the region, one should look at how the local young people and communities can be involved in developing tourism, especially cultural and eco-tourism.  A clear example is the sacred groves of Meghalaya, where communities have tended special forests without government intervention for centuries, nurturing and taking care of them, developing large pockets of rich habitat with floral species which are wiped out elsewhere in the state. When one official suggested bringing tourists to view the forests, he was asked where the visitors would stay. The circuit house or forest lodge, he responded.  The condition of both was dilapidated.  Why not, suggested an entrepreneur with experience in tourism in the North-east, enable the local village to give out land near the grove as a camp site where different kinds of tents could be pitched for visitors: the high-end with attached bathrooms, the middle for middle income groups and a third for budget travelers.  Officials can rarely think of such ideas.  Babus are not trained, for the most, to think innovatively.

The food for the camping site can be cooked by villagers; in the process, they would have to learn new skills (of food beyond the local), ensure good quality sanitation and linen and speak different languages.  How many translators or real tour guides exist in the North-east?  Apart from speaking German or Italian or English, how many are there who can speak good Hindi or Tamil.  Even Bengali is not spoken among the hill groups, although it can be understood and people can communicate with Bengali-speakers in Assam.  Tripura, of course, is a different situation where Bengali is the main language. We have to think of skill upgradation, not just in terms of languages but also by developing good connectivity to such sites – both in terms of roads as well as small internet kiosks, as are being developed by ITC in Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra, which can be placed in villages.  Such facilities would largely be for local farmers and residents but can also cater to the tourists in distant places.

The examples of the Wild Grass Resort at Kaziranga, Purvi Discovery in Dibrugarh and Ozing and Yanne Dai’s trekking tours from Naharlagam in Aruanachal Pradesh come readily to mind as examples which can be emulated.  Khonoma village in Nagaland now has home stays for visitors and a group of motivated young men and women who want to create self-help groups, connected also to tourism.  The Assam government says there are 80,000 self-help groups in the state employing eight lakh people. Why not train at least one tenth of them in basic tourist systems and approaches? 

These are how things change and can change.


Review and Monitoring

There are varying estimates for the amount of money which has been invested or spent in the North-east by various Central government departments over the past 50 years, and especially in the last decade.  This is estimated to run into tens of thousands of crores; one credible figure says Rs. 40,000 crores.

Where has this money gone? Who has spent it and how?  Who has benefited and where? There are no markers for transparency or accountability in government projects.  Some states like Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur and Mizoram are cited for their lack of accountability and poor financial management. This is not my view – it is to be found in the detailed statement of the office of the Comprtoller-General of Audit and Accounts in its annual report which tears the veil off the cover-ups by the state governments and the wholesale loot of funds. Not one state comes out looking good.

There needs to be a review mechanism built into every project sanctioned by the Centre and implemented by different states.  Such a mechanism was recommended by a Colloquium of independent groups at Guwahati this January when a review was conducted of the functioning of the North Eastern Council and its non-performance, to put it mildly.  Such a review must be multi-sectoral and cover different states and should include representatives of civil society as well as specialists and government.

It is time that people knew where the vast amounts of money have gone – and into whose pockets.  A review mechanism would function like a transparency commission and every project, large or small, should have one.  Without accountability, there can be no responsibility; and without responsibility, there cannot be any proper implementation of projects and policies.

A beginning should be made by ensuring such transparency in the functioning of the NEC, which has been headless for over two years, and a detailed audit of its work and programmes.

In conclusion, one asserts that these three factors go together: innovation and initiatives; combining resources and skills; review, monitoring and transparency.  They are the heart of governance – and the beauty is that in such an approach the role of government is marginal, essentially as a support system and policy framer, while that of the people is maximized, through involvement and implementation.


 Dialogue A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati

Astha Bharati