Tuesday, March 02, 2010

A third rate government

Imagine if you would, your locality plagued with a rash of small brickworks. They are primitive in design, belching fumes and befouling the neighbourhood, the smoke and toxins causing real health problems. What would you do?

Not in any way comparable in seriousness, in the tiny physical world inhabited by EU Referendum, we are faced with the unwelcome prospect of a take-away being opened up at the end of our street.

Before it can open, however, it needs planning permission, so Mrs EU Referendum has been busily consulting with local councillors and organising a petition, plus writing to local officials and the planning committee. Like as not, the development will be blocked – just as it has on the three previous occasions the same owner has made the same application for the same take-away.

The issue here, of course, is that to protect our local environment, we seek relief from government. By and large, it performs moderately well. Certainly, there is not the slightest chance of us ever being discommoded by a brickworks being planted at the end of the street.

But that is not the case in India. With the burgeoning economy and a building boom the like of which we have not seen in England for some time, the suburbs of many small towns and cities have been troubled, exactly as described, with a rash of small brickworks, the like of which would never be permitted or tolerated in any developed country.

Now, to develop a corpus of law, including planning restrictions and pollution controls, and an effective enforcement mechanism, is not exactly rocket science. We in England can trace such laws – and the enforcement bodies – back to the Public Health Act 1848, and the emergence of the "public health nuisance" as a statutory offence which could be dealt with by public officials.

Despite the benefits of modernity, however, the governments (federal and state) of India seems entirely incapable of implementing – or, at least, administering such basic controls over their own territories. And this is despite the fact that brickworks are one of the major causes of pollution in India and, being highly inefficient, are holding back rather than promoting development.

So it is that, with governments manifestly incapable of governing, we see the intervention of international agencies such as the Global Environment Facility (GEF), an offshoot of the UN Development Programme (UNDP).

This emerged into my consciousness while hunting the Pachauri millions, when I came across this project, costed at $2,792,593, part funded by GEF, utilising the services of our favourite NGO, TERI.

Headed, "Energy Efficiency Improvements in Indian Brick Industry", it is a worthy enough project, but only scratches the surface of a much larger problem. And, reflecting the priorities of the funding organisation rather than those of the local communities, its main objective is not the betterment of society (and industry) but the control of CO2 "pollution".

Whatever the merits or otherwise of the project, though, the very fact that the government of India allows it is remarkable. Put the shoe on the other foot and imagine how we might feel if, to sort out the takeaway problem at the top of the street, we had to wait for a United Nations agency to descend upon us, throwing money at a local NGO.

That such agencies exist or are allowed to operate – at least, in India – should be regarded by the citizens as an insult, an affront to national pride. To accept that national systems are so inadequate that the intervention of outside agencies for such basic services has to be a most abject admission of incompetence.

Furthermore, far from helping development, it actively undermines it. One can see the sense in calling on outside consultants to assist in identifying inadequacies in governance and administrative systems – although it is hard to accept that such an endeavour is beyond the capabilities of local talent.

Then, surely, the priority would be to introduce such laws as are needed (where they do not already exist) and then to develop the enforcement systems that make them work.

Yet it is the manifest inability of the Indian government to perform the basic functions of government that is holding the country back. Doing part of the job that the government should be doing can hardly help. It is not poverty, ignorance, or lack of resources, per se that is the problem. We were hardly blessed with the attributes and riches that India can now claim, back in 1848 when we started to deal with our own messes.

The problem is a lack of effective governance. We are thus forced to conclude that India is a third world nation because it has a third rate government. And our "development aid", it seems, is making the situation worse.