The role of civil society in exerting pressure for better quality of services in metropolitan India is assuming greater importance of late. For instance, the snowballing rage of resident welfare organizations (RWAs) in the nation’s capital over the 10 per cent hike in power tariffs -- which is assuming the character of a civil disobedience movement of sorts -- is only an augury of what is come in other essential services as well like water, telecom and transportation. This activism on the part of an aware citizenry is bound to hold the political class to better standards of accountability.
True to form, the political class initially underestimated the anger of Delhiites over the tariff hikes without a commensurate improvement in power supply. Delhi chief minister dismissed the RWAs decision not to pay the tariff hike as representing only one per cent of the people; that they should take the bitter pill today for a brighter tomorrow and such like. Completely misreading the fast growing protest movement, the chief minister even issued a stern warning to those refusing to pay their bills. Today, the political class is in a damage control mode to heed civil society’s concerns before it gets out of hand.
In other metros as well, there are signs of growing activism on the part of civil society that is simply fed up over the deteriorating quality of services and urban infrastructure. It has taken the recent floods and raging epidemic of dengue and leptospirosis to spur such activism in the nation’s finance capital. For all the talk of becoming another Shanghai, the experience of wading neck deep through water amid the stench of rotting corpses has forced concerned Mumbaikars to file a public interest litigation against bad governance. The corporate response to the chief minister’s relief fund has also been lukewarm.
Like in Delhi, in Mumbai as well, the political class initially was out of touch with the popular mood but soon scrambled to limit the damage. To be sure, civil society pressure is no magic wand to dramatically transform the deteriorating quality of services in urban India -- a good part of it relates to lack of resources. But when user charges are being levied for electricity supplies, for instance, pressure on the part of an aware citizenry certainly helps in ensuring better quality. It certainly helps in holding privatized distribution companies to better standards of performance.
Besides improving quality of services, monitoring by civil society also helps in tackling corruption as well. Citizens are often tempted to bribe officials for various services when they have to run from pillar to post to get their work done. Towards this end, the citizenry should also be empowered with more information. Removing "information asymmetry" through Right to Information laws thus is imperative argued Dr Samuel Paul of the Bangalore-based Public Affairs Centre in his presentation to the Commonwealth Asian Colloquium on Development and Democracy held recently in New Delhi.
Dr Paul illustrated these observations with the example of Bangalore where citizen organizations maintained report cards on various government bodies like the Bangalore Municipal Corporation, Bangalore Development Authority etc. Overall satisfaction levels were observed to improve over time as a result of this watchdog function of "civil society on its feet." Problem incidence also reduced. Most importantly, so too did levels of corruption -- measured in terms of the percentage of people who paid bribes to get their work done -- from 18 per cent in 1994 to 11 per cent in 2003. Clearly, civil society pressure strengthens greater accountability in performance and brings down corruption.
Back to the RWA rage in Delhi, there are no prizes for guessing what will be the outcome of this protest movement. It is, of course, not in the hands of the chief minister to roll back tariffs that are fixed by the state electricity regulatory authority in any case. The RWAs must petition the Appellate Authority for Electricity in this regard to get the tariff order over-ruled. But the political class is showing signs of panic at the popular backlash and will be forced to take action against distribution companies that are making money out of this business without showing improvement in service quality.
[As we were about to upload this article came the
news that a meeting of the Congress Legislature Party has passed a resolution seeking complete roll-back of the 10 per cent hike in power tariff in
Delhi, and it is expected to be "approved" by the Delhi Cabinet on August 31. However, the resolution
is silent on the 5.2% hike for industrial consumers.
Deep down, however, the political class finds it somewhat difficult to believe that matters have come to such a head. Till now, it merrily went ahead providing free or highly subsidized power to farmers in agriculture or slums in urban areas while putting the burden on industry and household consumers. Large and medium industry has got out of this bind by going in for captive generation while households quietly bore the burden of higher tariffs. But with the steady deterioration in supply -- prolonged cuts, overbilling and so on -- RWAs decided that enough is enough and went on the rampage.
Civil society pressure thus has the potential of spurring real reforms in power, besides improving the quality of services in metropolitan India. The real challenge, however, is rural India that the political class simply cannot ignore. A delusion persists among them that farmers only want free power. Far from it. In many states like Rajasthan studies have shown they are prepared to pay for uninterrupted supply of electricity but politicians think that free power is sound vote bank politics. The day when they too begin a civil disobedience movement for better quality will indeed be the day.
N. Chandra Mohan is a commentator on economic issues based in New Delhi