In 1985, a starving family sold their 12-year-old girl for a princely sum of Rs 40 in Kalahandi in Odisha. The news outraged the nation and triggered a visit by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, who famously said that of every 100 rupees allocated to anti-poverty programmes only 15 rupees reach the intended beneficiary.
Last week, three young girls were found dead in their house. The post-mortem report declared that the three girls, eight-year-old Mansi, her sisters Shikha and Paro, aged four and two, died of malnutrition/starvation and related complications. In 1985-86, India spent around Rs 3,500 crore on food and fertiliser subsidies. The allocation for food subsidies alone in 2018-19 is Rs 1.69 lakh crore. Add an allocation of Rs 24,700 crore for the Integrated Child Development Services and Rs 10,500 crore for mid-day meals for schoolchildren like Mansi.
It is over three decades since Rajiv Gandhi made that defining statement about governance. Since then, the rationing system has morphed from PDS to Revamped PDS to Targeted PDS. In October 2000, the Atal Bihari Vajpayee regime introduced the Antyodaya scheme for the poorest of the poor. In 2001, following starvation deaths, Right to Food activists petitioned the Supreme Court to make right to food an enforceable right. The Court issued over 40 interim orders to the Centre and six states. In September 2013, Parliament passed the National Food Security Act—a law that makes right to food justiciable.
Most pertinently, the tragedy did not take place in the hinterland of India’s Bimaru states.
The last-mile failure was in the first mile of government—in the national capital, New Delhi. The phenomenon of last-mile failure afflicts governance across sectors and geographies. After the Nirbhaya rape case, the government amended the law for sexual offences in 2013 to instil fear and improve deterrence. Last week, the government informed Parliament that between 2014 and 2016, a total of 110,333 cases were registered across India—that is 36,777 per year, 3,064 a month, 102 per day and four per hour.
Deterrence demands more than piously assembled words in the statute. The rule of law requires to be upheld but is stymied both by quality and capacity—4.43 lakh of the 19.89 lakh sanctioned posts for police personnel are vacant. And over 1.33 lakh rape cases are pending in courts and barely 3 per cent of child rape cases end with conviction. Two of three prisoners, or 2.93 lakh out of 4.2 lakh prisoners, are undertrials, many for years, although Section 436 A says undertrials must get bail on serving more than half of the maximum sentence possible.
The criminal justice system must deliver justice in a reasonable time to deter. There are over 3.3 crore cases pending in various courts —57,987 cases in the Supreme Court, 43 lakh in High Courts and 2.84 crore in subordinate courts. Over 22.9 lakh cases are pending for over 10 years. Earlier this week, Supreme Court Judge Kurian Joseph suggested that the retirement age for judges be raised to 70 from 65 to clear pending cases.
What is the state of vacancies? The Supreme Court has an approved strength of 31 judges, of which eight posts are vacant. The High Courts have an approved strength of 1,079 judges, of which 411 posts are vacant. And in subordinate courts, 5,925 judges’ posts are vacant. The National Judicial Appointments Commission Act was notified in April 2015 and overturned by the SC in October 2015.
The stalemate persists.
The failure of last-mile governance is most visible in the state of urban decay—whether it is the quality of air, water supply, reliability of power, public transport and infrastructure. Urban Indians spend nearly a fourth of their waking hours in many cities trying to get to work and back home. Delhi needs 11,000 buses, but only 5,554 are on the roads. In Pune, the PMPML bus services are in a shambles with over 150 breakdowns a day – the last six months saw 30,000 breakdowns.
Earlier this month, the MLAs of Maharashtra had a ringside view of the deterioration when the Maharashtra Legislative Assembly had to adjourn the session for the day since its premises, the Vidhan Bhavan in Nagpur, hometown of the chief minister, was flooded. This week, two hours of heavy rain brought Delhi to a crippling halt. A few weeks earlier it was Mumbai—whose residents live in the city with the richest municipal corporation and now need to pay a surcharge on stamp duty to fund infrastructure. Every year as the monsoon arrives, residents of major metros find themselves marooned in flooded areas—and these major metros are state capitals. A recent report suggests over half the smart cities are vulnerable to flooding.
There is surplus and there is scarcity. Water is governed by a multitude of laws and any decision requires consensus across six ministries in the Centre and six in a state besides the municipal bodies. Tanker mafias rule the roost as cities are flailing to deliver potable water. Last month, the Niti Aayog said that 21 cities were running out of groundwater and where there is water it is contaminated. Urban India generates 61,948 million litres of sewage every day, of which barely a third is treated. This and industrial pollutants are poisoning groundwater sources. The episodic fires at Bellandur Lake in Bengaluru are a testimony to wilful urban neglect.
There is no dearth of policies or laws in the statute. Arguably, there is no problem that has not been studied. The governments of India–Centre and states–spend over Rs 35 lakh crore. India’s Parliament has 776 seats. Indians elect 4,120 MLAs, and members to over 2.6 lakh local bodies. To nurture, sustain democracy and to truly represent the people, the elected must ponder why policies crafted flail and fail to deliver at the last mile.
Author of Aadhaar: A Biometric History of India’s 12 Digit Revolution,and Accidental India