by Ajay Shah
Editor’s note: See GEI News article about the gang rape epidemic in India.
There is fresh rage on the bad state of law and order in India today. That rage is entirely appropriate.
My father was born in 1926 and experienced British rule. One of the high points of his life was participation in the freedom movement. He used to say to me with great regret that under British rule, the Shiv Sena would have never arisen. What has happened in India is a disgrace.
The interesting and important question is: How can the problems be solved?
Moral outrage does not lend itself to good policy analysis. As with the problem of corruption, the problem of law and order requires sophisticated thinking. Just as the young people who got enamoured by Baba Ramdev and Baba Hazare got nothing done in terms of combating corruption, we should worry about what comes next on law and order. Anger and outrage, coupled with low knowledge of political science and public economics, is a sure path to poor policy analysis. What matters is shifting from anger to analysis to action.
As an example, if laws are modified to prescribe draconian penalties for rape, then rapists are more likely to kill the victim. What is required is better quality implementation of the existing law.
What would it take to make the police and courts work better? The three ingredients that are required are incentives for politicians, resources and feedback loops.
Incentives for politicans
The first issue is incentives for politicians. Politicians will deliver law and order if they think that this is what will get them re-elected. From Indira Gandhi’s time onwards, politicians in India have felt that the way to win elections was to focus on welfare programs for the poor. As long as this is the case, the narrative that will dominate the Indian State is that of poverty, inequality, and welfare programs.
Economists distinguish between public goods and private goods. Public goods are defined to be those that are ‘non-rival’ (your consumption of safety does not reduce my consumption of safety) and ‘non-excludable’ (it is impossible to exclude a new born child from the environment of safety). The legitimate purpose of the State is to pursue public goods. All citizens gain from public goods, and all voters should respond to these benefits. The first and most important public good is safety, which requires building the army, the police and the courts.
The Indian State has, instead, gone off on the adventure of building welfare programs: of government giving private goods to marginal voters. The first priority of the Indian State is the themes of poverty, inequality and welfare programs. Politicians need to learn that this hurts. Sheila Dixit should realise that her top priority in Delhi is law and order.
There are undoubtedly problems in the leadership and management structure of the police. I believe that once politicians want law and order, this will drive them to recruit the leadership that is required, and undertake structural reforms, so as to get results. As an example, look at how the politicians broke with PWD and setup NHAI, or setup Delhi Metro. The question that matters is: Do politicians want law and order? From the 1960s onwards, the minds of politicians have been addled by welfare programs.
If Rs.X is spent as a gift on a few marginal voters, it makes a certain difference to winning elections. If that same money is spent on public goods – e.g. better safety for all – it should make a bigger difference to winning elections since more voters gain. The question is: Do politicans see this and act in response?
The second issue is resources. India needs much more staffing in the police and the courts. This includes both technical staff (e.g. constables and judges) and support staff (e.g. clerical staff, operators of computer systems, etc).
Courts and police stations need to be high quality workplaces with air conditioning, computer systems, modern office equipment, canteens, web interfaces to the citizenry, lighting, toilets, and such like.
Policemen need to live in high quality housing. If policemen live in high quality housing and work in high quality offices, they will be more civilised both in terms of the quality of intake and in terms of how their behaviour evolves on the job. This will cost a lot of money. The State in India has very little money. To improve the police and courts will require cutting back on welfare programs.
As Robert Kaplan says, underdevelopment is where the police are more dangerous than the criminals. One element of this is the biases in recruitment. As an example, the police in Bombay tends to be male Maharashtraian and relatively low skill. This needs to evolve into a more sophisticated workforce, with gender, ethnic and religious diversity that reflects the cosmopolitan structure of the populace.
At present, in India, spending on police and courts (which are core public goods) is classified as ‘non-plan expenditure’ and is treated as a bad thing. Spending on private goods like welfare programs is classified as ‘plan expenditure’ and grows lavishly year after year. In the UPA period, plan expenditure has gone up by four times in 10 years. These priorities need to be reversed.
The other critical resource, other than money, is top management time. The simple question that I would ask Sheila Dixit or Manmohan Singh is: What fraction of your time do you devote to public goods? My fear is that the bulk of their time is spent worrying about welfare programs. When the top management is not focused on law and order, safety will degrade.
The lack of safety is a regressive tax: it hits the poor more than the rich. The rich are able to insulate themselves at a lower cost. When a policeman faces me on the street, he immediately speaks to me in a certain way once he sees that I come from the elite. Poor people are mistreated by both criminals and the police. Through this, the number of votes that should be affected by improved law and order is large. The people who care deeply about the poor, and would like to focus the Indian State upon problems of inequality and poverty, should ponder the consequences of what they have wrought.
In order to think about law and order, we need measurement. I used to think that the murder rate is high quality data. Over recent years, I have come to believe that in many parts of India, not all murder is reported to the police. In this case, we are at ground zero about the state of crime: we know nothing about how much crime is taking place out there.
The most important outcome that I think matters is a question asked in a household survey of parents: Are you comfortable when your teenage daughter is out alone at 11 PM? That’s it. That’s the end goal. Civilisation is where parents are comfortable when their teenage daughters are out alone at 11 PM.
Once the CPI is measured, and measured well, RBI can be held accountable for delivering low and stable inflation. In similar fashion, the Bombay police can be held accountable once we get a graph updated every month about the crime rate in Bombay, supplemented by quarterly data from crime victimisation surveys. This would generate feedback loops whereby we can judge whether Sheila Dixit has improved law and order in Delhi on her watch.
When Sheila Dixit gets anxious about the lack of progress on publicly visible statistics about the state of law and order in Delhi, she will have the incentives to recruit high quality leadership for the Delhi police, and to resource them adequately, to get things done.
Why are these good things not getting done?
This is the hardest question. I have three opinions about what has been going wrong.
The first lies in the incentives of politicans. Why do politicians pursue private goods for a few when they can instead spend money on doing public goods that benefit all? Why does democracy not push Indian politicans towards the centre? I think one element of the answer lies in first-past-the-post elections.
Today in India, winning elections does not require pleasing all voters; it only requires a base of 30% of the voters. This gives politicans a greater incentive to dole out goodies for the 30% and not work on public goods that please all voters. This reduces the prioritisation for public goods.
The second issue is that of urban governance. The defining challenge for India today is to make the cities work. But our constitutional structure is confused on the location of cities versus states. The feedback loop from the voters in Bombay do not drive improvements in governance in Bombay.
Delhi is unique in this respect in that it’s the first city of India where the basic structure is correct. Sheila Dixit is the Mayor of Delhi. She is held accountable for making voters in Delhi happy. Voters in Delhi bother to vote in the Delhi elections. Hence, I am far more optimistic about the future of Delhi than I am with Bombay.
The third issue lies in the intelligensia. Western NGOs, aid agencies and the World Bank are focused on inequality, poverty and welfare programs. This generates incentives for individuals to focus on inequality, poverty and welfare programs, owing to the funding stream and career paths associated with western NGOs, aid agencies and the World Bank. These large funding sources and career paths have generated a distorted perspective in the Indian intelligensia. We need more minds in India who think in terms of first principles economics and political science, without the distortions that come from the worldview of development economics.
We blame politicians in India for being focused on welfare programs. But to some extent, they are influenced by the intelligensia. It is the job of the intelligensia to hold their feet in the fire, and hold politicians accountable for public goods. The politicians were too happy when, from the 1960s, the intellecturals proposed welfare programs, poverty action, socialism, etc.
I am grateful to Pradnya and Nandu Saravade who helped me think about all this.