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The private fallacy

The author makes his case with an impressive combination of historical analysis, policy initiatives, cited research and individual case studies of private responses. — Rathin Roy

The principal premise of this book is that citizens who can afford to, respond to India’s public policy failures through private initiative and that this is neither optimal nor adequate. This is shown in five domains: water, health, education, power and security. The author makes his case with an impressive combination of historical analysis, policy initiatives, cited research and individual case studies of private responses. This would seem to be quite a challenge to coherence, but I found it superbly addressed. The narrative in each chapter is well stitched together and, at the conclusion, one is left with a clear geography of the problem and the response.

The first chapter begins with a disturbing story of the Bundelkhand region of Uttar Pradesh, home to some 20 million people, where water borrowed from a neighbour has to be returned in double the quantity within 180 minutes. Cherrapunji in Meghalaya, recorded as the rainiest place in the world in 1860-61, is today called a wet desert as there is no water when it does not rain. The author then shows how the problem of water has received much policy attention since the colonial era. The solution was to increase supply through dams or groundwater. But the problem of management of the water economy, which involves getting supply to where it is needed, received little attention. From 1991 to the present date, those who could afford to, solved the problem by creating a water supply industry marked by the evolution of Sintex tanks, bottled water and home filtration systems. These private sector models were eventually taken up by communities, and even governments.

The story repeats in healthcare where the author shows how medical callousness that makes headlines is actually embedded in widespread systemic inadequacies. There is a private response, but this is just bypass surgery and not a solution. Thus, the Ayushman Bharat programme cannot rely on private provision as a solution without addressing the structural constraints.

A very similar, if darker, story is told about education where the private sector response for the poor spends less than the public system per pupil. ‘Tutor available’ informal sector initiatives struggle to provide Band-Aid solutions. The picture of incoherence and failure presented is deeply disturbing.

India’s power generation, distribution and transmission problem is well known, both within policy ecosystems and in lived experience. The author adds value in this chapter by showing how electricity was, and is, about empowerment. But this quest has failed due to ‘the cohabitation of structural inefficiencies and political denial about the cost of profligacy’, whether in production, distribution or transmission. The alternative has been to go off-grid, this has made electricity affordable as a luxury or through the generosity of not-for-profit institutions.

The chapter on security is straightforwardly scary. Understaffing, a significant chunk of police deployed for VVIP security, poor equipment, primitive training, the Indian police are off the political agenda. The contemporary consequences, petty exploitation, encounters and incompetence in investigation as well as assistance to prosecution, are not mentioned, but the implications are amply clear from the narrative. Equally, the inadequacy of the solution that the gated republic goes for, private security agencies, is stark.

The author describes this phenomenon across sectors as an exodus, ‘the mass exit of millions of Indians disinvesting from faith in government delivery of services’. The gated solutions fracture the republic. The case is compellingly made, but the book is good enough to provoke further questions. To what extent are resources the problem? With education and water, does society sanction inequities and thereby present a barrier to progress? With health and security, are there expectations, or is the government simply delivering the minimum required? The power of this book is that anyone interested in addressing these questions is enriched and equipped at the end of reading it.                 

Rathin Roy is the director of the National Institute of Public Finance and Policy, New Delhi


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