Good Governance means empowering the poor

The term ‘Good Governance’ is widely used and abused as a part of election rhetoric in India and around the world. But if we peer beneath the surface, we would find that it is intrinsically an indeterminate term. While ‘governance’ means the conduct of decision-making and implementation by public bodies, a measure how ‘good’ these are is not universally accepted.

But in recent times, an unfortunate fallacy has taken hold. ‘Good Governance’ is often taken as a comparative point by contrasting the functioning of governments in developing countries with those in Western democracies, which are perceived to be better-governed. The reason for calling this a fallacious comparison is that it ignores inherent cultural differences between developing countries like India and those that are rich through long years of industrialization, colonisation or both. It is also why tales of ‘transforming’ Indian cities into Singapore or London does not make much sense. The demographic make-up of India is so different from that of the foreign countries we try to compare ourselves with that it makes no sense to aspire to be something we should not be, any more than a raven should aspire to be a writing-desk.

We need to look at these very demographic markers to understand what good governance might mean for India. Officially, India has around 20% of its population below the poverty line. If one considers international parameters of poverty measurement, the numbers can be much higher, going as high as 40% of the population. And it is well to remember that these tend to measure poverty by the most generous definitions – a lot of people considered to be above the poverty line in these statistics are in reality just as destitute.

So what should be the responsibility of a government? What is ‘Good Governance’ if not the undertaking of a responsibility to benefit these poor? To find a way to alleviate their suffering without compromising their dignity.

This is why ‘Good Governance’ is not merely about the giving of hand-outs or about creating fancy slogans. It is about ensuring that the poor have access to the same resources that the rest of the country does, especially in terms of three things:

  1. Education
  2. Healthcare
  3. Job opportunities.

It is on these fronts that the true impact of Good Governance can be felt – when the poor are not just uplifted, but given the tools to lift themselves out of poverty.

The legal framework is already in place. The Right to Education Act can be leveraged to provide a quality education to the poor, but it needs investment in infrastructure and more importantly, in staff. We have covered elsewhere on Indian Youth the realities of ‘free and compulsory’ education in India. A concerted effort towards improving the quality of this would lead to a quantum change in the employment and long-term prospects of the Indian poor.

Similarly, the reach and quality of healthcare available to the rural and urban poor needs to be strengthened considerably. Going beyond mandatory rural posting for medical students, the availability of quality nursing care and hygienic practices would alleviate the burden of ill-health that plagues our poor.

And of course, National schemes needs to be improved and expanded, providing an opportunity not just for the rural poor but also the urban poor to find gainful employment.

A three-pronged approach that covers these three aspects of life would do more the empower the poor than the crores spent on subsidies that never reach them anyway. Until this does not happen, the promises of ‘good governance’ will always ring hollow.

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Kunal is an ex-banker with a (largely self-proclaimed) flair for writing. He is an associate member of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of India and an MBA from Narsee Monjee Institute of Management Studies (NMIMS), Mumbai.

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