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S.S Mukherjee

L-R: Public transport…..Chaotic scenes are an everyday affair; Clean drinking water for all…Only a pipe dream!

An authoritative new survey by ORG-Marg reveals that though government funding for basic amenities has been steadily increasing, the level of satisfaction has declined in geometric proportion. In a way it suits the bureaucracy to keep public services hopelessly tardy and unresponsive.

Millions of rupees are being allocated and spent annually, both at the central and state levels to improve basic civic services such as roads, provide clean drinking water, ensure subsidized distribution of grains, improve health care and education, yet none of it seems to be making a difference.

Inefficiency is at an all time high. Even as the public service departments become more ineffective, the opportunities of making speed money increases manifold. Thus in a way it suits the bureaucracy to keep public services hopelessly tardy and unresponsive.

Statistics on an all India basis put together by ORG-MARG for the Public Affairs Centre indicate that while funds for basic amenities to citizens have been steadily increasing across the country, the level of satisfaction has declined in geometric proportion.

Citizens’ Woes

According to the study, per person real expenditure is up. So is the expenditure on health care, primary education, public distribution scheme (PDS) and drinking water. Yet citizen’s woes have only intensified and corruption levels have escalated.

The Public Affairs Centre, a non-profit think-tank sought to quantify the level of satisfaction among people vis-à-vis the local bodies. Their study gathered information over a one-year period from among 33,000 households in 115 districts spread over 24 states.

Respondents cut across all socio economic groups and answered specific questions regarding five basic public services that have a significant bearing on the lives of the common people - drinking water, health and sanitation, education and child care, PDS or the Fair Price Shops and road transport.

Only 13 percent households expressed their satisfaction over the level of service that was provided. Of all the services, people were most dissatisfied with PDS (93%), followed closely by education (92%). Only 14 percent said they were satisfied with the health and public transport and 86 percent of the population appeared disgruntled.

Just over half the households indicated that they had access to clean drinking water within 100 meters of their homes, which included public taps, hand-pumps and borewells dug by government bodies. But when it came to their being satisfied with the quality of supply and its regularity of distribution, the percentage dropped from 55 to only 22.

Though three fourths of the people had health services within three kilometers of their residence only 15 percent found doctors present there. If the doctors were available they were not courteous. It was simpler to go to the friendly neighbourhood private clinics in cities and pay for the services. In any case they had to pay for all services and medicines that are supposed to be free of cost at government hospitals and dispensaries.

In their effort to manage hunger, successive governments have continued to pump in funds into the flawed PDS so that the poor can buy subsidized food grains. Undeniably, PDS has a good outreach with 87 percent admitting access to Fair Price Shops.

However, only eight percent had anything good to say of PDS. Most others complained of the poor quality of food grains and high level of corruption. With their very weak voices, the poor were hardly in a position to demand their right to this service and ended up spending a larger proportion of their income on purchasing food for the family.

Schools of Neglect

In government-run schools almost 90 percent complained of inadequate drinking water facilities, lack of toilets, and absence of teachers and poor quality of teaching. Satisfaction level vis-à-vis access to public transport was also low with only one-fifth saying that services were not just available.

The Vindhaychal divide was clearly visible with regard to people’s liking for the services, with southern and western states showing better performance as compared with northern and eastern states. Tamil Nadu tops the chart in the list of states and other states that came out better governed were Maharashtra and Gujarat with Assam, Punjab and Bihar trailing at the bottom.

But the idea according to the Public Affairs Centre was not to malign any one state but to help others understand the concerns of people and to provide an insight into the policies and schemes adopted by better governed regions such that they can serve as a model for others who need to pull their act together.

The study has served to bring into open the issue of corruption in the public service system. People openly talked of government officials demanding bribes for doing their jobs. Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Rajasthan, U.P., Bihar and Punjab topped the list in corruption in public life.

Although this is the first effort at probity in public life by a quantification of the dissatisfaction with the quality of services being provided to citizens, findings of the survey are only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. In fact it has opened up a can of worms.

According to the survey the buck doesn’t stop at putting the blame on public services. It must be linked to the quality of service. Mere allocation of funds does not necessarily improve people’s lot. Numbers have to be matched with an improved delivery.

The irony of the findings cannot be lost. Though thousands of crores have been spent on making available these basic amenities to people, only around 25 percent of the people have benefited. The anomaly is further intensified by the fact that it has taken half a century to arrive at this juncture.

The study stresses the need to move away from the politics of populism and take a hard look at reality. Allocating funds can hardly mitigate the sufferings of the common man. What is required is a concerted effort at quality change.

Simple measures include ensuring the availability of doctors along with the health centres, building of good roads that can make for a much more efficient bus service, monitoring presence of teachers at schools and ensuring they teach and guaranteeing not just supply of good quality food grains to the Fair Price Shops, but passing on the responsibility of its distribution to community based organisations.

But does it suit the politicians and bureaucrats to put in practice these simple but effective measures and ensure that the common person gets his or her due? The truth is - it does not. If things run smoothly where will the speed money come from!

Unless the government shifts its role from being a provider to that of an enabler and regulator, there can be no hope for the hapless citizens who are dependant upon public services.



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