Is Government in India Becoming More Responsive? Has Democratic Decentralisation Made a Difference? (SWP 8)

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This paper reviews evidence and argument concerning the quality of government in India, especially provision of basic services, and the extent to which democratic decentralization has helped to make government more responsive. As Lant Pritchett has put it, India appears in many ways to be a ‘flailing state’. India is quite clearly not a ‘failing state’ – the central functions of government are often performed with exceptional competence – but the delivery of basic services is generally very poor. The paper explores why poor people, who tend to participate more actively in electoral politics than wealthier people, and who would greatly benefit from better public health, education and other services, do not hold politicians (or the bureaucrats in charge of service delivery) democratically accountable for poor public provisioning. Why has the implementation of progressive social legislation been left substantially to judicial activism? Answers to these questions are found in the idea that India is a ‘patronage democracy’. In these circumstances, government appears most responsive in states with the highest newspaper circulation and a history of lower-class political mobilisation (Kerala, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal). Democratic decentralization, through the panchayat system of local government, remains controversial as to its implementation and long-term outcomes, but achievements thus far have been limited.
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ISSN 1922-5725
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Harriss, John, Is Government in India Becoming More Responsive? Has Democratic Decentralisation Made a Difference?, Simons Papers in Security and Development, No. 8/2010, School for International Studies, Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, November 2010.
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