Perils of public policy: How much good is good

Why freebies? And why bijli and pani free instead of health and education?

faiziohashmi

Faizi Hashmi | February 25, 2022


#Politics   #elections   #public policy   #health   #education  
(File photo: Arun Kumar/GN)
(File photo: Arun Kumar/GN)

Gladstone, the well known British Prime Minister observed in the 19th century, “Here is my first principle of foreign policy; good government at home.” How interesting and how cherish-able, but alas, how impractical for our brand of political classes! Presently we are gripped with election mania in the country and the flavour of the season is freebies. So ask for anything, it will be promised and assured by the vote seekers. If Madhuri Dixit were to come to UP and sing her popular number, “Mujhko chand laake do”…it would be granted forthwith.

If populism was raining only during the elections we would perhaps be more complaisant and gracious enough to swallow it without demur. But this goes on forever with much alacrity in the public policy domain, unmindful of its long-term adverse effects. And, to top it, it is not guided by weighty considerations but for catching the eye balls, promoting short-term phoney happiness, not real long-term gains. As Noam Chomsky said, “There is a tremendous gap between public opinion and public policy.”

Typically, people follow the leaders in India almost blindly; they will demand what they are advised to demand. The perception of wants could also be induced and orchestrated from the leader to the followers. Public perceptions do matter and there is no gain blaming the political class from doing what may genuinely appear to them worth doing and which to their mind would bring happiness to the would-be beneficiaries. The problem lies in hurried responses devoid of a good study backed by empirical and data based analytical examination, validation of major stipulations and wide consultations before launching a public policy with social and financial ramifications. Choosing an issue has to be after a rigorous, comprehensive and intelligent exercise for the benefit of the maximum number without making the beneficiary a dependent upon misplaced bounty and in the process, the government programme itself becoming an unsustainable drag.

It is in this context that the ‘free bijli, pani’ largess may be seen and evaluated. The point that is made here is that this facility does not come to the user at a cost. So, he/she would not use the facility responsibly, much less with any regard to conservation – unfortunately, many who pay for these services may also not observe the rules of the game. These are precious natural resources, facing depletion and increasingly on premium, with short supply. With human propensity to be spendthrift, free distribution of water and electricity is neither financially nor environmentally sustainable.

Further, this type of dependency makes people psychologically subordinated and vulnerable in the short term and increases their helplessness in the long term. It is likely to kill their initiative, drive and the will to strive for attainment of higher objectives. Dependency on such generosity is psychologically defeatist and demoralising. This positive discrimination is not serving a good purpose, rather giving lullabies to certain sections and halting their progress in some ways. Socially also it does not serve a good cause, no way. Fritz Perls, a reputed German psychiatrist said, “Our dependency makes slaves out of us, especially if this dependency is a dependency of our self-esteem……”

But we want to do good, don’t we? So, what about health and education? This combined segment may be a game-changer for the Indian people. Health and education, taken together could usher in a social revolution in the country. Provisioning for these would not have adverse effects on the environment. It is not going to be easy either; money will have to be found. But once started, even with a humble beginning and in phases, it would give confidence and dignity to the people, which is not the case with water and electricity. Betterment in these sectors would not only mean progress of the country but also better equipped citizens. It may even promote peace and harmony. It is surprising how and why health and education are not solicited by the aspirants instead of demanding free electricity and water. We know how poorly we measure with reference to all human development indexes. Advancement in education and health would go a long way in helping attain those goals. These should be the perfect sectors to be made as free and cashless as possible.

We do have government schools and health centres/hospitals which respectively provide free education and medical treatment. But this process does not go beyond and stops before institutions of higher learning and super speciality hospitals, even in the government sector. The fee structure is prohibitive for most vulnerable sections beyond the high school. It is nearly impossible for those with lower incomes to send their children to medical, engineering, management and law colleges or to any other institution of higher learning. The situation is similar when they need specialised medical treatment. Even in government hospitals many consumables including costly medicines, injections, surgical implants etc are not available for free supplies to the entitled classes. It is well recorded that many families slip below the poverty line on account of serious medical emergencies in the family. One of their class (Indian politicians), Barbara Mikulski, known to be the longest serving female U.S. Congress Member and a Senator, had this to say about health care, “I believe honouring thy mother and father is not just a good commandment to live by, it is a good public policy to govern by. That is why I feel so strongly about Medicare.”

Perhaps a beginning may be made with the health sector first, being more pressing and life threatening, heightened now by the onslaughts of the deadly pandemic and reminder for us of all those heart-wrenching scenes of dying people gasping for breath and not getting even a funeral, UP again representing the worst case scenario. Those haunting memories would not leave us easily and have caused deep scars. Let the government belatedly rise to the occasion and develop a health policy which comprehensively covers all entitled classes in particular and others in general as a badge of a Welfare State, and this commitment must be obtained from the political classes now, even under duress – as the would-be pillars of the government in making, and also its first beneficiary in every sense of the term – when there is still a time for reckoning. This hard-won health policy (hopefully, not a fantasy) may then be replicated for a State-sponsored educational enhancement as the second most important target for the nation.

We may close by quoting none other than the affable Bill Gates, “Governments will always play a huge part in solving big problems. They set public policy and are uniquely able to provide the resources to make sure solutions reach everyone who needs them.”

Faizi O. Hashmi is a retired IAS officer.
 

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