The Case for Public Institutions

03/03/2015 05:43 pm ET | Updated May 03, 2015

The ubiquity of corruption in India is impossible to deny. Every Indian has her own experience with this truth. A driver in Delhi might bribe a traffic cop to avoid the hefty fines associated with a ticket. Voters in Mumbai might receive gifts from politicians running for office. Corruption holds every Indian in its grip. Unfortunately, the hundreds of millions of Indians living in the margins feel a much tighter squeeze.

Take Aunty, a 60-something-year-old widow who works at Humanure Power's (HP) pilot community toilet facility in a last-mile village in the Indian state of Bihar. I found myself, as I often do, sitting, chatting and sipping sweet chai with her one evening. With the sun setting over the adjacent rice paddies, we talked about the recent money she received from the government. Aunty's family qualifies as Below Poverty Line (BPL). After a lengthy application process, she finally became eligible to receive government assistance -- through the government's Indira Awas housing scheme -- to transform her house made of bamboo, mud and cow dung, in to one made of brick reinforced with concrete pillars, molded around iron rods. The money comes in three installments, each corresponding with a different phase of construction. Aunty looked thoroughly defeated as she told me that 10 percent of the first installment was "eaten" by the government official responsible for disbursing these funds. As a result, Aunty is struggling to complete the first phase of construction, and thus may not qualify for the next check.

The preceding anecdote is just one variation of a tale all too familiar to hundreds of millions of Indians. Yet, these stories should not serve as an indictment of publicly managed services. Rather, they should be seen as an excoriation of the fact that, in India, publicly managed services operate with virtually no accountability or oversight. This truth has manifested itself as a lacuna, a pitiful void where service delivery and those living in penury were supposed to intersect. It is no wonder then that India ranks pitifully low in key social, health and education indicators. For example, while Indians have a per capita income 60 percent greater than their Bangladeshi neighbors, a thorough commitment from the latter's government to end open defecation has dropped the proportion of households defecating outside to just 8.4 percent. This is a stark comparison to the reality in India, where 50 percent of households (almost 600 million people) still defecate in the open.

Aunty's family is one, that until very recently, was also forced to defecate out in the open. I remember asking her, as HP's pilot community sanitation facility was being built, why she had not built a toilet for her family with assistance from the Indian government's Swachh Bharat scheme. That scheme mandates that funds appropriated for toilet construction be disbursed to the leaders (Mukhiyas) of Panchayats, a sub-jurisdiction within districts of states. Families who build their own toilets are eligible for a 12,000 Indian Rupee reimbursement upon submitting an application for funds, and a photo of the completed toilet. This scheme is inherently flawed due to the paltry purchasing power of families; but it is the endemic and the lack of oversight that deterred Aunty's ambitions of saving to build a toilet. There was very little guarantee that she would be reimbursed.

Aunty's story would serve as reason enough for NGOs to work outside the framework of government schemes. Organizations could employ some variation of a donor-supported program, or the free market, to provide families with immediate relief. Unfortunately, donor dollars are fickle, and market based approaches (pay for toilet use, for example) in communities where the average annual income for a family is just $400 will struggle to acquire customers. These two reasons alone will limit an organization's ability to scale its services, and may force it to shut down its service delivery altogether. On the other hand, the universality of many of India's government schemes (those not targeted to only people who qualify as BPL) means that billions of dollars have been appropriated for service delivery. These are funds that NGOs could access as development partners to provide the required services. Though many families select out of these programs (because they do not have the need), India's swollen population living at the bottom of the pyramid are the rationale for government based services that can also be delivered by development partners.

However scale should not be the motivating factor for an NGO to want to work with the government. Returning once again to Aunty's village, it becomes painfully obvious just how wholly her village, and thousands more like it, have been forgotten. The absence of roads, electricity, health centers and staffed and functioning schools keep these communities cycling through poverty in perpetuity. Thus, it is imperative that implementers walk shoulder to shoulder with communities to access the multitude of funds and services they are entitled to, that the government is responsible for providing. As Dr. B.M Ambedkar, the author of India's constitution said, Indian communities must "educate, agitate and organize." Together, we must pressure state ministers, district magistrates and Mukhiyas to ensure that services and funds are delivered in a timely and responsible manner. In the long-term then, communities will be the protagonists in affecting the change that is so desperately needed.