To economists, the role of government is to deliver `public goods'. A public good is something that is non-rival and non-excludable. Something is non-rival when my consumption of it doesn't detract from your consumption of it. Non-excludability is the inability to exclude a person from benefiting from the public good.
Law and order is a public good. When a city is safe, everyone benefits: the safety that one person enjoys doesn't detract from the safety that another person enjoys. And, it isn't possible to exclude any one person from benefiting from this safety.
In recent decades, economists have pushed for greater government involvement in `human development' covering issues such as health and education. Most activities in this field are actually not public goods. The bulk of educational services and health services are private goods: I get healthier or smarter, I benefit, it is a private good. Hence, the economic logic of pushing the government into this field was always suspect [link].
In India, we have had this great government interest in human development while - at the same time - we've had a worsening of the police and judiciary. While law and order is a public good, the performance of the State in this field has been getting worse. While most of human development is not a public good, we've seen an increasing focus and resource outlay in those areas.
The terrorist attacks in Bombay brought forth an outpouring of interest in stopping terrorism. But it is not possible to do this through superficial changes; genuinely achieving safety requires fundamental change to the police and judiciary.
I find it useful to compare and contrast the judiciary against the election commission. If the election commission came to us and said that conducting a general election would take 20 years, there would be an uproar and the entire leadership of the election commission would be sacked. It has not been easy, but the election commission has figured out how to run a fairly clean general election within roughly two months. Compare and contrast this with the non-performance of the judiciary. Why are we willing to accept non-performance from the judiciary of a kind that we would never accept from the election commission? If anything, as Fareed Zakaria has emphasised, a healthy democracy is more about good courts than it is about good elections.
The challenge in India is that of reining in the State, getting it to perform on the police and judiciary, and shift the focus of the State away from the pleasures of recruiting teachers who do not teach.
I was very impressed at the fact that the research involved conducting a `crime survey'. Once again, there are a zillion surveys in India on issues like poverty or health, but none on the critical business of police and judiciary. In my knowledge, this is the first survey evidence on the experience of citizens with crime and the police. In the US, such surveys are called `crime victimisation surveys'.
Here are some gems from this. There are four districts that they report (Dholpur, Kota, Chittorgarh, Jaipur) where one in ten households (or worse) reports direct experience with one crime. I'd be curious to know what comparable international values are. In districts like Udaipur, Nagaur and Barmer, this value is 5% or lower.
Only 21% of the victims reported the crime and got an FIR registered.
13% of the victims were completely satisfied and 14% of the victims were satisfied with what the police did. The remaining vast majority were unsatisfied at what the police did. This is a massive vote of no confidence in the police. A full 82% reported that no beat constable ever visits their village or neighbourhood.
The slideshow goes on into statistical measurement of a few innovations in how the police could be made to function better. As with the bulk of this `development policy through randomised evaluation' literature, I'm underwhelmed at the usefulness of such simplistic schemes for making government work better. I have worked in government, and I have worked on reforming government from outside government, and this is not the way fundamental change is achieved.
In short, I was very impressed at (a) the crime victimisation survey, which is a big step forward, and (b) the fact that more people are taking interest in the most important public good of all. All of us should be pushing the top leadership to put more time and focus and resources into true public goods (e.g. law and order) at the expense of areas which are not public goods (e.g. most of human development).