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Assessing performance

The Good Governance Index 2021 puts forth some intriguing results for the North-east

RANGAN DUTTA | New Delhi |

The Central government’s decision to observe 25 December, the birth anniversary of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, as “good governance day” every year has been well received.

Though there are no internationally accepted norms of good governance, the World Bank and other United Nations agencies have been making assessments about how efficiently States deliver services in different sectors across several country-specific reports. The main subject of the 2017 World Development Report of the World Bank was governance and law, which addressed issues of governance at all levels as well as the policy making and implementation processes.

Seen from this angle, the Niti Aayog’s initiative to look at the performance of Indian states across 10 critical sectors in terms of 58 indicators for preparation of the composite Good Governance Index, or GGI, for each state and Union Territory, is indeed path-breaking as such an exercise had not even been thought of before. Under this, Jammu and Kashmir and the North-eastern states have been put in one group, the UTs in another while the other states are divided into two groups.

Every state’s performance is assessed in 10 core areas where good governance could make a difference in the lives of people. These areas are — agriculture, commerce and industry, human resource development, public health, public infrastructure and utilities, economic governance, social welfare and development, judicial and public security, the environment, and citizen-centric governance. The broad state-wise index, released on 25 December last year, is based on a district-wise complex econometric analysis by presumably using statistics as the main tool, which are consolidated for the states/UTs. There is no doubt that it bridges a gap to evaluate the performance of key institutions of government from a citizen’s perspective as it has attempted an analysis of the ground situation.

There was a note of satisfaction in the statement of Union home minister Amit Shah when he mentioned that 20 states have improved their composite GGI scores in 2021 from 2019. Goa registered the highest increase of 24 per cent over its 2019 GGI score while Gujarat stood at 12.3 per cent followed by Maharashtra. Even Uttar Pradesh, saddled with high population growth and socio-economic backwardness, saw an 8.9 per cent increase which means that there are signs of improvement in governance across the country. And the good news is that the North-eastern states have also done reasonably well as outlined in succeeding paragraphs.

To begin with, placing Jammu and Kashmir, and other hill states with those in the North-east in one category may not appear realistic to many in the region given the huge differences in physical and geo-economic environment, and hence, the challenges of governance. The overall performance of the region, however, is positive. In the North-east, Mizoram has achieved a 10.4 per cent increase in its score from 2019 as it performed well in public health, commerce and industry, human resource development, agriculture and e-management of the economy.

That said, when one looks at the overall picture and performance of the North-eastern states and their sector-wise scores, several issues remain unclear. For instance, Mizoram, Tripura and Sikkim hold the first, second and third positions overall followed by Assam, Nagaland, Manipur, Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh.

While analysing the performance of states in sectors critical for development of the North-east because of their location, size and economic importance, it is seen that the score of Assam in public infrastructure is low (0.324) compared to Mizoram’s 0.729, which is bound to adversely affect regional development. Similarly, Assam’s score of only 0.215 in public health overshadows the good performance of Mizoram and Sikkim in that category as some Assam towns, such as Dibrugarh, are also regional urban centres visited by people from neighbouring states.

Therefore, the improvement of healthcare in Assam is essential for the health sector’s development in the region. It is a point that a state-centric exercise has missed as it ignores the fact that the size and population of a few North-eastern states are about the same as some districts in other parts of the country.

In the same way, the environment and ecology of the North-east demand an integrated view and not a state-specific assessment as reflected in this report. The poor scores of Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram, Nagaland and Sikkim on the environment count only show that the general environmental situation in the region is grave. That is because these are hill states endowed with large forest areas, the conservation of which is critical to the ecology and environment of the entire sub-region covering Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan and Myanmar. It indeed calls for special efforts by all stakeholders.

One can’t ignore in this connection that according to the Global Forest Watch report, India lost 38,500 hectares of tropical forests in 2019-20. Since much of the tropical and subtropical rainforest is in the North-east, the loss must be significantly high in the region. It stems from state failure to control the forest-destroying practice of jhum (shifting) cultivation in the hill areas, such as Mizoram, Nagaland and Meghalaya, and rampant mining, both legal and illegal, in forest areas, an example being the recent case of mining in the Baghjan forest of Assam. Sikkim’s low score in environment (0.200) is thus a matter of concern.

Read together, scores of the North-eastern states in economic governance, and commerce and industry, which are mutually supportive, make it somewhat difficult to assess the economic performance of the region. For instance, Assam ranks first in commerce and industry but third in economic governance, holds the top position in citizen-centric governance with a score of 0.556 but the fourth rank in the group on an overall basis after Mizoram, Tripura and Sikkim. Interestingly, except Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura, all other states obtained very low scores in citizen-centric governance.
In human resource development, the states other than Nagaland, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh score high which should be a matter of concern as public expenditure for HRD in these three states had been on the same scale. In the related sector of social welfare and development, the wide divergence of scores of the top four states — Sikkim, Mizoram, Tripura and Meghalaya — and the rest is worrying and should be noted by the states, especially Assam, the most populous in the region.

By far the most intriguing feature of the exercise is the scores in judiciary and public safety. Nagaland is on top with 0.566 and Assam is at the bottom with 0.187, while Mizoram, Sikkim and Tripura are well above 0.400. Meghalaya and Manipur are close to the same and Arunachal Pradesh, with 0.324, is not doing too badly either. Since extortion by overground insurgent groups is rampant in Nagaland and given the fact that the Government of Assam is making earnest efforts to maintain peace and order, these “scores” are bound to raise the eyebrows of many and need clarification about the basis of assessment.
On the whole, it is a commendable effort as setting a benchmark in governance is difficult. Even then, it must be mentioned that for a fuller appreciation of the outcome of governance, there is no substitute for the state-specific development reports that were prepared by the erstwhile Planning Commission such as the Arunachal Pradesh state development report in 2009 and the earlier report on Assam.

Next, such exercises tend to be data science-driven and do not address issues such as income, social inequality or gender issues, which are areas in which North-east societies stand on a different plane compared to the Hindi heartland. The views of Thomas Piketty, acclaimed author of Capital and Ideology (2020) and the path-breaking Capital in the 21st Century(2013), on the limitations of mathematical and statistical analysis when it comes to doing research in social science must be borne in mind. He had argued that “these are tentative social constructs” only and often “imperfect”.
Nevertheless, if the GGI motivates development researchers and state agencies in the North-east to look at governance issues more intensively, it might as well be a game-changer for development of the region.