Earlier this month I found myself in unlikely Ajmer to attend a three day seminar on the Mahabharata. Walking along its lakefront, I was drawn to the marble pavilions called Bara Dara, built by the Mughal emperor, Shah Jehan. I thought this must be the most appealing spot on the earth to idle away a few hours. Until I stumbled onto a mountain of garbage piled like a scar on the city's beautiful face. I looked around for a garbage bin, but found instead a man urinating. I looked for a toilet, but there was none. By now the joy had gone out of my day.

I mentioned this to a worthy functionary of the Nagar Parishad, who shrugged his shoulders and said, “What to do, sir? We are a filthy people”. I disagree; it is plainly a governance failure. The same Indians don't urinate in London's Hyde Park. All it needs is two of his 44 safia-wallas to clean the mess in an hour, and plenty of garbage cans and toilets, and as Gandhi said, the rest would follow.

It may seem odd to complain about garbage when there are so many ills more pressing. Yet Lee Quan Yew has shown us that nations can be built out of an ethic of cleanliness. Singapore, as filthy as any Indian city before the War, is the cleanest on the earth today.   Unpicked garbage is a symptom of the malaise that afflicts all our institutions. When safai-wallas don't do their jobs, they are no different from insolent policemen who demand hafta from reriwallas or government doctors who don't show up at primary health centres. Ordinary people suffer far more from this ubiquitous corruption than the headline-grabbing payoff in an arms deal. It takes 89 days to start a business in India versus 41 days in China. This is why foreign investors prefer China to India. Because so many officials close windows on us, we are astonishingly less free than citizens of some dictatorships. No wonder that we, a proud democracy, are ranked 116 out of 145 nations on the Freedom Index.  

It is ironic that we spend our energies on politics and ideology when our real failures are those of mundane day-to-day execution. Our society too has become so polarised by politics that the CPM's organ People's Democracy recently blamed the tsunami tragedy on the “culmination of the legacy of hate and destruction under the BJP”.   This is pathetic! Manmohan Singh is trying to find an answer to this delivery problem by reducing the points of contact between the common man and the government, thereby reducing the opportunities for corruption. Outsourcing services could also bring accountability, and my sister suggested this as a solution for tsunami relief. Holland has, in fact, outsourced government's red-tape reduction to an independent body outside the government.

During our three day seminar the garbage mountain at Bara Dari became a symbol of contemporary governance failure. Dharma is the burden of the Mahabharata, and it fervently and unceasingly reminds the ruler of his duty to the people. Some participants felt that a few of our officials were already awake to their swadharma—persons like Sreedharan of the Delhi Metro or even Aditi Mehta, the IAS official who cleaned up Ajmer during her tenure. And there is also sizeable group on the margin on whom a training program in Mahabharata's dharma might work. But most participants were convinced that the majority of government officials, who behave no better than the Kauravas, would only become accountable through a stronger reward and punishment system. Will Manmohan Singh bell this cat?

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