Opinion

What Does India Ask of Its Government?

Surveys show that most Indians want a paternalistic state and distrust the private sector. Whatever may be the causes for this, this perception is worrying.

What should a government provide to its citizens? Less government or more? What should it prioritise? What should the role of the private sector be? These have been matters of much controversy in policy circles for decades.

The Indian people, however, seem to have much clearer-cut views on the subject. Data from two Lok Surveys – conducted by the Centre for Monitoring the Indian Economy on over 160,000 households – provide fascinating and sometimes shocking insights into India’s attitudes. Rather than focus on governments in power in particular states, this study aims to understand attitudes towards governments in general across the country.

Fears and Performance

In order to determine what they think the priorities of the government should be, respondents to a 2016 survey were asked “What are you most worried about?” Around 45% highlighted economic issues, with 27% saying that they were most worried about employment. Roughly a quarter of respondents said that corruption worried them most. Wealthier respondents were more likely to highlight corruption as their major concern, while middle-income and poor respondents pointed to employment and inflation as well.

Despite the gloomy statistics on employment growth, it seems that citizens in general are somewhat ambiguous on how successful the government has been on that front. Almost an equal numbers of respondents – 46% and 44% – thought that the government had succeeded or failed respectively. A similar ambiguity appears in responses to the question “Right now, how successful has the government been at reducing corruption?” 43% thought the government was successful, whereas 47% thought it was not. To both these questions, poorer respondents were more likely to give neutral or negative responses.

Indeed, attitudes towards employment are worth taking note of. Respondents were asked to rank their preferred mode of employment – government, private sector, or self-employment. Overall, a whopping 72% ranked a government job first! This might be due to prevalent notions of government jobs being “stable” and coming with better perks. Paradoxically, richer and higher-middle-income respondents were more likely to prefer a “sarkari naukri”. In terms of job creation, a majority – 57% – said that creating more government jobs was a better way of increasing employment, compared to 32.1% who pointed to the private sector for job creation.

Big Bhai

Further light on people’s expectations from the government is shed through questions related to the provision of goods and services. Nearly 65% of respondents, across income and education groups, preferred that the government provide both electricity and piped water, as opposed to the private sector. Only a minority – 21% and 17% respectively – were willing to pay to get a connection, though urban residents were slightly more likely to agree.

Responses point to other issues in terms of availability and pricing. When asked if they would be willing to pay 25% more to get a guaranteed 24-hour supply of electricity, nearly half disagreed. That said, urban residents were 10 percentage points more likely to agree than rural residents. For a piped water supply, the difference in response was trivial.

The tendency to look to the government for affordable goods and services also applies to education, healthcare, and the PDS. 52% of respondents preferred government schools. 55% preferred government hospitals for minor ailments, and 58% for major ailments. The primary reason for these preferences, according to respondents, was affordability. It should be noted that 55% of respondents claimed that a significant share of their food budget came from the PDS.

The difference in responses between income groups is also striking. When asked “If you had a choice would you send all your children to a government or private school?”, a mere 18% of rich respondents preferred to send their children to a government school, compared to a whopping 64% of poor respondents.

Notes for Policymakers

In summary, the Indian people look to their government to provide employment, water, electricity, healthcare, education, and rations (and possibly a great deal more, which was beyond the scope of the surveys). The private sector is either considered unaffordable or, perhaps, not trusted to provide these goods and services. It may be argued that this view of government as a “provider” points to a rather paternalistic or “entitled” conception of what governments should do for their citizens. However, the truth may not be so simple.

The emphasis on affordability, the not insignificant urban/rural and rich/poor divides, and the surprising tendency of even wealthy Indians to prefer a government job, might point to the  limited success of Indian governments in providing basic public goods to the poorest Indians even 70 years after Independence – despite tremendous GDP growth. This catch-all conception of the public sector as providing everything to its citizens also highlights just how limited the private sector is today in terms of its accessibility, availability, and perceived reliability.

Preferences for such an expansive state, alongside an ambiguous understanding of its successes and a mistrust of the private sector, could potentially be disastrous. For example, it is simply not realistic to expect the government to employ the millions of young Indians entering the workforce every year – among many other limitations. This gap between expectations and reality might make it difficult for political leaders to commit to a platform of change. At a time when many economists point to the need for deep structural reforms, policymakers must urgently take heed. 

The data is drawn from Lok Foundation large-scale, all-India surveys.

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About the author

Anirudh Kanisetti

Anirudh Kanisetti is a Research Associate at the Takshashila Institution. A graduate of BITS Pilani Goa, his research interests range from systems modelling to geostrategy, economics, history and culture.