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We, the people of India, are not very exacting. By temperament and tradition, we do not expect much of our rulers and are quite happy to be left alone. Centuries of feudalism and exctractive foreign rule have instilled in us a high level of tolerance for high-handedness on the part of the ruling class. Nevertheless, we do expect our rulers to discharge the sovereign functions of defence of the country, administration of justice, maintenance of law and order, disaster management and relief.
Since Independence, when India opted to become a welfare state, there has been an exponential increase in the activities and functions of the state. However, the citizens of the country continue to judge its governments primarily by their performance on the parameter of good governance. They are generous in rewarding even a modest improvement in the standard of governance and capable of upsetting the elaborate calculus of identity politics and patronage to throw out governments for governance failure. At times, for want of a better alternative, the electorate is forced to give its mandate to a political formation with a lackadaisical record of governance. And that perhaps is the reason why governments across the political spectrum tend to adopt a cavalier attitude with respect to the basic issues of governance. They rest assured that if a frustrated electorate were to vote them out of power, they will return to it sooner than later, riding on the wave of anti-incumbency. They are also secure in the knowledge that the brunt of governance failure is to be borne by the general public and not by them.
Nothing brings home this stark truth more forcefully than major disasters, whether natural or man-made. Governance failure acts as a force multiplier, accentuating the impact of the disaster and aggravating the suffering of the victims. The political executive and the bureaucracies, however, remain untouched and continue to enjoy the privileges of office and the trappings of authority, which, paradoxically, have been conferred on them only because of their cardinal responsibility of providing good governance.
We do not have to delve into the distant past to illustrate this point. The succession of cloud bursts, landslides and flash floods, which struck Uttarakhand during 16-17 June and laid waste to the state's hallowed pilgrimage centres, took a staggering toll of hapless pilgrims and destroyed the lives and livelihoods of local residents. Are we to attribute their suffering to an act of God beyond the control of mere mortals? Can we overlook the role of the politicians and government officials who had allowed, and profited from, the reckless destruction of the forest cover and the illicit mining of boulders and sand from river beds? Or of those who had winked at the proliferation of structurally unsound ashrams, hotels and guest houses on the unprotected banks and flood plains of mighty mountain streams that are subject to violent fluctuations of water level and prone to changing their course? We know that no questions will be asked of them.