Thursday, February 28, 2013

Which is the least discussed area in development?

Instinctively, I am inclined to say state capability, though on reflection, I believe that law and order management stands out in splendid isolation.

I am not aware of the statistics. But it is undoubtedly true that law and order failures have been a major cause of people's dislocation (riots), weak and ineffectual governance (local thugs controlling economic activities in slums), inefficient markets (inadequate protection of property rights), perpetuation of deprivation (social and political disenfranchisement in rural areas), violation of civic rights (crimes against women), and so on, all of which contribute in no small measure to constraining the development process. Further, law and order failures affect the functional efficiency of other organs of the government.

Despite such overwhelming evidence, law and order reforms and policing have remained outside the mainstream discourse on development. I can speculate on a few possible reasons for this trend.

1. We tend to see law and order problems as representative of more fundamental underlying causes with roots in social and economic factors. But this overlooks the reality that these problems have an undeniable law and order dimension, whose enforcement is critical to make any progress with addressing the underlying factors themselves. There are many cases where enforcement of basic law and order is enough to create conditions which facilitate addressing the underlying social and economic factors.

We need to look no further than the success of the current government in Bihar. Its initial success was not so much in the traditional development sectors, but in aggressively pursuing law and order management, which in turn played an important role in creating the conditions for promoting investments and economic growth. Bihar is today the fastest growing state in India, a dramatic improvement from the bottom rung it occupied five years back.

2. We also use law and order inter-changeably with civil strife. Since civil wars are complex issues, not readily amenable to simple solutions, we tend to think much the same for law and order. But basic law and order management is  just about assuring rule of law and basic civil rights protection. It is a fundamental duty of the state, one not disputed by even the most hardline neo-liberal.

3. Whenever law and order issues are discussed, it is generally as part of the larger issue of state capability. This conflation with state capability misses the point about the critical importance of law and order maintenance in itself. A failure on this front also erodes the credibility of the state in other areas. This assumes great significance in many developing countries where the police is the symbol of the state presence, and its weakness reflects on the credibility of other institutions of the state.

What can be done to bring policing to the door-step of citizens? How do we increase access to a police station? How do we streamline and increase transparency in the process of filing complaints, their registration, and investigation? How do we increase accountability at each of these levels within local police units? What can be done to increase the linkages between the police and the judiciary so that cases registered in a police station can be expeditiously tried and justice awarded?

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