Why does the Indian state both fail and succeed?

From the Journal of Economic Perspectives by Devesh Kapur:

The Indian state’s performance spans the spectrum from woefully inadequate, especially in core public goods provision, to surprisingly impressive in successfully managing complex tasks and on a massive scale. It has delivered better on macroeconomic rather than microeconomic outcomes, where delivery is episodic with inbuilt exit than where delivery and accountability are quotidian and more reliant on state capacity at local levels, and on those goods and services where societal norms on hierarchy and status matter less than where they are resilient. The paper highlights three reasons for these outcomes: under-resourced local governments, the long-term effects of India’s “precocious” democracy, and the persistence of social cleavage. However, claims that India’s state is bloated in size and submerged in patronage have weak basis. The paper concludes by highlighting a reversal of past trends in that state capacity is improving at the micro level even as India’s macro performance has become more worrisome.

The downside is well-known, here is the sometimes underappreciated upside:

But on the other side, the Indian state has a strong record in successfully managing complex tasks and on a massive scale. It has repeatedly conducted elections for hundreds of millions of voters—nearly 900 million in the 2019 general elections—without national disputes. In this decade, it has scaled up large programs such as Aadhaar, the world’s largest biometric ID program (which crossed one billion people enrolled within seven years of its launch). Most recently, it has implemented the integrated Goods and Services Tax (GST), one of the most ambitious tax reforms anywhere in recent times. India ranks low on its ability to enforce contracts, but its homicide rate has dropped markedly from 5.1 in 1990 to 3.2 (per 100,000) in 2016 (UNODC 2019).

And this:

Public health services in India leave much to be desired. Yet India achieved a remarkable public health milestone when it completed a full five years as a “ polio-free nation” on January 13, 2016. Even into the 1980s, tens of thousands of children were contacting polio each year. As late as 2009, India reported 741 polio cases, more than any other country in the world. It faced daunting challenges in eradicating polio: high population density and birth rate, poor sanitation, widespread diarrhea, inaccessible terrain, and the reluctance of a section of the population to accept the polio vaccine. The sheer scale of the effort, requiring 172 million children to be vaccinated twice each year, all within a day or two, with the assistance of about 2.5 million volunteers and 150,000 vaccine administration Why Does the Indian State Both Fail and Succeed? 39supervisors, required substantial state capacity in logistics and coordination. Again, the Indian state performed well in a “mission mode” activity that was highly temporally concentrated



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