How Many Governments Does it Take to Fix a Light Bulb?

In a series of surveys conducted over the last five years, the Lok Foundation and the Centre for Monitoring the Indian economy have been attempting to understand the attitudes that the Indian people hold from everything from jeans to caste and privatisation. Some interesting and counterintuitive attitudes have come up, pointing to a need for policymakers to re-prioritise the problems they aim to tackle, and re-evaluate possible solutions.

(This is the first in a series of blog posts in which I will aim to unpack some of these attitudes).

Privatisation, especially for key utilities, seems to be catching on – with three cities in Maharashtra announcing earlier this year that they will privatise power supplies. Consumers, though, are likely to be less than overjoyed. Here are results from a January 2016 survey on a nationwide sample of 158,624 households:


Two interesting takeaways: on average, a whopping 65% of Indians prefer that the Government provide electricity – and the richer they are, the more likely they are to say so. I suspected that this may be due to the fact that richer Indians tend to be urban and are thus used to larger amounts of affordable electricity with relatively few interruptions. It turned out that this was indeed the case. Here are responses for urban Indians:

And electricity is hardly an exception: the exact same pattern appears in responses to the question of who should provide piped water. But note that poor and middle-class respondents are around 3% less optimistic about the government in this question:

Why is there such a high degree of trust for the government? Here’s my theory: perhaps the State is perceived as a paternalistic and essentially benevolent (if not exactly efficient) institution, thanks to its decent track record in expanding the provision of basic services. And if a government isn’t able to provide affordable utilities, it can always be replaced by one that will (long-term effects be damned!) On the other hand, Indians who are more exposed to government inefficiencies – especially rural Indians – prefer that the private sector take over instead. This may not necessarily reflect an actual awareness of how the private sector operates, but rather a case of “if A couldn’t provide it, and we voted them out in favour of B, and they couldn’t do it either, maybe C will.”

Not convinced? Check out this article that I wrote a while back. Next week, I’ll look at attitudes towards government jobs to support the case that the “government” is seen as a magic wand which will solve India’s knottiest problems despite its patchy record at actually doing so.

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