Institutional Change and Power Asymmetry in the Context of Rural India by Dr. Amar Patnaik, MP

Mr. Amar Patnaik, Member of Parliament, has been a member of the Indian Audit and Accounts Service. His book Institutional Change and Power Asymmetry in the Context of Rural India is largely based on his doctoral thesis. The book addresses a key question in the implementation of Government schemes and programmes: why do they fail or why do they not succeed in the same measure as conceived? Undoubtedly, this is an important question, which the vast majority in this country would like answered in a decisive manner in order to bring about economy, efficiency and effectiveness-the three Es of public expenditure- in the public policy implementation. As an experienced public auditor and evaluator of public policy, Mr. Patnaik has spent long years concerning himself with the three Es. He has also shared his own experience of failure in implementing programmes that were otherwise conceptually and economically sound.  Mr. Patnaik’s experience provides the underpinning of this important work that offers an elegant model for analyzing the success or otherwise of institutional change in the developmental quest of our country.

To begin with, Mr. Patnaik sets for himself four objectives: why do government programmes fail or those that succeed do not auto-replicate elsewhere; why is there poor participation in programmes that are otherwise economically sound: how to enlist, sustain and increase participation; and how important is the role of an institutional champion, who is the grass-root facilitator?

In order to meet these objectives, Mr. Patnaik frames an ex ante model, based on his critical appraisal of the existing literature on institutional change, and tests this model through four thick case studies. In doing so, he builds upon the work of Dorado, one of the leading workers in the area of institutional convenorship. Mr. Patnaik explains institutional convenorship as the process for radically changing the very institutional field in which the actors including the institutional convener is embedded. Mr. Patnaik however distinguishes his work from Dorado, terming as fallacious Dorado’s conception that institutional convening is a process of jumpstarting institutional change. According to Mr. Patnaik, the process change is achieved incrementally and not, as conceived by Dorado, in the form of a quantum jump, which may be more relevant to an entrepreneurial setting. Mr. Patnaik then brings in the role of the Institutional Champion, who in the entrepreneurial context is the person who mobilises resources to exploit an opportunity but in our context (rural India) is an actor who triggers a long-term institutional change. Mr. Patnaik underlines that in order for the institutional convening to take place in a rural context, there has to be an institutional champion, whose role includes identifying collaborators, assessing their incentives, negotiating to discuss the shared problems, and finding a mutually acceptable solution.

Mr. Patnaik proposes that the root cause that poses a major challenge in the success or otherwise of a developmental programme is the power asymmetry in rural India. According to him the asymmetries arise across multiple bases. He lists eight of them: ownership or access to assets: (1) economic, (2) political-linked to political power, (3) social-linked to social status, (4) cultural-as distinct from social, (5) informational-linked to ownership or access to information, for example, the village teacher; (6) technology and skill, which is skewed in favour of the haves; (7) opportunities-some have more than others; and (8) capabilities. Mr. Patnaik constructs an octagon on these eight bases and calls it the Power Asymmetry Octagon. He posits that the size of the octagon and its individual bases will vary depending upon the extent of the individual asymmetries-economic, political, social etc. It is for this reason that the octagon will not be a regular or symmetrical polygon but asymmetric and irregular.

In Mr. Patnaik’s model the institutional change, that embodies overcoming the power asymmetries, is brought about by the Institutional Champion, who spearheads the Convening process. Not everyone, however, can become an Institutional Champion in the rural Indian context, Mr. Patnaik clarifies. He lists 9 attributes of a Champion: (1) level of embeddedness or the extent to which the champion is wedded into the rural structure, (2) level of involvement, (3) level of selflessness (as opposed to the selfishness that drives the corporate setting), (4) level of empathy, which makes the champion feel the same amount of pain as the community, (5) level of organizational ability, (6) level of education, (7) social position, (8) economic position and (9) political strength.

Mr. Patnaik tests his model of Power Asymmetry Octagon and Institutional Champion on four case studies. The first one focuses on Bharati Kabi, a scheduled caste woman of Tambakhuri village in the Mayurbhanj district of Odisha who, with the help of the NGO Unnayan, succeeded in giving voice to the women of her village through their economic and social empowerment, after seven years of struggle and challenges. Mr. Patnaik traces her journey from a nobody to the exalted status of a Thaku ma (grand-mama) and kaki (aunt) and provides analysis of the village situation in the framework of his Power Asymmetry Octagon and the attributes of a Champion and explaining in the process how the power asymmetry was resolved by Bharati Kabi.

The second case relates to the Bahalpur village in the Ganjam district of Odisha. Kumari Sahoo, a distiller by caste, with a broken marriage had endeared herself to the villagers because of her selfless, straightforward, social service- oriented behavior, and astuteness in spotting problems and finding ways to resolve them. She championed the cause of water and sanitation, taking head on the scourge of open defecation. Gradually, over a period of 12 years, the village is able to resolve the problem of water and sanitation which, in its wake, has weakened the caste system and untouchability (everyone gets water from the same pipe). The village has transformed from a caste ridden to a progressive village and is trying to overcome poverty with reduced power asymmetries. Here also, Mr. Patnaik analyses the case in the framework of his Power Asymmetry Octagon and the attributes of a Champion.

The third case belongs to the Bolaniposi village in Keonjhar district of Odisha where Aparajita, the Champion, takes up the cause of children’s rights, with support of an NGO named PECUC. Aparajita, born and brought up in the village, is a graduate and is described as a compassionate, patient and hard-working woman. She impresses upon the villagers the children’s right to education, safety, life and development, and spearheads the implementation of the programmes planned and funded by PECUC. The efforts gradually lead to children of different castes, economic status and communities coming together, eventually weakening these socio-economic barriers, which were the sources of power asymmetry. Aparajita also facilitated bringing government programmes closer to the deprived class and enhancing their economic capability. The case is again analysed and explained well by the Power Asymmetry Octagon. The role of Aparajita has been analysed on the required attributes of a Champion.

The fourth case is from the Dasingbadi village in Kandhmal district in Odisha inhabited primarily by scheduled caste and tribes, with some upper caste people. Alcoholism was a common problem. Bastina Singh (the Champion) is the wife of a teacher in a postgraduate school, who was dismissed from service due to his addiction to alcoholism, and later died leaving behind his family in destitution. Bastina, with the support of the NGO Jagruti, is successful in forming a core group of people and espousing the cause of anti-alcoholism building a powerful narrative around her own experience of drudgery and domestic violence despite belonging to an educated and affluent class. Bastina and her fellow supporters are eventually successful in significantly reducing various bases of the power asymmetry octagon winning popular support in struggle against alcoholism. Soon it becomes a movement that transcends all barriers of caste, religion, education, wealth and gender.

On the basis of these cases, Mr. Patnaik concludes that Convening is 15 stages process. He also makes a cross comparison of the attributes of a Champion. His main conclusions on the Convening Process are that it creates space for participation/ collaboration, reduces social, economic, political and other asymmetries, is an iterative, continuous, non-linear and positivistic process, is slow and time consuming (as opposed to jumpstarting the process as held by Dorado), is invariably helped by an outsider (NGO, government agency etc.) who facilitates and handholds, and the champions pick up the collaborators and partners as the process of Convening progresses. The crucial attributes identified for the Champions are a high degree of involvement, high to medium degree of embeddedness, high empathy, high commitment, and high to medium degree of selflessness. He concludes that the institutional position of the champion need not be high. Another significant conclusion is that the women have more convening power and therefore are preferred candidates for being institutional champions.

Mr. Patnaik’s study presents a rigorous and logical framework for analyzing the challenges in implementing India’s developmental programmes, especially in rural India. His experience as both evaluator and implementer of government programmes has given him the right perspective and his cases studies drawn from the impoverished KBK region of Orissa present the right canvas on which to analyse the implementation challenges. The findings present an interesting array of inputs, which deserve more debate for influencing the policymaking process, which majorly remains a top driven process. As the 3 Es of implementing government programmes and schemes gain more and more prominence and the demand for more focus on the outcomes rather than outputs increases, there will be increasing demand for finetuning policies. Studies such as this present valuable input for policymakers as well as the accountability institutions like the Comptroller and Auditor General of India whose reports are replete with instances of inefficiency, and lack of economy and effectiveness in implementing government programmes. Perhaps the auditors and evaluators themselves can contribute to the validation of the proposed model through their future evaluations.

In his Foreword, Professor Dean Williams of the Harvard University has quoted Herodotus, the Greek father of history, that you never step in the same river twice. That reminds me of another similar quote I had read many years back, that you cannot cross the chasm in two leaps. Perhaps it is time to build upon the past experience and prepare for a major leap of faith. As Professor Williams has rightly said, Mr. Patnaik’s focus on the Champions of institutional change is a unique contribution, offered in an elegant and empirically tested framework. We see such Champions all around us- selfless, highly inspired and full of empathy for the under-privileged. The question that we need to ask is whether we have recognized their role and potential and given them their due place under the sun. Leveraging their role in the complex socio-economic milieu of rural India could provide the right momentum to the development process and catapult the country into its rightful place. Mr. Patnaik’s book offers extremely useful input for further informing our development models. As Professor Amar Nayak of the Xavier University has commented in his Foreword, the book provides a holistic framework to the process of institutional convening towards resolving power asymmetries.

The book has been written in an easy to understand lucid style. It offers a new, empirical way of looking at our developmental approach, and yet rests firmly on the complexities of real-life rural India, making it a recommended read for policy planners, administrators, academics and programme evaluators. However, many readers may find the cost of the hardback edition a bit prohibitive, which underscores the need for a more affordable paperback edition that will help ensure a wider readership. Also, the photographs in the book, in black and white, do not look very sharp and may disappoint a reader who may want to have a closer look at the real-life heroes, who are quietly bringing about a transformation in the socio-economic landscape of rural India, winning over social taboos and improving the lives of the downtrodden.

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