Of plumbers, slumber and economic development



If there’s a leak in the water line in your building, you’ll call the plumber. You won’t call the carpenter and hope that by a combination of luck, brute force, learning-on-the-job, prayer, etc. he’ll somehow get the job done. But when it comes to governance, we don’t use this basic filter. We put the wrong people in charge of problem solving, and endlessly debate why they should be nonetheless able to solve them. They can’t. The sooner we admit it the better.

Structure matters. The internal capacity of organisations makes a difference. Being alert to larger trends and learning from them is necessary. Being able to take others along in collaborations is important. And, ironically and in contrast to what we think, power doesn’t matter nearly as much as some of these other things.

Think about it. Our political leaders have always been ‘powerful’. And yet we find ourselves in the lowest quartile of global rankings of nations in almost everything. We’ve been telling ourselves that this is because those in power are busy chasing their private goals instead of saving the public. That’s partly true. But it’s equally true that power itself is not a major determinant of good outcomes.

Back to the plumber-carpenter analogy, and structure. When it comes to sprawling urban areas of the sort that we are now seeing, there are two levels of governance that are important – the metropolitan one is important for planning, and the neighbourhood one is important for participation. The other two levels – the municipal one and the state government – are less important.

And yet, virtually all the authority, the funds and the manpower for tackling urban challenges is with those two !!

We’ve really called the carpenter to fix the leak. And when the leaks get bigger, we shout for the carpenter, hoping he’ll hear us better, and do something. Anything. But he’s a carpenter, and simply not suited for the job. That’s why, apart from making high level promises of action, he doesn’t take steps to actually crack those problems. No amount of trying by him will help. Moreover, he knows quite well he’s a carpenter. We should remember it too.


The demand to develop North Karnataka is part of a more widely felt view that the state is over-focused on the development of the capital region. With Bengaluru already 13 times the size of the next largest city, and adding one Mysuru of population every 4 years, the skew is getting greater. Tackling this should be an urgent priority of the state.

Some have argued that the development of Bangalore will be overwhelmed by people pouring in from elsewhere if we don’t develop other regions, and for that reason at least, we should do so. That’s a poor starting point. Every taluk, district of the state has a right to expect governance to focus on its development, for the sake of the people who live there itself, not to manage someone else’s pain points.

Three years ago, I proposed the Karnataka Regional Economic Development Strategy to create nodes of development in different parts of the state. The current government is the first one to take even a half-step in this direction; the announcement of seven districts of focus for economic development in key sectors is a start. But we need to do this for EVERY district, and more importantly for regional concentrations of economic competitiveness.

It is sad to see other Kannadigas ask for things that should be theirs by right, and to propose a new state if it is not done. Democracy should be pro-active and response to the development needs of all, and that is surely doable. The Constitution, the law, and the structure of government all provide adequately for this. The only thing left is to do it.

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About Ashwin Mahesh 96 Articles
Ashwin Mahesh has been involved in public policy for Bengaluru through his work with the Karnataka government. The views expressed here are his own. He is a member of the Lok Satta party. He is also CEO of Mapunity Information Services, and a director at Oorvani Media, publisher of Citizen Matters and India Together. He is also a visiting faculty with the Centre for Public Policy at IIM Bangalore.