A couple of nights ago, I saw the lights in my room fluctuating. I got out and saw a similar problem in other rooms. There were even some scary sounds of electric failures. I went to the control room and cut-off the main supply. Outside my home, I saw the street lights and lights from other houses were also fluctuating. We called up an electrician and he came running at night to help us.

As he was working, he told me about a device that was installed at my home which was not functioning properly. We had a Servo Voltage Controller to curb voltage fluctuations from the government supply. It is a common substitute of individual voltage stabilizers that we put beside every air-conditioner. Had it been working properly, I would not see the light fluctuating, unlike the rest of the houses in my neighborhood. An expense of a lac rupees could save me from the erratic power supply.

Then I remembered a discussion that I once had with my friends about government spending on necessary services. In India, we have had some key services that the government has not been able to provide effectively. The most important of them are safe water and regular electricity. In the absence of a public facility, individual innovations come up that the affluent can afford. In this case, I and many other customers install devices to save us from bad electricity. Had the electricity board spent better on its equipment, so many people would not be spending on stabilizers, and many others would not need to purchase one. This is the wastage that can be avoided by spending money wisely on public utilities.

I noticed that I and many more customers also have a diesel generator, an RO water purifier, a home security guard and so many services that could be easily avoided. Compare the cost (including time and money) of installing a big stabilizer at the powerhouse instead of every home getting an individual solution. The reverse has already happened in the case of water. We simply cannot find homes for middle-class families without a water-filter.

Individual solutions, of course, waste a lot of resources that could be utilized for better things. But more importantly, they create an indifference in the people who can afford them. Once we all have had our water purifiers working, we don’t care whether the public water supply is clean or not. This indifference means a lack of pressure on the government to spend wisely. This also means a class-divide in the society where the problems of the poor might not have enough force to be heard, and the rich will find solutions to their problems themselves.

The lack of good quality public services must have encouraged jugaad and innovation. It has also blossomed entrepreneurs who can provide an alternate to a faulting service. It is an interesting trade-off to study. Should we promote innovation at an individual level or should we promote efficiency at the system’s level? Because if the system does not provide it, we create it.