The role of politicians has been far more significant in pushing the country’s development than that of bureaucrats.
The structure of administration in India, nowadays called the “iron frame”, was modelled by the British on their own system of civil services. No wonder then that audiences in this country can appreciate the biting irony of the British television series Yes Minister. In a sense, the series is a parody of bureaucracy all over the world. But the concept of the administrator as not just a rigid upholder of rules and regulations but also as the denizen of elite clubs signifying a luxurious lifestyle is very recognizably part of both British and Indian cultures.
From the point of view of the common man, government officials in this country seem to occupy a God-like world cocooned from the grinding reality of life. This may not be entirely true but Kaushik Basu, former Chief Economic Advisor to the UPA government, certainly wrote wittily about his experiences in this role. He described the way in which doors in South Block magically opened for him while his briefcases seemed to float on their own to his office. For an ordinary mortal, this seemed a strange world where an individual neither opened doors nor carried briefcases on his own.
There is one crucial difference, however, between the British and Indian civil services. The latter was created to control a subjugated population, while the former was meant to deal with one’s own people. Here administrators have been taught to control and suppress people who could conceivably revolt at any time against alien masters. Sadly, seven decades after Independence, the bureaucracy has not been taught that its role has changed. Or, if they have been told so in the legendary training academy at Mussorie, it is with the caveat that law and order is their primary responsibility. As one top bureaucrat told me, we have never been taught how to be facilitators to development, we have only been taught how to control and restrain the masses.
The same person told me this country will never grow or prosper till the entire system of civil services is demolished. Amazingly, another Secretary rank officer made identical comments in a private conversation. One of them even told foreign investors at a closed door meeting—at which I was present inadvertently—that his junior officials were not likely to reply promptly to any queries though they had given him assurances to this effect. He warned that most times, on calling they would be told “sahib is in a meeting”.
Though media in this country constantly portrays bureaucrats as being harassed by political leaders, and this does happen in many cases, there is another side to this story. This is based on the accountability factor. The politician in a democracy is held accountable for his actions every five years during an election. It is at this point that even the most corrupt of politicians needs to flaunt his achievements in bettering the life of his constituents. In contrast, the bureaucrat faces no such issues. He has no reason to seek any change in the status quo, given the fact that his is a lifetime job with immense comforts.
My brief stint of working in a non-profit organisation brought home this fact rather dramatically. The NGO was trying to persuade a state government to launch a major health initiative by providing the required technical expertise. Officials in the health department were utterly disinterested in the proposal. But when it was finally presented to the then Health Minister, he was delighted by the plan. He took an on-the-spot decision to implement it despite stiff opposition from officials, who could provide no valid reason for their hostility. The minister recognised that the scheme entailing minimal financial involvement would bring about a significant improvement in children’s health. Like any canny politician, he also realised that this visible success story could be highlighted in the future. The department officials, however, saw no gain to themselves by accepting a project submitted by a resource-starved NGO.
In fact, the oft-told stories of bureaucrats being roughly treated by political leaders are undoubtedly true but there are others regarding the staunch obstinacy of the bureaucracy in stalling policies that can bring about much-needed uplift of people. It may go against prevailing thinking, but one must accept that the role of politicians has been far more significant in pushing the country’s development than that of bureaucrats. The dismantling of the licence raj regime was opposed most virulently by officials who were set to lose their draconian powers to control all levels of industry. Udyog Bhawan in the pre- liberalization era was where top corporate honchos could be seen waiting meekly for hours outside the offices of not just senior officials but junior babus for a mere five-minute meeting. Narasimha Rao’s initiation of economic reforms brought such power crashing down.
Even so, red tape is still rampant in the government. Despite this regime’s efforts to digitize services to eliminate any element of discretion, ways and means are found to ensure that considerable power remains in the hand of the ubiquitous babu. Even the process of filing income tax returns online is said to be short circuited in some cities for small businesses who are forced to meet officials in person. Similarly, the complexity of the Goods and Services Tax (GST) at the outset meant that it has taken literally years of revisions before becoming somewhat comprehensible for taxpayers.
The solution for these problems cannot be a complete demolition of the so-called iron frame of administration and governance. But the present government can surely take a few steps towards loosening the stranglehold of the civil services. First, there should be a greater induction of domain experts into specialised areas of governance including the public sector. For instance, it would make sense to have technocrats heading ministries like power, telecom, coal and petroleum. Rather than generalist IAS officers who take time to learn the subject and then move on after a few years to another sector. In fact, such ministries should be declared off-limits to the generalist officers.
Second, the process of administration at the district and panchayat level needs to be revamped as well. Here too domain experts in agriculture and rural development need to be placed in positions of authority so that work in these sectors can be carried out efficiently.
Third, the entire process of recruitment to the government needs to be revamped in conjunction with human resources experts. It needs to be more in line with the needs of an evolving society rather than continue the traditional patterns of employing babus that were established decades ago.
A multitude of other changes can be proposed but that might need another really long article. Suffice it to say the human resources available for governance are not being used to their full potential in this country. An emerging economy like India needs visionary and dedicated personnel who can help the country emerge from its chrysalis and become a powerhouse of energy and growth. Recruitment for the government needs to focus on those who have the required skills to facilitate development and enable a faster pace of growth, not just for the elite but for the common man. It is high time this government takes action on this issue to ensure a significant improvement in the quality of governance.
Sushma Ramachandran is a senior journalist