How does the Prime Minister get a bloated, self-indulgent government to deliver? Remember, in its political train, there is a gargantuan semi-government establishment, the public sector, and a wider “quango” universe too. Plus a country-wide bureaucracy that runs to lakhs of employees.

The case for permanent tenure, long a thing of the past in the private sector, has worn thin in government as well. Directors make poignant films on the plight of erstwhile “Company Men” now, and not just in Japan. And for good reason. In the face of persistent abuse of “permanency” by babus, covenanted academics, government hospital doctors running private nursing homes on the side, absent but salary-collecting teachers and administrators in primary schools etc., what can be done? Is there an urgent case for reform? But where does it say in the service rules that going slow or lacking diligence is a sackable offence?

There is a provision, little used, that those in the Central government may be compulsorily retired at age 50, provided the target joined service before the age of 35. This, after a prior review and in “public interest”. The All-India Service Rules also work on the same lines. But in practice, mostly what would get a government servant fired is proven corruption, entered on his service record, because words like “integrity” and “conduct” are the chief markers.

Non-performance, negligence, flouting of deadlines etc., are probably seen as abstractions too difficult to measure objectively. Annual reports from superiors rarely cite such issues, lest the blame spill over. And politicians, till the strict Narandra Modi government took over, were often in cahoots.

Even the Indian judiciary has seen to it that it has become an insulated group. The uniformed cadres, save the regular armed forces in the main, are also affected.

Bastar in Chhattisgarh and the Kashmir valley have demonstrated, time and again, CRPF personnel ambushed and massacred by Naxalites and terrorists, partially due to flouting of standard procedures, slack oversight, discipline issues, all leading to grievous loss of life. And the regular police are given to abuses of power in imaginative ways. These include rape, intimidation, extortion, illicit trades, falsification of evidence and endemic graft.

The service rules for the Indian Administrative Service (IAS), the Indian Foreign Service (IFS), the Indian Police Service (IPS), let alone the lesser all-India cadres, do not actually have specific provisions that focus on non-performance.

The case for permanent tenure, long a thing of the past in the private sector, has worn thin in government as well. In the face of persistent abuse of “permanency” by babus, covenanted academics, government hospital doctors running private nursing homes on the side, absent but salary-collecting teachers and administrators in primary schools etc., what can be done? Is there an urgent case for reform? But where does it say in the service rules that going slow or lacking diligence is a sackable offence?

Corruption too, as defined in the service rules, does not embrace the province of subtle external empire building, facilitation of post retirement careers, all but the most obvious benami acquisitions, gratification in kind, covert shareholding as kickbacks, influence peddling to facilitate vested interests and so on. It sticks pretty much to unearthing “assets disproportionate to known sources of income”.

Zero tolerance for non-performance and negligence must become the new normal. Suspicion of corruption too has to be looked at, on an enlarged canvas, so that it does not stay so hard to prove, except against the most cavalier officials.

Recent reports indicate that the Modi government, as part of its “perform or perish” mantra for a “New India”, has taken “action” against 381 civil service officers, inclusive of 27 from the IAS. This, for being corrupt, redundant and/or “non-performers”. Some of these officers were dismissed via forced resignations and premature retirements, others had their pensions cropped.

The action, against just 381, came as a result of a review of the records of 11,828 Group A officers, including 2,953 from All India Services, such as the IAS, the IPS and the Forest Services. The service records of 19,714 Group B officers were also reviewed. The three-digit total of those actioned came from an examination of as many as 31,542 officers.

This sarkari excavation, with its attempt at objectivity, contrasts quite sharply with another recent report that said out of 52 CEOs appointed in 2010 in the private sector, 24 were shown the door within five years. These highly paid executives were dismissed for non-performance, just for not meeting stated objectives.

The Prime Minister’s “Probity & Performance” drive probably needs to incorporate much more stick. His government will have to fire people for incompetence, non-performance, negligence, dereliction of duty etc., on par with corruption.

Right now, shirking of duty, gross negligence, sloth, apathy, passing the buck, absence without permission etc., go routinely unpunished. This often results not only in low morale amongst the better class of officers, but losses to the public exchequer and all too often needless and callous loss of life. Cases in point are the recent stampede that took 22 lives and injured 30 at Mumbai’s Elphinstone Road-Parel station overbridge, unimproved since it was erected in 1972. This even after then Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu sanctioned Rs 12 crore odd to revamp it in 2016. But local Railway officials concerned did not even put it out to tender.

Then there are the scores of avoidable deaths from lack of ICU oxygen in government hospitals, the series of railway derailments and deaths, bridges and flyovers collapsing, planes and helicopters crashing, hit-and-run road accidents, murders, rapes, pilgrimage disasters, all slothfully handled by the unscathed authorities concerned.

There is actually no real accountability of people whose job it is to ensure safety, compliance with normatives and implementation of time-bound objectives.

Yes, commissions of enquiry and probes are ordered, mea culpas recited, and compensations announced, if not paid, every time. But the eventual reports from tardy investigations usually find a minor player or two to act as scapegoats.

A government that has succeeded with enormous determination and in the face of considerable obstruction, to push through matters stuck for decades, such as the GST, the Armed Forces one-rank-one-pension(OROP), the Bankruptcy Law, a new Benami Law with bite, can indeed reform the bureaucracy too. The standing bureaucracy is however, truly formidable. Not only does it do little effective work, but incredulously, wants to add lakhs of jobs to their number, claiming there are vacancies that need to be filled. Many of the existing lakhs of government servants, appointed, sustained and even pampered by tax-payer money to “work” on matters of public weal, simply don’t. Great numbers in their ranks, high, middling and low, use their positions to blatantly ignore the interests of the citizenry, even while being very alive to their own.

Of course, the near unaccountability of elected representatives—their overlords in Parliament, in the State Assemblies—also acts by way of an evil role model.

The public does have the Right to Information (RTI), and there’s public interest litigation and of course, peaceful street agitations and demonstrations, but it all seems to bounce off the thick-skinned political class.

It is clear however that, even at the top, they cannot allow themselves to continue with their brazen lack of public spiritedness and abuses of privilege, in this age of 24×7 TV news coverage, bolstered by social media.

The credibility of this present government’s ability to deliver is at stake. Even as it contemplates a range of stage-two structural economic reforms, such as long pending changes to labour laws that would attract investment, domestic and foreign, towards new and expanded industries, creating much needed jobs.

But first, and perhaps on an ongoing basis, Modi must change the chalta hai culture of this country. He is certainly working on it. Swachh Bharat promotes civic cleanliness and toilets for everyone. Our foreign policy and engagement with other countries have been revamped to a new high. This, along with a new attitude towards our national security paradigms, that has not only attacked terrorism in the Kashmir Valley, but held China and Pakistan at bay. Corruption in high places is non-existent. There has been an unprecedented war on black money. The General Sales Tax (GST), implemented on an information technology (IT) backbone, makes it difficult to evade.

The linkage of Aadhar with PAN, driving licences, mobile numbers, bank accounts, income tax returns, subsidies, and so on, is already preventing tax evasion and vast pilferage of welfare benefits to the poor via identity theft.

But the deeper malaise to tackle is in how this country sees itself. While that is a multi-faceted and complicated thing, it is certain that if we are to join the first rank of nations within ten years, promptly sacking government servants who don’t deliver will be salutary.

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