Whoever wins in 2019 will need to bring reforms in the governance mechanism.
Good intentions and ideas on the part of policymakers are useful to the public only to the extent to which they get translated into reality. It is no accident that those beneficial concepts that most effectively became standard practice are the few where subsequent involvement of the official machinery is low, as for example the booking of air and rail tickets online, or the direct long-distance calling techniques introduced during the 1980s. In the early 1990s, much of the reforms carried out by Prime Minister Narasimha Rao consisted of taking an axe to regulations so that they no longer stood in the way of progress. However, institutional coagulation within the governance mechanism in India has meant that the chokehold of the bureaucracy over much of the activity field of the citizen continues. Given the statements made by Narendra Modi in the years prior to his assuming the responsibilities of the Prime Ministership of India, it was assumed that substantive administrative reform would be among the tasks begun during the very first days in office of the new PM. However, his focus (together with BJP president Amit Shah) has instead been on seeking to ensure that the BJP as a political party gain as dominant a position in both the Centre as well as the states as was the situation for the Congress Party during the tenure in South Block of Jawaharlal Nehru. It is therefore clear that administrative reform is a subject that is intended to be tackled only during the second of what is hoped will be a two-term Modi sarkar. Whoever takes charge of the Government of India in May 2019 will need to make reform of the governance mechanism an immediate priority. For too long, policy passing through the bureaucratic sieve has got diluted and deformed in such a way that its intended benefits get negated by harmful side-effects caused through obvious maladministration.
In the task of placing a satellite into space, every stage of the rocket needs to work with precision. Likewise, every stage of the selection, placement and career progression of individual officers needs to be carried out in a scientific manner. In the case of the selection of the 450-odd members of the higher rungs of the civil service each year, even should the Union Public Service Commission (an institution that has these days escaped the obloquy heaped on other wings of the administration) may indeed select individuals who have within them the characteristics of energy, innovation and integrity needed to be good administrators. However, once the choice gets made, the allocation of the selected individuals within the bureaucracy is a much less orderly exercise. The first twenty or so appointees in the Merit List are usually assigned departments of their choice, which may or may not be what they are best suited for by training and temperament. The others are frequently placed helter-skelter within the vast machinery of government, often in roles remote from their work experience, educational training or aptitude. Instead, during the period of training, the areas of strength of each appointee should become clear, and these ought to be used to decide placement. The present system is more like an auction, in which different streams and cadres “bid” for a given number of appointees, who once chosen are usually pushed into whatever slot is available at that point in time. In the complexity which marks the 21st century, the “generalist” is as outdated as the dinosaur. Home, Defence, Industry, Finance, Health, Education and other key fields need to get seeded with probationers who are made aware of the special traits that have resulted in such placement, and who are told to focus on gaining proficiency in a field where they may spend almost their entire careers rather than just a few years. Only in (hopefully rare) cases where the initial placement is clearly faulty should such streams get changed so far as the individual officer is concerned. Apart from the UPSC, a statutory body with the same level of protection from outside interference needs to get established. Such a Union Service Monitoring Commission (USMC) would evaluate every officer after 10 years of service (or Director level) and subsequently after every 20 years of service (Joint Secretary level). Each official needs to be judged from the viewpoint of results, integrity and ability to anticipate and act on evolving trends and methods, and those found wanting need to be dismissed immediately (in egregious cases) or quietly given up to three years time in which to locate careers outside the services and move out. The confidential review system is in practice either a joke or inaccurate because subjective, with almost every candidate scoring high values despite visible (to the civil society at least) lapses in the officer’s performance or in integrity. The option of removal of an IAS-plus officer ( IAS,IPS,IFS,IRS etc) needs to be made real through much more frequent use than has been the case since 1947. There should also be a one-way revolving door while in service, where an official has the option of leaving for private service within his term, but never re-entering save under exceptional circumstances of compelling national interest.
Thanks to a temporary dip in the number of IAS officers available to fill slots that have opened up recently, a larger proportion of those from other services have begun entering this elite service. There exists a case for selecting 25% of IAS officers from among the most deserving candidates in other services (the choosing of whom needs to be through a joint UPSC-USMC mechanism). Another 15% (over ten years going up to 25%) of officers in every service need to be chosen at both Director and Joint Secretary level from outside the civil services, so that their domain knowledge and competence within civil society get utilised rather than ignored. Such appointments should not be on contract, but be based on the same conditions as “direct recruit” officers. There should not, for example, be a “Second Class IAS” or a “Second Class IRS”, the latter formed through horizontal recruitment on a fixed-term contract. The status, powers and privileges should be the same for all officers. Should any such recruit from outside return to the private sector, he or she will be permanently excluded from any public post. Such a system would foster more competition as well as refresh mindsets.
Much of the problems faced by the Modi government relate to less than wholly satisfactory implementation of ideas, not to mention some less than optimal ideas which are the consequence of too narrow a base of substantive consultation. System-altering administrative reforms need to be at the top of the agenda of the first hundred days of the government that will assume office in five months’ time. India cannot afford to wait another five years for this essential requisite of progress to get done.