Our World-Our Times
Do we need an incompetent bureaucracy or a committed adhocracy
I may sound overly sceptical perhaps angry, yes I am, as are scores of my patriotic fellowmen, on the state of the nation and more particularly on the plight of the poorest of the poor. As is more often than not, the case, the usual blame game ends with a finger pointing towards either the politicians, hereinafter referred to as the netas, a popular connotation for the political leadership in India and the bureaucrats or the civil servants, now being referred to as the babus, a term that will be taken up in more detail later in this column. Thus it is the netas and the babus both past and present. who are more often than not considered to be the ostensible culprits for all our woes. It is in this backdrop that I felt it prudent to investigate the very ethos and the reasons behind the very genesis, the necessity and the compulsions of the babudom in our country in these contemporary times of the digital age. When it comes to public sentiments against the netas, they invariably and always get away under the guise of being public representatives and the babus, since most of them are always too ready and willing to serve the interests of their political masters, remain insulated, receive endless protection, and continue to rise the ladders of success. Irrespective of the ruling class or party in power the babus wield enormous power and influence over the decision-making process within the government that remains more like a feudal order that refuses to make way even 65 years after India became Republic and allow the transition to a healthy democratic and federal system as perceived by the founding fathers of the Constitution of India. Despite huge public anguish the babus more particularly the IAS do proclaim being a professional band of civil servants and the metaphors do run wild from being a so-called steel frame to the nation to a necessary evil that runs the affairs of the state as the third pillar in a democratic State.
Let us now briefly study the Collins Thesaurus of the english language that defines bureaucracy as a noun and as ‘government, officials, authorities, administration, ministry, the system, civil service, directorate, officialdom, corridors of power’. Of course true to its functions bureaucracies do tend to stifle enterprise and initiative but also are the best safeguards against the whims and fancies of those in power. But as the saying goes “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely” we have a scenario in India where this is more of a norm rather than an exception as those in power including both the bureaucrats and the politicians often do form an unholy nexus. It also implies a corrupt bureaucrat politician nexus and not mere red tape, regulations, paperwork, officialdom, officialese, bumbledom and the list goes on. Incidentally in the federal polity of India those working in the states have a much more happier time as the three central services assigned to the States i.e. the IAS, IPS and the IFS do end up with more than their fair share of the power clout and the nexus becomes complete with the Members of the Legislative Assembly heading a number of state run enterprises ranging from the fisheries corporation to state-owned contraptions handling power generation and distribution to industries development and leather corporation – all being run with the help of the public exchequer as a hang over of the socialist past.
While the State run autonomous corporations have turned into grazing grounds for the netas and babus, critical institutions such as primary and secondary school education, health and infrastructure are in a shambles. Those babus who maintain even a fair degree of honesty either follow the safe formula and go for the thumb rule that ‘no decision is the best decision’ or land up postings that hardly matter for those who only command what are called the “money spinning” posts
Never before the Babus could imagine that they would be seeing their senior head towards Delhi’s Tihar jail for approving documents as asked by Telecom Minister A Raja. Insiders in the babudom who did smell the wrongdoings in distribution of 2G licenses, are convinced that Siddhartha Behura, a 1973 batch IAS, who is languishing behind bars since 2011 might not have been a party to the entire conspiracy as he had joined as Telecom secretary much later in the day. In contrast the fact remains that the Babus who were directly or indirectly indicted for wrongs in Commonwealth Games 2010 somehow escaped with mild punishments as is normally the case like transfer to the parent cadre. Amusingly, the Babus were apprehensive from day one that Right to Information Act (RTI) would force them to be on the receiving end on every decision they took. But as the grapevine is and as it has unfolded now, the bureaucrats have now started raising more questions on the file to be better safe than sorry to the detriment of prompt decision making in the interest of good governance.
Incidentally, managing investigators is now more of a taboo as more often than not the CBI is being monitored by an over eager judiciary as also the Income Tax and Enforcement Directorate sleuths do become adventurous and target the high and mighty to land with a spectacular catch as was the case with the IAS Joshi couple in Madhya Pradesh. The CBI raid on a former telecom secretary Shyamal Ghosh, a 1965 batch IAS officer is an indication that a Babu may be haunted and hauled up for his decision even after his superannuation. The Babus who had hitherto wanted “plum posts” in ministries such as economic affairs, finance, roadways, tourism, commerce and industry, are now shying away and scouting for “safer abodes in social sector ministries. A Babu who awards a contract now must gather intelligence on a number of aspects which he had hitherto conveniently ignored before even while angling for a prize post. This was the case when a Member Engineering of the Railway Board discovered much to his chagrin when an erstwhile Railway Minister was found using his nephew to source the much wanted post in the Railway Board.
More often than not it is the nexus between the politicians and the mafia more particularly the netas and the babus of India, so well brought out by the Vora Commission in the aftermath of 1993 blasts while I was with the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence. Indeed this was the time of revelation personally to me as I may recall having arrested a senior BSF officer with huge quantities of heroin from the Amritsar border. Also having worked on the infamous stock market Harshad Mehta case, followed by several others convinced me that the long hand of law may not reach out to those who are well connected and who operate through an unholy nexus with the politicians in power. The discovery of huge remittances by the now well-known defence dealer Abhishek Verma with his own set of political connection was handed over to the enforcement directorate by us at Revenue Intelligence but the same apparently made little headway as I later found out, perhaps and in retrospect as I see the nation could have averted more such defence deals with timely acton. It was a time when we cracked the Vizag Steel Plant case of DEEC fraud where a very senior IAS Officer who had functioned as the the Director General of Foreign Trade and some very senior officials of Vizag Steel Plant. They, in connivance with a number of politicians in power, had masterminded one of the most ingenious commercial frauds of the time. Unfortunately both the anti-smuggling case and the anti-corruption matter could not reach their logical conclusion both with the DRI and the CBI respectively despite our best efforts as the politico legal forces had joined hands in the end. Incidentally, public memory is short and this very important file of Vora Commission on bureaucrat politician nexus along with the recommendations is now gathering dust in the corridors of North Block.
When it comes to ethics, morals and values in our babucracy let us have a quick revisit to the very infamous episode when our Indian Foreign Service officers were shocked and angry after they had heard the news that one of their colleagues Devyani Khobragade, a doctor-turned IFS officer of 1999 batch and the then Deputy Consul General of India in New York, was arrested by law enforcement authorities in New York City when “she was dropping her daughter at school”. Khobragade, who was later released on bail, was arrested on the basis of allegations raised by the officer’s former India-based domestic assistant, Sangeeta Richard. Ms. Khobargade was accused of giving false information while applying for a visa for a “babysitter and housekeeper”, and also of underpaying the help. The chargesheet against her implied a jail term up to 15 years. Incidentally she did what every other Indian diplomat does in the US to secure a visa for their servants. Unfortunately, in her case the maid walked away and sought legal protection, which brought the dirty baggage in the open. A wrong is a wrong, howsoever you may wish to defend the indefensible.
Government sponsored banners run across the globe, on incredible India today, yes ironically the Telecom Regulatory Authority or the TRAI after a amazing and uncalled for public consultation process against net neutrality has now come up with yet another bloomer and that is to expose the very privacy of those very netizens it was meant to protect. And the list goes on, as there have been several other instances at the TRAI, to name a few: the delay, perhaps deliberate in bringing about number portability amongst the operators, the delay in doing away of unwanted roaming charges and the differential and complicated tariff structure that most subscribers as yet do not understand. Well one may be lead to believe that either this would be a case of gross incompetence or blissful ignorance. In either case it is the public at large that has to pay for the apathy and ignorance and the public is paying a heavy price for the countenance to the corrupt Babudom. Is the Modi government watching?
It is in news that under new rules being finalised by the Centre, the state governments will have to inform the Centre within 48 hours about the suspension of an all India services officer.The new service rules being formulated by the Centre for top bureaucrats will ensure that Babus do not remain suspended beyond a week except for prior sanction of a review committee. Let us be sure that the new set of rules do not lead the babudom to further complacency as it is the interest of the common man and not the interest of the politicians and bureaucrats that should count at the end of the day. I may mention that to add to the country’s development dilemma in addition to the bureaucratic apathy, perhaps incompetency , the party in power has to contend with an opposition that is on a virtual war with the ruling party. As we may observe over its predicament over the Land Bill now on the anvil. We have seen Spectrum being allowed for free, Coal mines handed over for free. What has happened to the paralysis of decision making, the integrity and agility of the babudom, the rational discourse in our legislatures and also in the media. Are we caught in a catch 22 situation as a country? Is the Prime Minister worried!
Yes, I am worried more for the bureaucracy than any one else as that was supposed to be a very competent and professional institution, more importantly a committed steel-frame as was envisaged by our founding fathers. It is high time that we in India consider a bureaucracy in the higher echelons as one that is non-permanent and that is loyal to the country instead of the service or the party in power. A babudom that is not feudal in its mindset but a forward looking agile and committed force to be reckoned with, perhaps in line with a system of governance now followed in the western world known as ‘adhocracy’. As we talk about ‘adhocracy’ now in vogue in many developed countries – a form promoted by Alvin Toffler in 1970 as a structureless problem solving organisation. It has often been used in the theory of management of organisations in a tecehnotronic age and popularised by academics such as Henry Mintzberg. Let India look forward to a Babudom that is neither corrupt nor incompetent but is professionally more responsive to the masses and to the constitution for an India. Let us have a fresh rethink to review and reform for a modern progressive bureaucracy for an India that is not feudal but is modern and progressive Mr Prime Minister before it is too late for India.
Undoubtedly the thoughts portrayed by Dr. Swarup are laudable. It is an excellent expression of views on a subject matter which is as sensitive as a silent volcano.
The article has reminded me the words uttered by Marry McCrathy “Bureaucracy, the rule of no one, has become the modern form of despotism.” Similarly in the words of Eugene McCarthy “The only thing that saves us from the bureaucracy is its inefficiency.”
Bureaucracy in my view has merely become a system of government administration in which a hierarchy of non-elected professional officials is in control and often insists on strict adherence to standard procedures. In today’s context it remains an administrative system in which the need or inclination to follow rigid or complex procedures impedes effective action; innovative ideas are also bogged down in red tape.
The basic question which remains to be answered or deliberated is the root cause of the same and its impact on the development and growth of the futuristic India. There is a dire necessity to take up this topic on a much larger platform and let it be thrown to the professional pundit and intellectuals from all walks of life for coming forward with their views and also with suggestions on how to tackle this menace.
Let Mr. Modi take up this matter on top of his agenda and like man-ki-baat let this matter should also be deliberated in the open forum with the outcome in the form of conclusive minutes containing the abstract of true reformation.
This article has reminded me of beautiful article written in The Economist on March 6, 2008 under the heading “Battling the babu raj” which starts in an extraordinary manner by writing as “India has some of the hardest-working bureaucrats in the world, but its administration has an abysmal record of serving the public”. The economist case study speaks as under:
RIGZIN SAMPHEL, a 33-year-old civil servant, wakes to the screeching of peacocks outside his bedroom window. Stepping into the gentle sunshine of a north Indian spring morning, he hears the lowing of three brown cows tasked with providing his milk. A scuffling attends him, as armed guards, peons, gardeners and orderlies—tasked with catering to Mr Samphel’s other needs—hop to attention.
A four-year veteran of the elite Indian Administrative Service (IAS), Mr Samphel is the district magistrate of Jalaun, in Uttar Pradesh (UP) province. More often called the collector, or district officer, the district magistrate is the senior official of India’s key administrative unit, the district. In Jalaun, an expanse of arid plain between the Ganges and Yamuna rivers, Mr Samphel is in charge of 564 villages and 1.4m people.
After a hearty breakfast, he leaves his residence—requisitioned from a local maharajah around 1840—and gets into his car: a white Ambassador, curvaceous clone of the 1948 Morris Oxford, complete with siren and flashing blue light, which has symbolised officialdom in India for six decades. Mr Samphel takes the back seat; a policeman rides machinegun in the front; and in two minutes they arrive at Mr Samphel’s main office, the “collectorate”.
There for the next four hours, beneath a portrait of a beaming Mohandas Gandhi, Mr Samphel receives a stream of poor people. A turbaned flunkey regulates the flow, letting in a dozen at a time. Many are old and ragged, or blind. Paraplegics slither to the collector’s feet on broken limbs. Most bring a written plea, for the resumption of a widow’s pension that has mysteriously dried up; for money for an operation; for a tube-well or a blanket. Many bear complaints against corrupt officials. One supplicant wants permission to erect a statue of a dead politician: a former champion of the Hindu outcastes who comprise nearly half of Jalaun’s population.
Mr Samphel listens, asks questions and, in red ink, scrawls on the petitions his response. For desperate cases, he orders an immediate payment of alms, typically 2,000 rupees ($50), from the district Red Cross society, of which he is president. More often, he writes a note to the official to whom the petition should have been directed in the first place—or, wretchedly often, to whom it has already been directed: “Act upon this according to the law.”
Mr Samphel reckons he spends 60% of his time dealing with individual supplicants—also outside the collectorate. As the Ambassador turns back on to the road, it is waylaid by a tractor bringing a cartload of petitioners in from a distant village. Then one of Mr Samphel’s three mobile phones bleeps. Someone wants firewood; Mr Samphel calls a forestry official to relay the request. It is a hugely impressive performance. Mr Samphel works 16 hours a day, seven days a week, and reckons he has had two days off since 2003. But this is hardly an efficient way to minister to a needy population almost half the size of New Zealand’s.
To sum-up I can only say that in today’s context the bureaucracy is India has become nothing but the giant power exercised by puppets and pygmies with the self-centered motive. Let the sleeping partners, who are the running the show of our democratic system by sitting in the political as well as bureaucratic balcony, wake up now before it becomes a deep sleep forever.
Prof. (Dr.) Atul Mehrotra
Excellent article. well said and to the point . it is high time that modi should revamp India’s bureaucracy with out any further delay.