Collapse of the Steel Frame of Indian Bureaucracy and Modi’s call for Rapid Transformation of the Administrative Systems
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has said we cannot march through the twenty-first century with the administrative systems of the nineteenth century. As an obvious corollary to this, he is pitching for rapid transformation and not gradual evolution.
Modi was delivering today (26 August, 2016) the inaugural address at the NITI ‘Transforming India’ Lecture Series, in New Delhi. Besides Union Ministers and chief ministers, also present on the occasion was Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Deputy Prime Minister of Singapore.
Modi had a word of praise for the adminstrative tradition. Without delving into the historic background and the British legacy of the Indian bureaucracy, Modi pointed out how this tradition combines indegenous and external ideas from the past. He was also particular in giving a pat to the bureaucracy.
The Prime Minister observed “administrative tradition has served India well in many ways. Above all, it has preserved democracy and federalism, unity and integrity, in a country of glorious diversity.” Stating that these are not small achievements, Modi went on to advocate the need for transformation and said: “transformation of governance cannot happen without a transformation in mindset and a transformation in mindset cannot happen without transformative ideas.”
Modi talked of the quality of institutions and ideas and said keeping this in perspective, early last year, a new institution the National Institution for Transforming India or NITI was created to allow a think tank to guide India’s transformation.
Modi also reflected on an exercise he has undertaken which has revolved around what he described as “structured” brainstorming sessions with bankers, police officers, Secretaries to Government and others. The ideas emanating from these sessions were being incorporated into policy, said Modi.
All this sounds good. Policy is fine but what about the bureaucrats who are one with their political masters who draw power from the Constitution and derive recognition and credibility from what we call the democratic process. How fair is this democratic process could be gauged from the fact that money and muscle power both play a huge role in elections and this gets validated by the demand for public funding of elections. All political parties support this demand and view it as the ultimate solution for tackling the problem of black money.
Putting the positives aside, if one were to look closely at the nexus between the vast majority of civil servants and their political masters, which is geared to serve their narrow vested interests and the entire set of factors responsible for the total collapse of the steel frame of Indian bureaucracy, what shall unfold would be a bleak scenario.
In the Central Services, those in knowledgeable circles are talking of the quality of induction, which has deteriorated in recent years. A great deal of mediocrity has permeated our bureaucracy. The present situation is perturbing because if you induct officers on the basis of caste it is bound to reflect on the ground. Under the present scenario, the officers, rather than protecting the weaker sections, often tend to go the other way round to perpetuate the caste system and this is what one has been witnessing on the ground.
There is another drawback in the system – by introducing the vernacular for the entrance examination, we have removed the level playing field. For example, by taking Sanskrit or a regional language as medium for the entrance examination, a candidate can even secure 150 marks out of 150 and with just 10 or 15 marks in the personality test, can get into the services. Another problem surfacing in a big way is the free for all when it comes to placating the regional aspirations of those seeking to join the Central services. Regional chauvinism is is also pushing merit into the background at the induction stage.
There is also a general perception that mostly people are getting attracted to the bureaucracy not by the desire to render service but by power, money and the opportunity to build a clout with the politicians.
It is a matter of shame that high incidence of dowry and the feudal roots among the newly inducted officers is still prevalent in states like Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh where the going rate for dowry is more than Rs. 20 million.
In the process, the all-India character of the Central services has been demolished.
The malaise does not end here as in India the Civil service does not stand as a whole. There is one all India service called the Indian Administrative Service. It can be described as the biggest trade union in the country. In the IAS, everyone knows how they take care of their own Service to the exclusion of all other services, whether it is promotion or empanelment, posting or post-retirement benefits. Sinecures or a position in the Tribunals, Vigilanace Commission, and the newly set up NITI ayog are invariably for the IAS. One will hardly ever find experts from the qualified expert services filling these posts.
To further elaborate, an Economic Service man will not be included in the think tank but an IAS without relevant USP would be brought in. The same thing happens in empanelment and the selection of persons who have been empanelled for top-level postings in Government of India.
The thumb rule is – If a bureacrat does not pander to the political masters, he gets transferred to remote places and there is always somebody ready and willing to take his or her place. As a tradition, at the grass root level the IAS get the opportunity to maintain a close link with the political class. As Collector or district Magistrate they befriend the local MLA and by the time they rise to become the chief secretary, the same MLA either is the chief minister or a minister at the Centre. In this way they both grow together.
The Indian Police Service officers have their own grouse. They have been made subordinate to the IAS for law and order. In many states, there is resistance from the IAS and the Police commissioner system is not being institutionalised because the bureaucrats want to retain all licensing powers,whether it is the arms or the liquor license. In the process the Police officers have surrendered all initiative and are pleased to follow the path of least resistance.
Coming to other Central services like the Income Tax, Customs and Excise. Officers from these services have the sword of transfer hanging perpetually over their heads which is highly capricious. There is one bunch of officers that always remains in the Delhi or the Mumbai circuit and gets the cream postings. The general perception is that many of them make a lot of money and take good care of their bosses. The majority of officers on the other hand get kicked around like football all over the countryside and there is no one to listen to their grievance and as a result they are a disgruntled lot.
Then we have the Central Service like the Railways where the Rail Unions have been given so much power that the officers find it impossible to enforce their orders. Outsourcing in the Railways is so much politically motivated that there is no quality control whether it is bedrolls or catering.
In Indian Railways, the GMs and DRMs are held responsibile when a train derails or runs late but the lineman or others down the line cannot be touched or held accountable. This is another malaise that runs deep.
Contrast it with Defence Services and one will get an entirely a different picture.
In Defence Services there is no reservation, secondly there is uniformity in recruitment, and thirdly uniform sharing of hardship. By the time one is a full Colonel they do all kinds of field postings. It is not the case with them that if an Army officer is well connected, he would always be posted in the Army headquarters. What is particularly important and significant is that in Defense Services they get promoted only on merit. One will not go beyond the rank of Lt. Colonel or Colonel unless one is exceptionally deserving. Whereas in the IAS the entire batch gets promoted at the same time. In their case, there is no premium on performance and depending on the year of recruitment one sure shot becomes a Secretary.
On the other extreme, when it comes to empanelment of officers belonging to other Central Services, the movement of their files is mostly at a trady pace and there are piecemeal queries that take months to travel to and fro. Sources have informed that even the industry lobby plays a role in the appointment of Secretaries.
The bleak picture notwithstanding, what cannot be ignored is that there are also good bureaucrats and they have helped in providing a semblance of balance to the administrative machinery.
The cancer of corruption also plays havoc with government working. It is only in rare cases when the high and mighty are seen going through the prosecution process. Files seeking permission to prosecute IAS officers under the anti-corruption law, even after the country’s prime investigating agency, the Central Bureau of Investigation, has completed its investigation,are gathering dust and the corrupt have managed to go scot-free. Such a system, when in the parlance of the knowledgeable, IAS stands for “I am safe” Service, should be overhauled completely without wasting any time if India has to catch up with the fast moving world..