Archive for April, 2015

The case for an anonymous bureaucracy

The controversy over the death of a young bureaucrat has stirred up a hornet’s nest: its rumblings have been felt, of course, in Bengaluru, the city where it occurred, but also as far afield as the Indian Parliament in Delhi. There is no need to analyse the causes of the suicide; this is a task far better left to the investigating agencies. What has been disquieting and disturbing is the manner in which no party has conducted itself with dignity and honour in this unfortunate episode. The media needed no urging to jump into the fray: like piranhas waiting to lacerate their prey, they conducted their own onscreen trials to fix guilt, alleging deep political conspiracies to silence an honest officer. Politicians are never ones to be left behind: they are copiously shedding crocodile tears and organising padayatras and dharnas. Government has behaved no better: the Police Commissioner of Bengaluru voiced his opinion on the reasons for the suicide when investigations were still on; the Chief Minister and Home Minister added their interpretations of the incident. Most unfortunately, the relatives, especially the parents of the young man, also descended into the fray with the demand for an investigation by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). The result has been a sickening voyeuristic drama, with all sorts of theories being floated around and with no concern for the truth. Fiction, rather than fact, appears to be the order of the day.
What is a real pity is that the officer concerned apparently never once raised any concerns about the reasons for his move from his earlier position or about any pressures he was facing in his current job. The publicity he never sought while alive seems to be chasing him after his unfortunate death. Now that the CBI has been entrusted with the investigation, we will hopefully be spared further divine revelations. But there is still the disquieting issue, in this day and age of mass (or is it crass?) media, namely, about the undesirable visibility that the modern-day bureaucrat attracts and its adverse impact on efficient but understated governance.
One of the reasons for this unfortunate exposure of the bureaucrat to the public gaze has been the changing ethos of the bureaucrat himself. Thirty five years ago, when I joined the bureaucracy, bureaucrats were known more for their ability to quietly but forcefully put forth their views, in writing and orally, to the political class. In the better ruled states, mature politicians listened, even if they did not always follow this advice. In other states, a transfer was the result of a fallout between the politician and the bureaucrat. But, in all cases, the bureaucrat handled the consequences quietly; there was only the print media and almost no bureaucrat would have aired his grievances in public. The onset of public interest litigation (PILs) in the 1980s saw the beginnings of the bureaucrat going public with alleged misdeeds by politicians (and bureaucrats) in connivance with powerful vested interests. Nothing wrong, you might say, to expose corruption. Except that, once bitten by this bug of public airing of views, a narcissistic streak emerged in bureaucrats, who emerged from the shadowy maze of their offices into the public limelight, especially after the electronic media revolution. This has had at least three unfortunate aspects.
The first has been the undermining of team effort. At the best of times, it is an arduous task to get all sections of the bureaucracy rowing in the same direction, except at election time. From personal experience, I can say that the process of reform of policies and institutions in government has always been a case of “two small steps forward, one huge step backward”. When a media-happy bureaucrat takes to the printed pages or the air waves, there is a huge setback to institutional morale. In recent years, media dissection has been accompanied by anti-corruption enquiries as well as a spate of PILs. Even statutory authorities like the Comptroller and Auditor General have not been immune to this epidemic: their reports are sought to be treated like judicial pronouncements rather than points of view which can be rebutted by reasoned argument. It is little wonder then that the honest but risk-taking bureaucrat fears taking decisions which could tie him up in enquiries and court appearances well into his retirement years.
It is also generally the case that maverick bureaucrats have terrible inter=personal relations with their peers, seniors and subordinates, a fact testified to by a number of my ex-colleagues who have had to work with or under them. Their self-righteous attitude to life leads them to suspect the bona fides of any one holding a contrary view. Over time, their bitterness over what they perceive as not being appreciated or understood by the system translates into attempts to undermine the system. Individuals, rather than systems and institutional arrangements, are sought to be held responsible for lapses. The “self-righteous” bureaucrat never tries to attempt institutional improvements, which need patient behind-the-scenes work and an attention to detail. In any case, meeting the media need for sensational information and training all his administrative energies on building up airtight cases against his “corrupt” colleagues and their “partners in crime” gives him little time to focus even on routine office management.
A major casualty of the bureaucrat’s hunger for publicity is the quality of the written advice given on government files, the drafting of legislation and contracts and the ability to suggest well-thought out, rational government policy that meets the twin objectives of reconciling conflicting stakeholder interests and meeting all legal and constitutional requirements. A former Finance Minister of India has recently commented on the shoddy drafting of Section 66A of the Information Technology Act, which was struck down as unconstitutional by the Indian Supreme Court. In this regard, the crusader bureaucrat has the company of the ambitious bureaucrat, who shuns dreary file work for the excitement and the privileges of prestigious field-level and public sector postings, not to mention assignments with international organisations. Forgotten is the bureaucrat’s maxim “The pen is mightier than the word” (or, in modern day parlance, the computer keyboard is mightier than the sound bite). Bureaucrats, including those from the prestigious Indian Administrative Service, no longer treasure the art of pleasing prose, a quality valued in their forbears of past generations. Even simple letters, in English and regional languages, require redrafting three or four times.
Ultimately, the greatest adverse impact is on the individual bureaucrat himself. In this era of “twenty-twenty” cricket matches, the bureaucrat ceases to think about his long-term performance and contribution to the growth of public institutions. He becomes a modern-day Don Quixote tilting at windmills. In the process, given the media attention focused on him, every single action of that individual becomes invested with the aura of a battle against vested interests. Even tactically unwise steps or breaches of institutional discipline are hailed as examples of dynamism. The bureaucrat starts to think of himself as larger than the system; when his confreres do not back him, he bemoans the lack of support from the civil service — a rather unrealistic expectation given that his actions place him on a limb where others are loath to join him. In any case, members of the civil service have their own career interests to pursue, which they will not jeopardise even for an honest colleague, who gets a raw deal when working quietly and without publicity. The tragic denouement arrives when the media loses interest in the bureaucrat’s battle: he is then left all alone, with no support. In the final analysis, the anonymous (but contented) bureaucrat is probably better off following the words of the great poet, Rabindranath Tagore “Jodi Tor Dak Shune Keu Na Ase Tobe Ekla Cholo Re” (If no one responds to your call, then go your own way alone). Or else reciting the Tamil dialogue of the iconic cine star Rajnikanth “En vazhi thanee vazhi” (My path is a lonely one).

Playing Eye-spy with the Petroleum Ministry: Implications for India

“The ship of state is the only ship that leaks from the top”: these words of Sir Humphrey Appleby in the Yes Minister series came to mind when the news broke that five people had been arrested for espionage in New Delhi’s Shastri Bhavan, home to many of the key ministries of the Government of India. That the ship has sprung a number of leaks is becoming apparent as the Power, Coal and Environment Ministries join the list of ministries from where secret information has allegedly been passed on to private companies. In the age of Edward Snowden and high-tech mechanisms for leaking secrets, it seems almost anachronistic that old-fashioned methods like photocopying are being employed to steal information. Be that as it may, the net widens daily to snare company executives and journalists, apart from the ministry moles. The action by the Delhi police followed a period of intense surveillance; there are also indications that this ‘corporate espionage’ had been going on for over a decade. At least three aspects emerge from this entire episode: (a) the implications for the Indian growth story; (b) the outdated, unchanged government processes and procedures that created the environment for what happened; and (c) the failure of the rule of law to enforce norms of ethical behaviour.

The government is patting itself on the back for detecting and taking action on what it perceives as a violation of the law. What it needs to worry about is the impact on government-industry relations, never cordial at the best of times. For the first forty years after independence, it was assumed that the public sector would drive the engine of growth. After a brief honeymoon post-1991, the government and the private sector have had what can, at best, be termed an uneasy coexistence. If commentators on the left are fond of describing the last twenty years as the era of crony capitalism, we need to remember that the forty years prior to that represent the age of crony socialism. The private sector thrived in a limited sphere, based on its proximity to the political elite. An inefficient public sector acted as the cash cow for the political elite, which disbursed contracts and jobs at will. The post-1991 years represent a lost opportunity to free the economy and the country from the stranglehold of government. Governments, both at the central and state levels, still interfere too much in business and neglect their basic tasks of building up physical and human infrastructure. The last nine months have seen a lot of promises of action, but little on the actual ground. The present “Shastrigate” episode will only worsen investor sentiment; there is already talk that bureaucrats will not directly meet industrialists. In any case, it will be a very bold bureaucrat who interacts with businessmen to understand their point of view.

A second issue relates to government procedures and processes. Things don’t seem to have changed much since my days at Shastri Bhavan twenty years ago. Despite all the hype about computerisation, the Indian government system is still very far from the digital era. With every second file being marked “secret”, Shastri Bhavan would have run out of almirahs to store these files, more so if they are to be in the safe custody of a Deputy Secretary. Getting information from the government is extremely difficult, even with the Right To Information (RTI) Act. Section 4 of the RTI Act mandates online access to a vast body of departmental information. Not one department at the central or state level has complied with this legal requirement. When getting even routine information is such a laborious task, it is hardly surprising that individuals (and companies) resort to James Bond-like tactics to procure information. If 90% of material in government archives were readily accessible, bureaucrats could attempt to keep the remaining 10% in safe custody.

Finally, there is the question of application of the rule of law. Indian legal systems are notoriously slow: “Justice delayed is justice denied”. Anti-corruption cases move even more slowly: the access to lawyers well-versed in exploiting every legal loophole ensures that the corrupt are rarely punished in a timeframe that serves as a deterrent to would-be offenders. We should count ourselves lucky if the present case reaches closure by 2035. The Lokpal Bill went through its own tortuous legislative process; as of today, more than a year after the Act came into force, there is no Lokpal in place. India still has no law in place similar to the 1977 US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which penalises companies for underhand dealings in obtaining or retaining business. Even a stronger anti-corruption law in India remains mired in interminable discussions amongst Amartya Sen’s “argumentative Indians”.

The cocktail of an unhealthy government-business relationship, antediluvian government processes and a sluggish rule of law does not augur well for either democracy or for sustained economic growth. Government needs to act fast in all these three areas if India is to meet the challenges of an increasingly complex global economy. Otherwise, it faces the danger of a Luddite backlash from vested interests wishing to preserve the status quo.


(The writer, a retired IAS officer and Shastri Bhavan veteran, comments on public affairs and policy and matters of human interest. Contact him at and www.