Posts Tagged ‘bureaucracy’

Towards a Headless Bureaucracy

When I joined the IAS in 1980, the Chief Secretary (CS) of the State was a figure inspiring awe and reverence. Summons to the great man’s (it was never a woman) presence inspired the same dread as a visit to the office of the headmaster of an English public school for receiving six of the best on one’s tender backside for some transgression. Fortunately, being so far down the pecking order, there was little occasion to meet (or even see) him, save at some annual gathering of the IAS Association or at some meeting where one could safely wallow in one’s anonymity. A combination of circumstances catapulted me to serve as Staff Officer to the CS of Maharashtra in the mid-1980s. I was fortunate to serve under two stalwarts, Mr. B.G. Deshmukh and Mr. K.G. Paranjape, with hugely contrasting styles of functioning. Mr. Deshmukh was a stickler for propriety. He was keenly conscious of the critical role of the CS in ensuring a smooth administration. More to the point, he was watchful in ensuring that the position of the CS was never devalued by the political executive. When called by the CM for a discussion, he expected to sail into the CM’s inner office like a breeze, without loitering about the corridors, as many unfortunate successors of his from the 1990s onwards were wont to do. At times, I was sent to verify from the CM’s office the exact moment when the CM was free so that the CS could directly enter the inner chambers. On one occasion, when the Minister for Tribal Development called the CS for a meeting (an unheard of occurrence in those days), yours truly was despatched to attend the meeting as the CS’s representative. I survived the meeting under the baleful glare of the Minister and the inscrutable looks of the Finance, Planning and other Secretaries, who were aware of the reasons for the absence of their boss. Mr. Paranjape was more informal in his approach but was equally conscious about preserving the dignity of the post of the CS. He was forthright in his written and oral communications and never hesitated to frankly express himself.

Cut to 1996, when I returned to Maharashtra after a stint in the Government of India, and the situation had undergone a sea change. A change in government had taken place and CSs were no longer secure about their position at the top of the hierarchy. As I moved up the ladder to Secretary-level posts, I was privy to the pressures brought on the top bureaucrat by Ministers, more so because the seat of power had moved outside the Secretariat. The CS was also no longer the arbiter of bureaucratic postings — the Principal Secretary to the CM had developed as the new power centre. If I thought the position of the CS had worsened in Maharashtra, my realpolitik education was vastly enhanced when Uttar Pradesh (UP) introduced the innovation of the Cabinet Secretary, a sort of super CS, during the Mayawati regime (2007-2012). Apparently starting his working life as a helicopter pilot, this worthy had held various civil service posts without having to bother about going through a Public Service Commission recruitment process. That the UP bureaucracy tolerated this direct assault on its independence should not occasion any surprise, given the depths that the bureaucracy in UP (and elsewhere) has plumbed in the years after the Emergency.

The same fate that befell the bureaucracies in the states was also to confront the bureaucracy at the central level. The P.N. Haksar era saw the Cabinet Secretary being gradually sidelined by the powerful Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister (PM). With occasional exceptions, the subsequent decades saw the dominance of the PM’s Office (PMO) and its numero uno, the Principal Secretary. During my Delhi days, I could see the power exercised by the Principal Secretary to the PM, with even Ministers ensuring they stayed on his right side. The culmination was the role played by Brajesh Mishra as Principal Secretary to the PM and National Security Adviser during the Vajpayee era.

All this time, the importance of the Cabinet Secretary fluctuated depending on the influence of the Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister. No doubt, he still chaired the meetings of Committees of Secretaries and was part of the appointments process. But it was becoming increasingly clear to resourceful bureaucrats that the path to career advancement passed through the PMO. Postings in important Ministries and to international assignments depended on who one knew in the PMO and on one’s proximity to the Principal Secretary.

The undesirable practice of granting extensions to the Cabinet Secretary has been in vogue from the UPA-I era. From 2004 to date, only four persons have occupied the post, all well past their retirement ages. Not only did this foreclose the progression of their juniors to the top civilian post, it also raises the uneasy issue of the motivations of the government. While we may well be past the era when a retired CS of Madhya Pradesh could cheerfully refuse an offer of extension before zooming off on his motorcycle, bureaucrats, especially those at the top, would do well to be suspicious of too many compliments from the political class about their competence and indispensability. In one Yes Minister serial, the Political Adviser to the British PM rebukes the Minister, James Hacker, saying that his bureaucrats find him “a pleasure to work with”. In India’s Yes, Secretary setting, a bureaucrat who seems to fit in too well with her/his political bosses must reflect on whether (s)he is giving them the right advice, which may often need to be unpalatable.

What has occasioned all the above reflections has been a rather innocuous news item titled Major Revamp of India’s National Security Architecture. While one may have no bones to pick with strengthening India’s National Security apparatus, given a rather fluid environment around India’s borders, what gave pause for thought was the Cabinet Secretary being downgraded from the position of Chairman (a position held by him since 1999) to a member of the Strategic Policy Group (SPG), which is now to be chaired by the National Security Adviser (NSA). The media has witnessed meaningless wrangles about who is senior to whom in the Warrant of Precedence and whether this is another IAS vs. IPS battle. What has been lost sight of is the unique position of the Cabinet Secretary as the head of the Civil Services. If it was genuinely felt that the SPG required an expert, who commanded the confidence of the PM, to be its head, nothing would have been lost by keeping the Cabinet Secretary out of the SPG and by the NSA liaising with the Cabinet Secretary whenever departmental coordination issues needed to be sorted out.

The Cabinet Secretary is the Secretary to the Union Cabinet and is their Adviser on all policy issues. As such, (s)he needs to be free of association with any particular Committee chaired by a Minister (or a person of equivalent rank). Making the Cabinet Secretary a member of Ministerial Committees would dilute her/his ability to give an independent, frank opinion on major national issues to the PM and the Cabinet.

What give rise to unnecessary controversy and speculation are the sudden changes in time-honoured conventions, without apparently enough thought being given to their implications for an independent, professional civil service. Norms for a time-bound tenure for the top post and a selection process that affirms the selection of the most competent (and generally senior most) bureaucrat for that post would reassure the civil service (and the public) that only considerations of merit and competence have played a role in the selection. Discipline in a hierarchical organisation like the Indian civil services is possible only when the top bureaucrat is seen to have the moral and administrative authority to govern. Trends developing over the past couple of decades seem to indicate a fondness of the political class for departing from established conventions and procedures. The casualties in such a process will be the bureaucracy and, ultimately, the public, which can access their rights and entitlements only through an efficiently managed bureaucracy.

The Emperor’s New Clothes

“But he hasn’t got anything on” a little child said (Hans Christian Andersen)

 Three measures taken by the central government in recent years do not seem to be yielding dividends, at least in the short term. Demonetisation started off with the promise of unearthing black money, moved on to promising a cashless nirvana and has finally only succeeded in damaging growth prospects. The Goods and Services Tax (GST), after so many years in the making, was rushed through in a matter of months with inadequate software readiness and with poor education of the masses of small retailers and traders who, willy nilly, had to move overnight to online systems for which they were totally unprepared. The informal sector has been particularly hard hit by the speed of GST imposition. Implementation of Aadhaar was pushed through as a money bill. It is still facing civil society resistance in the Supreme Court, especially because of the stubborn bureaucratic insistence on treating it as a panacea for all of India’s ills, including tax leakages and terrorism, instead of first focusing on streamlining the process of beneficiary entitlements.

What has marked all these three “initiatives” has been the attempt by the political executive to display its so-called dynamism, consequences be damned. What has been even more noteworthy is the failure of the civil service, especially at the highest levels, to caution its political masters in rushing through with measures that affect the lives of large masses of people. Like the courtiers in Andersen’s fable, they are effusive in rushing to extol these policies, without sparing a thought for harsh realities. The same could be said for the inordinate haste of BJP state governments in pushing through legislation banning the sale and consumption of beef, which has jeopardised the livelihoods of large numbers, especially from the Muslim and Dalit communities, apart from rendering them vulnerable to vicious attacks by vigilante groups.

And now, the government has dropped a bombshell — it seems to want to tinker in a major way with the manner in which senior civil servants are allotted services after selection and the states to be allotted to those selected for the All-India Services. The only document available in the public domain is a letter from a Joint Secretary in the central government’s Department of Personnel to the Deputy Director General in the Department of Telecommunications. Ordinarily, such a letter would not even be deemed worthy of notice. What has set the cat among the pigeons is the mention in the letter that the measure is sought to be implemented from later this year, which means that the batch just selected (2019 batch) will serve as the guinea pigs. As a member of the 1980 civil service batch which served as guinea pigs for the last effort at civil service recruitment process reform, courtesy the Kothari Committee report, I am bemused that views of departments are being sought without any background paper or report serving as the basis for the thought process. It almost seems as though (à la demonetisation) the decision has already been taken and a perfunctory consultation process is being gone through before orders are issued.

Many of my colleagues in the civil services (all retired) have expressed themselves forcefully on this issue. While we are almost unanimous in our view that the civil service recruitment system is in need of reform, our apprehensions stem from the rather flimsy methodology suggested for the service/state cadre allocation, which would strike at the very roots of the concept of a competent, impartial civil service. The faculty at the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration, Mussoorie and at other institutes, where foundation courses are conducted, are hardly equipped to critically assess the capabilities of officers for deciding their suitability for different services. There are likely to be three deleterious implications if the proposed course of action is gone through in haste, without addressing fundamental issues of evolving a sound selection process.

Cronyism is the probable first evil that has to be factored in. India is still a country where regional, language and caste factors exercise a strong pull. Without disparaging my erstwhile colleagues from the northern states, it is a fact that, barring the Rajiv Gandhi era, there was a predominance of three or four states, especially Uttar Pradesh, in the senior echelons of administrative decision making at the centre, in the first fifty years after independence. While this phenomenon may be partly attributed to the reluctance of officers from the southern and western states to go on central deputation, it is also a fact that positions in key economic ministries were occupied by officers from the northern states or those who kept in close touch with the levers of power in Delhi. That the fulcrum has now moved to Gujarat is no cause for comfort: it only proves that bureaucrats most in sync with the political dispensation of the day at the centre rule the roost. But, at least, central deputation has finite time limits, till repatriation or retirement ends the bureaucrat’s tenure. The mind boggles, however, at the thought that a protégé can be given a lifetime job guarantee by a favourably disposed godparent at the time of service selection.

Corruption will inevitably follow any such non-transparent process, following Lord Acton’s dictum that “…absolute power corrupts absolutely”. In an ocean of corrupt State Public Service Commissions, the Union Public Service Commission maintained its reputation for integrity in the selection process for over six decades. While one may quibble over the manner of selection — bookish, elitist, etc. — there has never been a question of individuals (or coaching classes) using the lure of lucre to manipulate the selection process. I shudder at the prospect of the future of the country’s administration being subject to the possibility of temptations being dangled before faculty in training academies, who are called on to adjudicate between the relative merits of different candidates who qualify for the civil services, especially when one witnesses the debasement of so many institutions by the pernicious influence of money power.

Politicisation of the civil services will be the obvious corollary of any post-selection evaluation mechanism. The candidate who is smart enough to qualify for the foundation course will also be smart enough to realise that s(he) can use political strings to swing the desired service/state in his/her direction. The reign of different political dispensations every five years will only add masala to the selection process. And, heavens forbid, if the same party continues to rule at the centre for two or three decades, nothing stops it from packing the civil services with officers loyal to its ideology, fulfilling the Emergency dream of a “committed bureaucracy”. In a federal set up, where parties opposed to each other may be in power at the centre and in the states, nothing short of anarchy will reign when civil servants of the All-India Services assigned to different states are looked at with suspicion by state governments. We have already had a foretaste of this in Delhi because of no love lost between the Delhi government and the central government.

Merit is likely to be a casualty of the proposed changes. But the issue of choice also rises. Young Indians spend the best part of their productive years attempting to seize the holy grail of the civil services. Now, when the grail seems to be within reach, it could be snatched away by the whims of a few instructors or the machinations of colleagues, aided and abetted by unscrupulous elements. When certain services continue to exercise an allurement for prospective civil servants similar to that of the songs of the Sirens for sailors in Greek mythology, introducing an element of uncertainty for a further period of six months to one year after selection could lead to one of two consequences: (a) it could discourage bright young women and men from seeking to join the civil services, or (b) more damagingly, it could encourage the entry of elements who seek to obtain their desired service/state through any means, mostly foul. If you doubt me, just see the type of candidates who are standing for elections to legislatures and Parliament. Gresham’s law of the civil services will then operate with a vengeance.

Let me hasten to add that I, and most of my retired friends in the civil services, are strongly in favour of reforms in the processes of selection to the civil services as well as subsequent career advancement. We recognise that there has been considerable heartburning over the fact that a single examination decides the future life trajectory of an individual. You could argue that so does an IIT or IIM selection process, but then these are not lifetime guarantees. The IIT/IIM graduate still has to compete with others for entry into a particular line of employment. At the same time, given that there is so much hype to get a “prestigious” civil service job, the selection process has to be insulated from pressures and influences. In an earlier blog (Reshaping India’s bureaucracy – a blueprint for action), I had proposed wide ranging changes in the structure of the civil services, including the abolition of the All-India Services and making all appointments contractual, to meet the administrative challenges of the coming decades. While I am sure that there will be plenty of views on (and criticism of) my suggestions, I strongly feel that cosmetic changes are no solution to a bureaucratic system that is perceived by the mass of the people of India as unresponsive, lethargic and tyrannical. It is possible that some variant of what I have proposed could be devised, with implementation in stages. But unless the issue is addressed at all levels of government — central, state and local — and efficiency and accountability are introduced in governance, the Indian public will continue to be shortchanged in service delivery and India’s long-term growth and development prospects will be affected.

The need of the hour is a close, hard look at what is wrong with our governance systems and how to improve these. Merely toying with service allotment or state allocation is no solution: if anything, these will worsen the situation and lay the government of the day open to the charge of changing the system to suit its political requirements. It would indeed be ironical if a government that swears by Sardar Patel were to demolish the edifice of the civil services built up by him, without developing a viable long-term alternative. Were this to occur, we can only take refuge in the words of the late Jayaprakash Narayan “विनाशकालेविपरीतबुद्धि”(when one’s doom approaches, one’s intelligence works perversely).

Maximum Government, Minimum Governance

No, I have not got the title wrong, as some people might think. It is just that a government elected on the platform of delivering efficient service with minimum intrusion into the lives of individuals is doing exactly the opposite today. And it is not just the executive wing of the state which is displaying this enthusiasm to “govern”. As if to match the executive step for step in this exercise, the Supreme Court has ruled that all liquor vends within half a kilometre of highways will have to shut down. So, after being told what she can eat and wear, who she can be seen in public with and what she can read and view, the aam aurat is now being lectured (and hectored) on where she can buy what she wants to drink.

Not that spirits that raise the spirits are popular with our stern, killjoy leaders (let me add a disclaimer that I don’t touch the stuff myself, so there is no personal grievance involved). Chief Ministers who had a beef about beef are now concocting remedies to counter heady brews. Gujarat state and Wardha district in Maharashtra state were the only two regions to traditionally face total prohibition, probably because Mahatma Gandhi had a link with both areas. I have often wondered how IAS officers in the states survived the schizophrenic experience of simultaneously administering both liquor prohibition and augmenting liquor revenues. Probably a case of the left hand not bothering to know what the right hand was doing. Bihar went in for total prohibition in the wake of a heady election victory for the incumbent government in 2015. There are few studies on the effectiveness of this move but I am willing to eat my proverbial hat if anyone claims that liquor is no longer available in Bihar. No state in India, leave alone Bihar, can boast of an efficient, corruption-free administrative machinery that can implement such measures. Driving liquor supply (and corruption) underground will benefit neither public revenues nor public ethics.

It is, however, more the issue of government priorities rather than a specific, ill-conceived policy that ought to worry us. We see the central government tripping over itself in its haste to streamline tax administration and plug leakages. While the indirect tax reform (through GST) was long overdue and welcome, the same cannot be said for the slew of measures to reform the direct tax regime. Starting with the midnight knock (and shock) of demonetisation and the twists and turns in policy over the past five months, the citizen has faced innumerable hurdles in accessing her own, hard-earned money. ATMs have run dry (and continue to do so at various places), bank staff are loath to honour even bearer cheques (as I have personally experienced) and customers are being discouraged from visiting bank branches. Honest tax-payers are now being arm-twisted to go in for Aadhaar registration or forego their right to file income tax returns (though not from paying income tax). So, we will have a situation in Financial Year 2017-18, where people wanting to pay income tax will be unable to do so in the absence of PAN identities but will still be liable for harassment by the IT petty bureaucracy: a compelling instance of maximum government but very poor governance.

We are also witness to a rash of cases where the state is unable, or, worse, unwilling, to enforce its writ in observance of the rule of law. Cattle merchants, if they are from the minority community, risk their lives in transporting cattle even for bona fide commercial purposes. That these instances occur in states ruled by the same party which is in power at the centre rules is cause for even greater concern. Governance starts with the guarantee of the citizen’s right to life and liberty as enshrined in Article 21 of the Constitution of India. In fact, we may term “government” to represent hard power, in the sense of enacting rules and regulations and enforcing compliance with these. “Governance”, on the other hand, represents the soft power of the state, in the sense that citizens voluntarily comply with laws based on a broad consensus on values and an ungrudging acceptance of certain behavioural norms. Governments function successfully when governance systems are seen to be impartial, nonpartisan, reasonably incorruptible and based on the rule of law. India is, and has been, through its independent history, afflicted by far too much government and inadequate governance.

The seeds of big government were sown in the early years of independence when the state sought to arrogate to itself a role in virtually every area of public functioning. Nehru’s grand vision of the “command economy” drew trenchant criticism from prescient observers like C. Rajagopalachari. Whether in the production of consumer goods or in the provision of important social goods like education and healthcare, the tentacles of government reached everywhere: the problem was the shoddy delivery of goods and services. 1991 saw some changes, with, over the following years, competition in sectors like banking, telecom and automobiles improving both the quantity and quality of goods and services. The problem lay in the approach to liberalisation: the licence raj was dismantled to a considerable extent but the inspector raj remained strongly entrenched. The ultimate irony arose during the decade-long UPA regime, when a Prime Minister turned into a pale shadow of his earlier avatar as a progressive Finance Minister. Oppressive government continued through the entire period – the instances of retrospective tax demands, messing up the telecom revolution and discouraging private investment in the petroleum sector through a combination of ham-handed regulation and excessive doubt of private sector motives come to mind – so much so that private investment slowed down to a trickle and investors hesitated to put their money in India.

Hopes for an economic renaissance soared again when the new government assumed office in 2014, on the promise of good governance rather than big government. Unfortunately, apart from certain positive steps like the GST legislation, the present government has fallen into the same habits that characterised earlier governments. Ideology has had a role to play in this but there is also the Pavlovian suspicion of the average citizen. With the central government (and its regional formations) obsessed with the dietary and cultural habits of its citizens, policing of consumption of certain forms of meat and of the mingling of those of opposite sexes has come to the fore, with vigilante right-wing groups acting as self-appointed guardians of morality. Article 11 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights explicitly states “Everyone charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law…” Recent incidents like the lynching of those transporting cattle (and the subsequent police action against the victims of violence) and the illegal intrusion of police in the private relationships of consenting adults violate this universally recognised right as well as the constitutional guarantees of rights to liberty, freedom of association and to practice any profession or carry on any trade, occupation or business. The recent moves of demonetisation and tightening of the direct tax regime, while ostensibly directed against tax evaders and corruption, hurt the small man to a far larger extent. What is forgotten by those in charge of policy formulation is the enormous scope for tyranny in the petty bureaucracy charged with enforcing laws. The income tax official has acquired substantial powers of raid and seizure in enforcing his writ on the hapless tax payer, the lower municipal and police official has considerable scope to harass butchers and slaughter houses in checking “illegal” slaughter of animals and the local thanedar can question any man and woman seen together, in public or elsewhere. What is forgotten is the centuries-old “Indian” tradition of oppression of the average citizen by the lower bureaucracy and the continued inability of the higher bureaucracy (and the political class) to enforce norms of probity on this gargantuan bureaucracy.

Ultimately, the citizen will experience freedom only when technology (and strict enforcement) compel the lower bureaucracy, especially at municipal, thana and village levels, to conform to standards that are taken for granted in more mature democracies. It is not the central government that administers these levels of the bureaucracy: however, by its own actions, it should create an enabling environment where governments at lower levels are shamed into action to ensure responsive, corruption-free bureaucratic functioning. As of today, there are still no serious efforts to restructure the bureaucracy at all levels, review outmoded laws and make it easier for the citizen to carry on her daily professional and personal life. The recent United Airlines fracas in manhandling a passenger cost the airline over half a billion dollars in lost market value as investors punished it for its executive excess. Governments lose far more in the election market place when the public withdraws its confidence in the incumbent government: 2004 and 2014 are chastening examples for the political elite in India from both sides of the spectrum. Enforcement of the rule of law without unnecessary intrusion by the arms of the government is, in the long run, a far better guarantee of a happy citizen and a happy society, as also of the continued survival of governments.

 

Hamam Mein Sab Nange Hain!

Judge not, that ye be not judged.                                                                                                        2For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.
3 And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?

(Matthew 7:1-3, The Bible, King James Version)

Something is rotten in the State of Denmark”                                                                                       (Hamlet, Prince of Denmark: William Shakespeare)

It was extremely depressing to read the 60 page note purportedly penned by Kalikho Pul, former Chief Minister of Arunachal Pradesh, before he committed suicide in August 2016. The note, which virtually amounts to a dying declaration under Section 32(11) of the Indian Evidence Act (though there may be some legal quibbles about this) is a searing indictment of the Indian system of governance and leaves no institution with even a fig leaf of credibility. This is not the place to go into the details of the note and one hopes that there will be at least some anguished introspection about the incident which saw a new, rather ignominious first for the Indian republic: a public representative taking his life out of despair at the prevailing state of affairs.

Recent years have been ones of deep disenchantment for the people of India. Illusions about politicians died many years ago: most of them are seen as representative of the corrupt, venal strain of society. The socialist economy of the 1960s and 1970s established political corruption as part of the “command” economy, a legacy of the Nehruvian era. Political life has continued to touch newer and newer lows over time, as criminals realised that they could be direct participants rather than sponsors of the political drama-farce. 1991 was only a minor hiccup for the politician; by 1994, it was business as usual again. In any case, state governments continued to blithely operate by their own rules, with the new breed of politicians unconcerned about probity in public life.

The less said about my own tribe, the bureaucracy, the better. Till the mid-1970s, the uppermost echelons, the IAS, IPS and the Central Services had relatively few black sheep in their midst. Over the 1980s, shamelessness started to pervade even the elite services. The middle and lower bureaucracy in the states were infected with the twin evils of corruption and politicisation to an extent where, returning to field level administration in 2000 in the same area I had served in ten years earlier, I could hardly believe the extent to which the rot had set in. Things have only worsened in the new millennium and the ugly politician-bureaucrat nexus is now caught in a fatal embrace (fatal for democracy, that is).

Faith in the judiciary was the one reassurance one sought in an increasingly darkening scenario. Unfortunately, the judiciary never used whatever independence it had to set its own house in order. The backlog of cases piled up at a dizzying rate; measures that might have made a difference, like written arguments (in appeals), summary disposal procedures and specified, limited recourse to legal remedies were never pursued. Lawyers who, as officers of the courts, are expected to assist in the speedy provision of justice have often resorted to tactics aimed at deflecting rather than delivering justice, with judges remaining silent spectators. We now have an unseemly conflict between the highest levels of the judiciary and the executive on the manner of selection of judges to the upper echelons of the judicial system. That India has a woeful per capita judicial officer quota is beyond doubt. But neither have serious efforts been made by the government to rectify it nor has the judiciary tried to at least make the best of a bad situation and enforce accountability in performance and propriety.

The press started to crawl in 1975, when shown the whip by the government of the day. Print media at district levels had always had its share of doubtful characters, who lived off the largesse of government advertisements and downright blackmail. But the print media at national and state capitals was still peopled by stellar characters. The downward slide started with the domination of electronic media and the larger than life image of well-known media personalities. Given the incestuous ties of journalists with North-South Block and Dalal Street, it was only a matter of time before something like the Radia tapes exposed the seamy side of journalistic wheeling dealing. Today, it has become common to associate any media group with a specific political party or business house (in terms of ownership and/or ideological slant).

The biggest casualty in the morality stakes has been civil society. Corruption was endemic in Indian society, but, till the 1970s, at least attracted some opprobrium. It has now gained respectability; the honest officer faces the ire of her superiors, peers and even family members. Systemic reforms face hurdles at every level, with the Indian propensity for jugaad at its inventive best when devising methods for circumventing the law. Post demonetization, a fair amount of government energy has been expended on plugging loopholes in implementation.

Poor Mr. Pul was trying to draw attention to these national drawbacks in his impassioned letter. The meaninglessness of his heartrending wail lies in our hardened attitudes to lawbreaking and looting public money. As a nation, we have also developed the habit of blaming every institution except that one of which we are a member. The politician seeks alibis in the intransigence of the judiciary, the non-performance of the bureaucracy and the hostility of the media. The bureaucracy, when it is not cosying up to the politician, either blames the political executive/judiciary or outdated procedures and rules. The media relishes hauling the executive over the coals without seeking to understand the complexities of policy making and implementation. And, of course, the judiciary has extended its reach to virtually telling governments and other agencies how to run their businesses. No one seeks to set their own house in order. How many Ministers at Central or State level have foregone their discretionary powers in dispensing patronage or finalising contracts? None, barring the Union Railway Minister. How many officers have resisted the temptation to bend rules in their last years in service to secure post-retirement appointments? Probably a handful. How many journalists do not seek their mess of pottage in terms of house allotments and foreign junkets? The fingers of one hand may suffice for this. Members of the judiciary are yet to raise the bar of accountability to deliver speedy justice, enforce norms of integrity in their ranks and restore waning public faith in the effectiveness of the judiciary. And the general public has let institutions of governance get away with sub-optimal service delivery levels, adopting the prevailing motto of “each man for himself and the devil take the hindmost.”

In his book on the Mahabharata, the author Gurcharan Das had talked about the impossibility of being good. Our human failings make it impossible for us to stay on the straight and narrow path during the course of our tumultuous lives; even Yudhisthira had to utter a falsehood to get rid of Dronacharya. And yet, the beauty of human existence lies in our attempts to surmount our weaknesses and struggle to attain the noblest expressions of our humanity. Else, we will all be like the citizens of Mohenjo Daro in their open air baths, our nakedness visible for the entire world to see.

 

 

 

 

 

Why blame the IAS alone?

“The evil that men do lives after them;

the good is oft interred with their bones.”

                   — William Shakespeare (Julius Caesar)

 

Let me begin with a caveat: I worked for thirty years in the Indian Administrative Service (IAS). I clarify this at the outset so that no one accuses me of conflict of interest. The immediate urge to pen this blog arose out of recent Facebook posts by different individuals and a statement by India’s Metro Man, E. Sreedharan, which were critical of the IAS. While the Facebook comments were of the usual ill-informed, middle class genre that seeks an anti-establishment outlet for every perceived grievance, real or imaginary, Mr. Sreedharan took issue with the role of IAS officers in delays in commissioning of the Bengaluru Metro Rail Project (BMRC). In his view “An IAS officer will not have the commitment, dedication and accountability of a technocrat in executing the project on time. BMRC has had five IAS officers as chiefs so far.” His second sentence, in one sense, contradicted his first; unless Mr. Sreedharan sought to imply that IAS officers posted to the BMRC were in a tearing hurry to get themselves posted out (for which he has not offered any evidence). But it is also indicative of a tendency to lay the blame for all (or at least, most) of the ills plaguing the country on the IAS. If it were so simple, the government at the national level has only to wind up the IAS and, hey presto, the era of efficiency and prosperity would be promptly ushered in. Alas, this is a case of “If wishes were horses, beggars would ride”. Unfortunately, public governance is a far more complicated business.

Often, I get the feeling that the public associates with the IAS anyone selected by the Union Public Service Commission in its massive annual recruitment exercise to the civil services. A very large part of public services are rendered by members drawn from different branches of the civil and technical services. There is also the mistaken presumption that, since the IAS mans a majority of the top-level posts in the government, it has stifled initiative in all other services and cadres. In fact, as a former middle-level functionary in the Central Government Secretariat, I can testify that most of the inputs for decision-making come from the middle levels, especially the Joint and Deputy Secretaries. A very significant number of these officers are drawn from services other than the IAS. It would also be pertinent to point out that public organisations like the banks, railways, communications and public sector units (which have also displayed sometimes glaring inefficiencies) are staffed almost entirely by technocrats or by people with domain expertise in the relevant subjects.

I am not for a moment suggesting that the IAS does not, like every other profession in the country – politicians, lawyers, doctors and engineers – have its share of “the good, the bad and the ugly.” Unflattering comparisons of the IAS are often made with its colonial predecessor, the Indian Civil Service (ICS). It is generally forgotten that the ICS operated in a completely different milieu, responsible only to their colonial masters in India and the India Office in London and without having to factor in politicians, public opinion and the media into their operating matrix. They too had to bear the brunt of Jawaharlal Nehru’s reference to them as “neither Indian, nor civil nor a service.” Even to this day, some of the best and brightest opt for a career in the IAS. That they are perceived as not having lived up to their promise can, in my opinion, be ascribed to three reasons: (a) the short tenures in most postings; (b) the failure to develop specialisation in a particular area which contributes to economic growth and development; (c) the almost automatic kick up the ladder for all and sundry, especially in the states, which leads to a number of IAS officers assuming leadership roles in departments/organisations for which they are totally unsuited.

Short tenures because of frequent transfers have been the bane of the civil services in India, but especially the IAS, probably because of their high level of interaction with issues that are the bread and butter of the political class. This is most damaging at higher levels of policy making, where continuity for a reasonable period ensures that the implementation of the policy is overseen by the same person responsible for framing the policy. Unfortunately, things seem to have worsened on this front in recent times; in the past, bureaucrats were more or less assured of a four or five year term in the Central Secretariat. Of late, Secretaries and even Joint and Deputy Secretaries have been shifted around after a year or two in a particular post. From my personal experience, I can testify that the two jobs I feel I did maximum justice to were those where I got full five year terms.  It takes about two years to understand all the nuances of the job and the officer makes a productive contribution in the subsequent three years.

Even when an officer lasts her full term in a post, meaningful contributions are often impeded by the lack of specialised domain knowledge. The intention to promote specialisation in generalist administrators has remained just that; there have been no initiatives from government to bring this to actuality. Where officers acquire in-depth knowledge of a particular field in a posting, their subsequent assignments mostly have no relation to the expertise earlier acquired by them. When my five year term in the Petroleum Ministry in Delhi came to an end, oil industry insiders found it incredible that the government could invest in building up domain knowledge in an officer over five years and then casually dispense with this acquired expertise overnight.

But the biggest roadblock to building up a responsive, efficient bureaucracy (especially in the IAS) has been the tendency to hand out promotions along with the weekly rations. This phenomenon is particularly noticeable in state governments, with over 95 percent of officers reaching the Apex Scale of pay. Apart from demoralising creative and hardworking officers, who find no avenues for fast-track advancement in their careers, it also leads to a glut at the top. Many posts (more correctly, sinecures) are created to accommodate average quality officers, swelling the ranks of the higher bureaucracy and promoting inefficient systems. Additionally, officers who can really make a difference to governance systems get barely two to three years at the topmost levels, hardly enough to make any visible impact.

Lest it seem that these ills plague the IAS alone, let me clarify that all the civil services in India suffer from a severe lack of professionalism. This is partly due to a lack of performance accountability while in service and partly due to moribund governance structures which do not encourage creativity and risk-taking. There is also the problem of undue political interference in personnel and purchase decisions which sap bureaucratic morale and encourage participation of the bureaucracy in institutionalised corruption. In an earlier blog (The Gadfly Column: Reconstructing the Bureaucracy: 28 February 2015), I had outlined the directions for restructuring governance systems. The issue assumes greater urgency now for two reasons. The nature of bureaucratic functioning over the last one year of the present government belies its promise of achche din, more so in the states, where “business as usual” continues merrily. Another couple of years and the present national government will move into pre-election mode, with administrative reforms taking a back seat. The second cause for urgency is the report of the Seventh Central Pay Commission, due by end-2015. Governments in the past have implemented popular recommendations while ignoring the bitter medicine prescriptions. 2015 presents a historic opportunity to recast the Indian bureaucratic system, when the carrot of improved pay packages can be dangled before the bureaucracy in return for much needed changes in governance systems. Four specific suggestions are made below:

(a) implement a five year roadmap for bureaucratic restructuring: Setting 26 January 2020 as its target date for final implementation, the Indian government should enforce, from 26 January 2018, a voluntary retirement package for its employees at all levels who joined service on or before 31 December 2000. For all those recruited on or after 1 January 2000 but before 26 January 2018, a grace period upto 26 January 2023 will apply, on which date they will leave government with their severance benefits (there will be no recruitments other than contractual appointments after 26 January 2018). All central government jobs after the target date will be on five year contractual basis. The contractual recruitment process can be commenced in January 2019, so that employees who have already quit will benefit from an “early bird incentive” to apply for contractual positions. The structure of government departments and agencies has already been discussed in the earlier blog referred to. State governments should be incentivised to go in for similar reforms; the Terms of Reference of the 15th Finance Commission should include measures to link financial devolution to improvements in governance.

(b) decentralise, decentralise, decentralise: Governance at the level of the Aam Aurat/Aadmi will improve only when decision making is pushed down to the local level. The 73rd and 74th Constitution Amendments should be given real teeth by legislating devolution of powers to urban and rural local bodies. As earlier, linking incentives, including Finance Commission devolutions, to moves in this direction would motivate state governments to support and give effect to such legislation.

(c) develop effective anti-corruption mechanisms: To bring an end to the impunity of governance systems in India, the institutions of Lokpal and Lokayuktas should be set up across India to synchronise with the changes in the bureaucracy and the decentralisation initiatives. Failure to introduce this reform will breed cynicism about the new governance structures, especially at the local government level.

(d) get government out of business: Governments should learn to mind their own business, which includes provision of basic infrastructure, creation of human capital and enforcement of the rule of law. Governments at both the central and state levels should sell off inefficient and sick enterprises and reduce their shareholding in most other enterprises. These will yield revenues for the government and reduce pressure on its financial resources. Even in the few cases where the government wishes to retain ownership of flagship public sector enterprises, management control should be fully vested in the Board of Directors of the company, with full autonomy in investment decisions and in personnel matters. Government should nominate independent directors with managerial and technical skills to serve as its representatives on these Boards. This will not only remove the irritant of bureaucratic interference in commercial decisions, but also the political doling out of favours at the cost of these enterprises. Board appointments will no longer involve the current, cumbersome procedures and investment decisions will no longer have to go through the hoop of ministerial and cabinet committees.

I wish to clarify that I have no bones to pick with the tribe of IAS-bashers — please bash on, regardless. However, I would caution that attention needs to be focused not on the symptoms but on the root causes of the disease, which lie in an anachronistic and dysfunctional governance structure. Commonwealth countries like Australia and Great Britain, from whose examples India has fashioned its civil services, have overhauled their bureaucratic systems to make them more responsive and efficient. There is also little evidence to show that undertaking such major reforms undermines a political party’s electoral prospects; free of the bureaucratic yoke, the grateful citizen may actually reward the party with a further lease of power. The ruling party at the national level can do no better than implement its Vision 2020 to give effect in the administrative sphere to the late President Kalam’s Vision for India 2020. I can only close with the following comment: those who do not wish to create history may become history.

 

 

Reconstructing the bureaucracy

Anyone familiar with the “Yes Minister” and “Yes Prime Minister” television series that highlighted how the British government bureaucracy ran rings around their political “masters” would have realised that its Indian counterpart is no laggard when it comes to teaching its political bosses some of the tricks of the trade (and more). It was only after forty years of mutual coexistence of the babu and the neta that the political class, in a crisis situation in 1991, started to tinker with the apparatus of controls that had placed the babu in an all-powerful position. But there was a flaw in this approach: while the license-permit raj was dismantled, the babu raj was left to flourish merrily. Successive governments in the past twenty years have blithely ignored the recommendations of the Fifth Central Pay Commission (FCPC) (1997) on downsizing the bureaucracy as well as the weighty (literally!) reports of the Second Administrative Reforms Commission (SARC) (2009). While the present government in New Delhi promises to sweep the stables clean, there is the ever-present danger that the sprawling babudom right from Delhi to the galli will ensure that all efforts at reform of systems and institutions are brought to nought. The BJP government in Delhi would, therefore, do well to carry out fundamental reforms in the selection and functioning of the bureaucracy, in Delhi for a start, in the states run by its governments as a parallel measure and, through public support for improved governance consequent on such reforms, at levels of local governance.

At the apex level, the bureaucratic structure comprises the All-India Services (the Indian Administrative Service (IAS), the Indian Police Service (IPS), the Indian Forest Service (IFoS)), the Indian Foreign Service (IFS) and the various All-India Services with specific functions, like the Revenue Service, Postal Service, Audits & Accounts Service, etc. Below these are the vast army of subordinate services that man the Secretariats in Delhi and innumerable field offices in Delhi and all over the country. The first issue that arises in any discussion on administrative reforms is the range of functions that the national government in Delhi has arrogated to itself, through both legislative measures and administrative diktats. Drawing on the views expressed by the FCPC (though not entirely agreeing with it), the national government should confine its functioning to the areas of national security, international relations, macroeconomic management, natural resource management and major infrastructure development. This obviously implies a steep reduction in the number of government departments and agencies at the national level. The national government can be whittled down from over 80 Ministries and departments to barely 20. Most of the functions that need to be carried out at a national level can be entrusted to specialised regulatory bodies and agencies. A majority of these functions should be handed over to the states, with professional advisory bodies providing knowledge inputs in the areas of urban management, health, education, rural development, etc. The national government then plays the role of an enabler and facilitator, with state governments implementing policies in a wide range of areas, free of central control.

The sweeping changes in the scope of responsibilities of the national government will have major implications for the structure and management of governance systems at the national level (as well as for state and local governments, where similar reforms should be carried out in a phased manner):

  • The existing top civil service systems should be recast. The All-India Services had a vital integrative function at the time of independence, as envisaged by Sardar Patel. The challenges faced in the post-partition period and the imperatives of nation building in a country with a multiplicity of administrative systems, inherited from the British and the princely states, necessitated a professional civil service which provided a link between the national government and the states. With established political systems in every state and a growing integration of peoples, arising through inter-state migration, (although the occasional regrettable xenophobic incident rears its ugly head from time to time) the need for persons of one state being sent to man the administrative apparatus in another state is an idea that has outlived its utility. The All-India Services can, therefore, be phased out in a fixed period of time, with currently serving members being given time to acquire the skills/expertise necessary to enable them to readjust themselves in the new dispensation at the national level or to seek employment opportunities in state governments, local governments or the private sector. Other central services will continue, with a truncated role, based on the functional requirements of the national government.
  • Ministries will be lean (though not mean!) In line with what the SARC has recommended, it is proposed that the standard ministry at the Secretariat level will have just three levels of staffing,one at the top management level, the second at the middle management level and the third at the back office support level. Since a large number of even such functions as remain with the ministries will be hived off to autonomous regulatory bodies and specialised agencies, the ministries will be thinly manned, with their major functions being piloting legislation through Parliament and securing budgetary support for the organisations functioning in their sectors. Regulatory bodies and agencies will also have the same three-tier structure of staffing. With the clubbing together of departments under nodal ministries, each Ministry would function with one Secretary, a number of Deputy Secretaries covering the departments under the Ministry and assistants to handle back office responsibilities.
  • Public service employment will be for fixed contract periods. Recruitment to government will be only on a contractual basis, at all levels, for a period of five years. Persons will be free to move from the government to other sectors on completion of their contract periods, with movement in the other direction also being actively encouraged to draw the best capabilities into the public governance stream. Qualifications for hiring will be based on the specific skills and knowledge, as well as experience, required for each level. While the upper age limit for holding a post would be 60 years, there will be no age bar for entry into government jobs at any level.
  • Any citizen of India will be eligible to apply, subject to meeting the necessary qualifying standards. At the end of the contract period, the post(s) will be advertised afresh, with the current incumbent having the right to compete with new applicants for the post. The same process will be followed for ministries, regulatory bodies and agencies. Applicants for positions in the Government of India will be expected to have passed qualifying examinations in English, Hindi and any one other language listed in the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution of India; at the state and local government levels, working proficiency in English and one of the languages used in that state and listed in the Eighth Schedule can be made mandatory.
  • Performance norms will be enforced. Contractual appointees will be assessed on the basis of their performance during the contract period. Ministry/agency heads will be judged on the basis of their attaining the specific objectives/outcomes they have committed to achieve. Performance of other levels will be assessed on the basis of their contribution to the organisational goals. At the time a post comes up for fresh appointment, one of the criteria for considering the current incumbent will be her performance (in terms of outcomes achieved) during the contract period. Annual remuneration will be tied to performance achievement, with variable pay determined both by the performance of the individual and the performance of her organisation during that year. Established misconduct and/or financial turpitude will lead to termination of the contract, after due process of law is followed.
  • Perquisites will not be offered. With a downsized bureaucracy, the national government will be able to offer attractive pay packages that, even if not in line with private sector packages, will, nevertheless, be attractive enough to attract talent drawn from a cross-section of society covering serving and one-time babus, academia and the private sector. All perquisites currently on offer, including transport, housing, etc. will be withdrawn, with contractual employees expected to arrange for their accommodation and travel to and from work.
  • The business of government will not be business. Ministries will divorce themselves from the day to day management of public services and public sector undertakings. The national government will reduce its holdings in all public sector companies such that it no longer exercises management control over these enterprises. This will include the railways and banking sectors, with the railways being spun off as a series of companies, managed by a holding company. As a shareholder, government will be entitled, like other shareholders, to appoint its nominees as directors on the boards of these companies in line with its share of equity. This will cover all sectors of the economy, including defence and atomic energy. After all, if the country can rely to such a great extent on foreign supplies of defence equipment and foreign knowhow for atomic energy plants, there is no reason why the domestic private sector cannot be a participant in these ventures. Infrastructure projects will be managed by special purpose vehicles, manned by contractually appointed professionals. Procurement and purchase decisions will be made within the respective organisations, with strict tendering norms being followed.
  • Accountability for decisions will be rigorously enforced. The public ombudsman, the Lokpal, will exercise scrutiny over the actions of public officials at the national level. She will be assisted in this function by an audit wing, on the lines of the Comptroller and Auditor General and by an investigative wing similar to the Central Bureau of Investigation. Special courts will expeditiously dispose of cases where the Lokpal sees fit to launch prosecutions against officials. Any official convicted of an offence will, apart from being liable for penalties under the law, be debarred from thereafter applying for public office. The Lok Ayukta will have similar powers to deal with state level and local public servants.

 

One can already hear howls of protest from politicians that they are being denied the right to take decisions in important matters like procurements and purchases. Given the track record of political decision-making in these matters over the past so many years, I don’t think too many tears will be shed on the abridgement of this dubious “privilege”. Standardisation and automation of procurement procedures will remove a large element of discretion in such decisions. The fear of prosecution and lengthy jail terms will deter public officials from taking anything other than professional, impartial decisions. Elected representatives, in any case, have a choice: if they so much wish to be part of the decision-making process, they are free to apply for any post in government that is advertised. Since bureaucrats and politicians both have five year terms, with no guarantee of reoccupying the position after five years, they are more or less on the same pedestal. As for the babu, the removal of lifelong security of tenure will, it is hoped, remove the national obsession with “sarkari naukri” and create an atmosphere where innovation and entrepreneurship will be fostered.