and the People: Higher bureaucracy needs radical reforms
It is generally agreed by all concerned that the new policies of economic reforms and liberalisation would still require massive presence of government in livelihood sectors, such as health, primary education, and poverty alleviation. Unfortunately little thought has been given to the capacity building of government functionaries with a view to improve their performance. On the other hand, there is evidence to show that their output of late has declined considerably. Many problems of government are however quite old and well known. Obsession with rules rather than concern for output, promotions based on seniority rather than merit, delays, and mediocrity at all levels are some of the factors inhibiting output in government. Bureaucracy in India is considered to have the following characteristics:-
Despite expansion in the role of government during 1970-90, not much improvement has taken place in the effectiveness of administration. Here we will highlight some trends that have become more prominent in the last ten years; increasing corruption, declining performance and lack of concern for the poor.
Corruption - Honesty at lower levels was as rare in the colonial past as it is now. The British appeared to believe that as long as the man at the top was honest, corruption at lower levels would not really do much damage and would remain confined within manageable limits. As corruption today is on the increase even in higher echelons of bureaucracy, the fear in the minds of lower level officials against making money has disappeared, and corruption at all levels has become a low risk and high reward activity. People in the past looked upon functionaries at the cutting edge levels as an organised band of exploiters. In the not so recent past, senior Class I officers were not considered a part of this mafia. Rather they were looked upon by the people as saviours from the tyranny of lower level functionaries, and were never considered corrupt. But of late the distinction seems to have got blurred, if not totally eliminated. Corruption at the top has emboldened lower level officials who now openly exploit the masses with impugnity. Due to increasing harassment of the people by the bureaucracy at all levels, Anna Hazare gets the reverence normally reserved for holy men for putting together a dossier of over 400 cases of corruption against senior politicians and bureaucrats in the Maharashtra administration. Bureaucracy has today become a parasitical force. It is a part of the problem, rather than part of the solution.
Alienation from public and declining performance - Over the years bureaucracy has become insensitive and even hostile to the poorer sections of society. The district magistrate, in any given district, enjoys a status far out of proportion to his output. He lives in a palatial bungalow, surrounded by a horde of servants and staff who add to his inaccessibility aura. He meets politicians and the more privileged sections of society of his district, and spends most of his time in state capital and Delhi seeking a better posting. Night halts within the district, outside a few well located inspection bungalows, are unheard of. He is supposed to be accountable to the people, especially the unorganised poor, instead he feels happy if he can "buy" the support of an important sectarian leader, which ensures a comfortable stay in the district.
Rajiv Gandhi described the nature of public mal-administration in the following words:-
We have government servants who do not serve but oppress the poor and the helpless, who do not uphold the law but connive with those who cheat the state and whole legions whose only concern is their private welfare at the cost of society. They have no work ethic, no feeling for the public cause, no involvement in the future of the nation, no comprehension of national goals, no commitment to the values of modern India. They have only a grasping mercenary outlook, devoid of competence, integrity and commitment.
It does not follow however that the older generation of civil servants - those who worked in the fifties and sixties - were idealists or were devoted to the cause of the poor. Even in the past, senior civil servants were dedicated to the public service only in the abstract. That somehow failed to translate into service to the individual citizen. It seemed to be run for the convenience, first and foremost, of civil servants themselves. The customer in India was always 'kasht se mar'. He was harassed so much by the maze of rigid rules that he died several deaths before his legitimate prayer was heard. Gradually the civil service became too big, costly and slow, and was not even able to put its own house in order (judged by a large number of writs and cases filed by government servants on issues of seniority and promotions). Today it is not able to provide even a patchy service to the citizens.
Lack of concern for the poor Indifference towards the poor is no longer confined to the lower level officials, even the senior officers seem to be apathetic to them. This is reflected in the way IAS officers grade their jobs. Although the unofficial gradation of jobs varies from state to state, certain common points can be noted. Posts in the Industrial and Commercial Departments and the corporations occupy a very high rank. These enable the IAS officer to hobnob with industrialists and businessmen with whom he has class affinity. Next in the list would be posts which carry a lot of patronage and influence like a district charge, the Departments of Home, Establishment, Finance, etc. The lowest rank goes to jobs where excellent performance would directly benefit the poorest, such as Tribal and Social Welfare, Revenue Administration, Land Reforms, Urban Slums, Rural Development, etc.
This kind of orientation has serious implications. The IAS officer is not so much worried of a transfer per se, as he is worried of being transferred to a job which everyone else considers to be an unimportant one. He would use all kinds of pulls and pressures - both administrative and political - to avoid it. If it does not work he proceeds on long leave; in fact, that is the only time he takes earned leave. The punishment to an officer for annoying the authorities would be a posting in the tribal districts or other backward areas. No one realises that in the process the adivasis and people of the backward area get punished for being saddled with an officer who has no interest in continuing there. The IAS officers never feel comfortable working for the poor in remote areas.
An officer in the late sixties was posted to Banda, a backward district of Central India, but his only recollection of the two years stay was that the district was full of ancient statues and how excitedly he used to look forward to unearthing and obtaining such antiques. Not only did the illegality of his action not bother him, but he did not notice at all the poverty of the people, indebtedness and intense exploitation in that district. Another young IAS officer in the late 70s was asked to assess the extent of bonded labour and child labour in Mirzapur, but his report was that the incidence of bonded and child labour was negligible. When a non-government organisation was asked to do a survey in the same district, picture appeared to be radically different.
Another by-product of this attitude is that in this milieu proper career planning is impossible. In this age of specialisation a healthy personnel policy would mean that many officers specialise in sectors where good administration is needed most, such as Welfare of Weaker Sections, Watershed Development, Administrative Reforms, Animal Husbandry etc. Unfortunately, due to the unwillingness of the IAS officers to work on such "condemned" posts the development of the state suffers. On the other hand, because of the pressure which the IAS lobby exerts on the state governments, the number of commercial corporations has increased several fold, each demanding monopoly of controls and budgetary support from the State. Despite this, or may be because of this, several states have remained industrially backward.
Liberalisation and the poor An important development in the last six years has been a change in the economic philosophy of the country towards reducing government controls and encouraging free markets. While it has helped in restoring the legitimacy of the political system, which was otherwise being reduced to a parasitic and non-performing system (as argued below), benefits to the poor have been so far marginal, basically due to indifference of bureaucracy who is totally out of touch with their problems.
The proportion of people living below the poverty line was 53% in 1977-78 which declined to 39.3% in 1987-88. Since then, although firm figures are not available, an expert group appointed by the Planning Commission estimated that the initial impact of liberalisation on the poor has not been favourable, and the percentage of people below the poverty line increased from 35.6% in 1990-91 to 40.7% in 1992-93. However, one should wait for long-term trends before jumping to conclusions, as more recent data show that poverty increased in the first two years of reforms but declined in the next two years. It is generally believed that the overall impact of reforms on the poor in India has not been as adverse as in Latin American and African countries, but it has also not been as beneficial as in China and Indonesia. Per capita availability of foodgrains declined from 510 grams in 1991-92 to 466 grams in 1993-94, although again the conclusion about decline or increase would depend upon the two terminal years chosen for comparison.
The impact of reforms on the poor has been adverse because of their vulnerable socio-economic position, and in such a case spending money on development schemes without improving their bargaining power will further impoverish them. The sociological and political factors that lie behind the institutional constraints on poverty reduction get little mention in the government programmes. How existing policies impact on the poor is hardly analysed by the rural development departments of central and state governments.
Government intervention should not only improve the incomes of the poor, but their bargaining power vis-a-vis the moneylenders, landlords and bureaucracy. Such empowering measures need to be distinguished from the populist measures which merely act as doles and do not enable the poor to stand on their own legs or fight for their rights. Empowerment is good in itself, leads to higher incomes, and checks corruption and arbitrary use of power.
The growth of GNP is at best an instrumentality, the objective has to be well-being of people. The below all-India average rates of mortality and fertility in the Punjab and Haryana despite their respectable growth records shows comprehensive subordination of women in these states. To give an example from another vital sector, India has been left behind in the field of basic education even by countries like Ghana, Kenya, Myanmar, Zimbabwe and Zambia, not to speak of the Asian Tigers who are far ahead of India in the field of primary education. Without a positive thrust towards the socio-economic
transformation of the marginalised groups, growth may bypass the poor and safety net schemes may only remain short term palliatives. Thus economic growth per se is not the solution.
While poverty reduction will perhaps certainly take place if rate of growth is above 8% per annum, it does not follow that the poor are concerned with increase in their incomes only. Certain goals of development, such as participation of the poor in governance, reduction of inequities, social cohesion, control that the poor exercise on their own lives, and empowerment are no longer considered important in the wake of the new philosophy of liberalisation. For instance, inequality of consumption which had been declining steadily since 1977-78 has started rising again since 1990-91. Since the reforms began, the consumption shares of individuals in the lowest three deciles has declined. Liberalisation has also accentuated regional disparities. The per capita income in U.P. has remained unchanged during the five year period, 1991-96, whereas it has actually declined in Bihar in the above period despite favourable overall national growth rate of more than 5%. These developments should cause concern to the planners.
The above discussion should not be seen as a blanket condemnation of the reform process and pro-market approach. While macro-policies may affect the poor adversely in the short run due to inflation or reduction of subsidies, freeing the poor producers from government controls may in some cases bring immediate benefits to a large number of dispersed and unorganised sellers of goods and commodities. Changing policies in such sectors will be smoother in the present climate when compared to attempting distributive policies which are resisted by the rich.
One could give a large number of such instances where the poor will benefit immensely from open markets. Unfortunately, de-regulation has made almost no impact at the state and district level. The systems of buying and selling land, getting a ration card or your security back, and Rent Control Acts, all need a thorough revision. One can set up an industry worth billions of Rupees in India without any license today, but a farmer in U.P. can neither set up a brick kiln unit, nor a rice shelling plant, nor a cold storage, and not even cut a tree standing on his own private field without bribing several officials. A simple operation of converting prosopis (a shrub occurring everywhere in states like Gujarat and Tamil Nadu, the more you cut it the more it grows) into charcoal in Gujarat, which can give employment to thousands of people requires four different permissions! A study by IIM Ahmedabad of charcoal makers in Surendranagar showed that a farmer cannot cut prosopis without permission, he requires a second permission to transport wood, a third one to set up the kiln and the fourth one to transport charcoal. In Orissa, tribal women are prohibited from doing value addition to gathered products, such as brooms, they must sell it to the designated contractor who thus enjoys a monopoly and pays pittance to the tribals. Almost all occupations in the urban informal sector, such as hawking, small manufacturing in residential areas are illegal! It is a sad commentary on our laws that economic activities in the informal sector which are labour intensive are mostly declared illegal and subject to the whims of law enforcing agencies. State intervention in markets should be to turn markets friendly to the poor, by transferring many functions of the market to the poor themselves, on the other hand these functions have been acquired by government through law, causing more market distortions.
Some of the ills of administration that lead to indifference towards the poor, such as secrecy, cumbersome procedures, and unnecessary controls are well known. Here we will highlight two new factors, the changing internal bureaucratic culture and the external political environment.
To an outsider it may be a matter of surprise that the morale of middle and senior level civil servants has been fast declining in recent years. Why should the members of the most powerful service manning senior positions in the country feel demoralised? It is tempting to explain this in terms of loss of power caused by the opening up of the economy that will slash the maze of controls operated by bureaucrats. However, the fact is that liberalisation is yet to make any significant impact on the functioning of the government at the state and district level, and therefore, cannot be the prime reason for the feeling of irrelevance which has gripped bureaucracy. The reason cannot also be solely political interference as it has been a fact of life for the last four decades and is not of recent origin. Several changes affecting administration in the last fifteen years are internal and have little to do with the external environment, leading to poor working conditions and low morale of the civil servants. Some of these are discussed in the succeeding paras.
Vast expansion - At present for each class One officer, there are about sixty class Three and thirty six class Four employees. In Madhya Pradesh, the number of government servants increased from 8,50,000 in 1981 to 12,75,000 in 1991, despite the fact that government threatened to reduce expenditure on establishment every year by 10%! With the changing role of government the size and scale of the civil services no longer relate to the nature of functions that government can or should undertake. Although some efforts has been made to reduce the intake of the all-India service recruits, there has been no drive to reduce recruitment at lower levels, which would be politically a very unpopular step.
Due to the vast and unplanned expansion throughout the 1970s and early 80s in the officers joining the IAS, and due to the control that the IAS lobby exerts on the system, a very large number of redundant posts in the super-time and superior scales have been created to ensure quick promotions to IAS officers. Often a senior post has been split into many posts, thus diluting and diminishing the scale of responsibilities attached with the post. There are instances galore that previously where one officer was found to do a job, there are now four or more. For instance, in some states against the post of one Chief Secretary, there are many officers now in equivalent but far less important posts drawing the same salary. In one state, previously where one officer used to be the Secretary of Medical and Health, now there are five officers doing the job of one, four are in-charge of health, family planning, medical, and medical education respectively, whereas the fifth one as Principal Secretary oversees the work of these four Secretaries!
This has apparently been done to avoid demoralisation due to stagnation, but the net result has been just the opposite. First, it leads to cut throat competition within the service to get into more important slots. The old camaraderie has given place to rat race. Instances are not lacking when IAS officers wanting a plum job, say a foreign posting, have gone to the Press denigrating their competitors. This has also resulted in the decline of superior-subordinate relations, even when both are direct recruit IAS officers. Previously, the junior officer was always a colleague, now he appears more as a subordinate wanting favours from his superior. The annadata and the maibap culture of the bygone feudal days now pervades interaction within the IAS. Second, this no-holds-barred competition is then exploited by politicians in playing up one against the other leading to officers becoming more pliable. Third, for IAS officers in marginalised positions government seems remote, heartless and more unjust now than ever before. Previously, IAS officers were the government, now the individual officer considers himself alienated from government. Many have gone to the Tribunals and Courts for promotions and postings, a phenomenon that was unknown ten years ago. Similar developments have deteriorated bureaucratic standards in other services too.
Lack of professionalism - A high degree of professionalism ought to be the dominant characteristic of a modern bureaucracy. The fatal failing of the Indian bureaucracy has always been its low level of professional competence. The lack of professionalism is reflected, as Mr. Appu wrote, 'in the growing reluctance of senior civil servants to give frank and fearless advice, the inept handling of the major problems that bedevil the nation, inability to innovate and come up with imaginative solutions to the difficult questions that confront us, failure to keep abreast of modern developments and acquire new skills, slipshod approach to the preparation and implementation of projects, lack of cost-consciousness, dilatoriness, extreme reluctance to take decisions, and above all the unpardonable neglect of routine administration.'
Two-thirds of the IAS career is spent in policy formulation, which requires sound theoretical knowledge of the concerned sector that is possible only by inculcating a life-long habit of reading and writing. Unfortunately the power hungry IAS officer, soon after his recruitment, gives up studies, and sees no reason for making efforts to improve his skills. There is an exponential growth in both, his ignorance and arrogance. It is said that in the house of an IAS officer one would find only three books - the railway timetable, because he is always on the move, a news magazine because that is the only book he reads, and of course, the civil list. Stagnation in his intellectual calibre leads him to believe that the state structure has been created to pander to his ego. When the world is moving fast to a new culture, the IAS officer is sliding back to the 18th century mentality.
It will be interesting to compare the work culture of young IAS officers with those coming out of the IIMs. Both come from the same social and educational background, and both enter their respective organisations at senior positions at a young age, while their subordinates and other colleagues are much older to them. The young manager has to establish himself by proving his effectiveness and utility to the organisation by generating more sales or showing greater savings etc. With no prospects of a time bound promotion, he must strive hard to earn a name for himself in the market and keep growing. The young administrator, on the other hand, relies more on acquiring traditional and ascriptive traits which distinguish him from others; aloofness, greater use of English, calling on seniors and trying to achieve social integration with them, and at the same time enforcing symbols of subordination on others. In other words, he is trying to prove to every one that he belongs to an 'exclusive club'. He maximises his status and social prestige and not his output. The fact that he has shorter tenures in junior positions helps to hide his mediocrity. Even after six years of liberalisation and given the fact that states have to compete now with each other for attracting private and foreign capital, the general impression of industrialists is that bureaucracy is mired entirely in red tape and the bureaucrats are incapable of taking even simple decisions in an innovative fashion. Even when they are not corrupt they take too much from the system and contribute little.
Lack of market value - In addition to the fear of marginalisation, another factor which contributes to the surrender of senior officers before political masters is the total lack of any market value and lack of alternative employment of government officers. Beyond government they have no future, because their talents are very few. As the process of liberalisation of the economy catches momentum, the only job for which they were suitable, that of liaison officers for private sector, would also no longer be available for them. Most senior officers thus end up as dead wood within a few years of joining the service and their only talent lies in manipulation and jockeying for positions. At a time when Indian business is going all over the World, it is a pity that the best brains of the country who join the class I services start operating conceptually at the level of 'mofussil' mafia gangs and becoming rotten eggs in the process.
Structure of reward and punishment - It may be recalled that even in the 1970's the officers exerted pressure on the system to move to what they thought were more glamorous positions. Even twenty years back , when "useless" posts were almost non-existent, an informal hierarchy of jobs had always existed. The Secretary Industries, as also every one else, thought that he was holding a more important job than the Secretary Social Welfare although they drew the same salary. A collector of a big district felt humiliated if he was transferred as Director of Tribal Development.
The difference between then and now is that previously civil servants had clear ideas about the type of behaviour that would be rewarded or punished; furthermore, as a retired Chief Secretary put it, 'control over that, judgments about it, were in the hands of the civil service itself. Now, increasingly, these standards for reward or punishment can no longer be identified lip service is still paid to the old conventions and values but they no longer provide working criteria. New values had entered in from outside, and civil servants can no longer define what acceptable and unacceptable behaviour is. Newer values emphasize political loyalty, flexibility, and also merit, but merit is only one amongst others. Uncertainty centres on the reward structure. Such uncertainty about service norms has been the principal reason for low IAS morale'.
A slightly modified version of the "uncertainty" theory is the belief that the structure of reward and punishment is now decidedly and squarely in the hands of the politicians, who therefore cannot be displeased. 'The fact of the matter,' Mr. Seshan once pointed out, 'is that the number of bureaucrats who would confront a politician is going down fast because everyone is trying to feather his own nest. Unless a man is mentally off he would not try and confront a politician.' Bureaucrats, he said, suffered from a 'basic lack of character.' The traditional civil service values of neutrality and integrity are no longer relevant. Another senior IAS officer from Tamil Nadu cadre went to the extent of claiming that 'most administrators, apart from certain exceptions like Appu in Bihar, have become part of the corruption and black money culture which characterises the current political scenario, either becoming actually involved or passively winking at such practices because they have no power to control them. Top administrators as a class have become the link between politicians and the business class'.
As already stated above, control over the IAS has gradually shifted from its own peer group to the politicians. The expansion of state functions during the period 1970 -90 in India considerably increased bureaucratic control of the various means and processes of production and distribution. To individuals who wanted to share the spoils and patronage, however a price had to be paid in terms of obeisance to political bosses. Thus this period was characterised by both enhanced role of the state and enhanced control of politicians over bureaucracy.
Political pressure can be healthy if it results in greater demand on administration for efficiency and better services to the people. Pressures properly regulated and wisely tempered, improve the spirit of administration and help to keep it on an even keel. Unfortunately the main problem today is that the politics of the country has itself become divorced from public welfare and is more concerned with narrow sectarian interests. An impression exists, specially at the state and district levels, that people have low expectations from political processes (except in purely caste and communal terms), as their economic problems are taken care of by market forces. This impression is more prevalent with the state-level politicians who can always blame Government of India for price-rise, unemployment, lack of resources, etc. Therefore as far as they are concerned, the state machinery can be milked dry through rent-seeking behaviour without any harm to their political interests of getting re-elected. Politicians think that electoral behaviour can be manipulated through precipitating caste or other populist wave at the time of elections, which does not require sustained work in the constituency. At the same time elections require funds which have to come through the looting of the Government treasury. A vast gap exists between stated and unstated objectives of government. On paper the avowed objective of government is to give clean administration, but many posts are auctioned to the highest bidder. Corruption is rampant. People have unfortunately accepted the position as fait accompli and resigned themselves to their fate. They too tend to seek short cuts and exploit the system by breaking rules or approaching mafia gangs and politicians for favours.
The imposition of emergency in the country in 1975 led to Indian State being treated as a private property of those who are at the top, and this culture of using executive power for private gains became the norm during 1980 to 1995. So the Housing Minister thinks that all government houses and shops are her private property, and she can allot them to any one she liked, often for a price. The Petroleum Minister thinks that he can distribute any number of petrol and kerosene depots at his discretion. An impression exists that the State of India is an open treasury that can be looted at will.
It is a sign of times that TN Seshan during the last years of his tenure as Chief Election Commissioner was mobbed by admirers wherever he went. He managed to antagonise virtually the entire political spectrum, but was idolized by many Indians for just that. The way people see it, anybody who can rub politicians the wrong way must be a hero. From Pandit Nehru to Pandit Sukhram, we have really come a long way. During this period, for various reasons the effective control over civil services was transferred from its peer group to politicians. Today the postings of Collectors and SPs in a district are not decided by the Chief Secretary or DG Police but by the Chief Minister or those who are close to him. The degree of politicisation may be less for Audit and Accounts or the Foreign Service, but is quite high in the IPS and the IAS. This erodes the credibility of the government not only in the eyes of the people, but also for civil servants who think that government is not a level playing field, one cannot expect fairness from government, and one has to approach the politicians with right kind of contacts for favours, whether due or undue. There emerged a new culture which can be best summarised as "lick up and kick below", and "rules are for fools". That is, one can forget about the people but just please those who are above you, because masses do not matter, the elite in government have absolute powers and they are beyond law. The fact that half of the politicians in some states are either criminals or have strong criminal links and thus have no faith in the rule of law further compounds the problem.
The IAS serves the State but the State structure is itself getting increasingly dysfunctional and diminished. In some north Indian states parallel authority structures and Mafia gangs have emerged. In such a situation it is no surprise if the bureaucracy too is in a bad shape. There is greater integration now both socially and in terms of group objectives between the members of the all-India services and the politicians of that state. Many civil servants are deeply involved in partisan politics: they are preoccupied with it, penetrated by it, and now participate individually and collectively in it. This is understandable, though unfortunate, because between expression of the will of the State (represented by politicians) and the execution of that will (through the administrators) there cannot be any long term dichotomy. In other words, a model in which politicians will continue to be casteist, corrupt and harbourers of criminals, whereas civil servants would be efficient, responsive and behave as change-agents is not a viable model. In the long run administrative and political values have to coincide.
Over the years, whatever little virtues the civil services possessed - integrity, political neutrality, courage and high morale - are showing signs of decay. While defending the continuation of the all-India Services, Sardar Patel had said, "they are as good as we are". At that time it was taken as a big compliment that the civil service was being compared with statesmen who had won freedom for the country. One does not know how many civil servants will like to be told today that they are like politicians. But things have moved a full circle, and perhaps many of us have become like politicians, the English speaking politicians, corrupt, with short term targets, narrow horizons, feudal outlook, disrespect for norms, contributing nothing to the welfare of the nation, empty promises, and no action.
To be fair to the modern brand of politicians, it must be admitted that except for high integrity, neutrality towards party politics, and provision of minimal administrative services in times of emergency, the civil service even in the past had little to commend for itself. Efficiency in the civil services was always very narrowly defined; it was in terms of contempt for politics and adherence to rules, but never in terms of increased public satisfaction. In such a scenario of low institutional capability it is unfair to expect that the political processes would be totally free from populism or sectarianism. Because of the inability of the system to deliver, politicians do not perceive good governance as feasible or even important for getting votes. No chief minister seems to be saying to his constituents: 'within three months all canals would run on time, you would get 10 hours of electricity, rations would be available for the poor, you apply for a license today and within a month it would reach your doors, your grievances will be promptly attended to, etc.' One reason why he does not say so is the total lack of faith on the part of voters in such promises which need delivery through the administrative apparatus. It is here that the civil service has failed miserably. Politics is after all 'art of the possible', and if the civil service is no longer able to ensure good governance, politicians are forced to resort to populism in order to reach at least some benefits to the people to keep the faith of the voter alive in the political system.
Rather than try to improve the delivery system, most civil servants are compromising with the rot and accepting a diminished role for themselves by becoming agents of exploitation in a State structure which now resembles more like the one in the medieval period - authoritarian, brutal, directionless, and callous to the needs of the poor. A few competent and ambitious civil servants would be able to rise above all this, by joining the UN and other such organisations. Their material success will further fuel the desire of the ordinary members of the service to enrich themselves by hook or by crook. In the process they would become totally indistinguishable from other rent seeking parasites - politicians, Inspectors and Babus. Perhaps they had not imagined that they would end up like this at the time of joining the service. Stagnation in their intellectual capabilities and a decline in self-esteem will further demoralise them. Disillusionment and corruption are thus likely to coexist in the civil services for quite sometime to come.
Retiring bureaucrats often talk disparagingly of the present, and indulge in lavish praise of the `glories' of the past. As argued in this paper, several shortcomings of the system are not of recent origin. Senior civil servants were always short on enterprise and initiative, they were status conscious, their styles of leadership, supervision or motivation were too archaic and out of tune with the realities of the changed situation, they were obsessed with control and authority, and most important they had no faith in anti-poverty and asset distribution programmes. The system did not improve because there was no compulsion from either within or outside. Over the years, whatever little virtues the civil service possessed - integrity, political neutrality, courage and high morale - are showing signs of decay. It is obvious that mere appeal to higher values or training is not going to work. Societies progress best when self interest of individuals coincides with the groups' interest, then there is no need to appeal to higher morality or to sacrifice.
A question arises, will this degeneration continue as in the past or are there signs of change? My reading of the situation is that judicial activism has emerged as a big corrective factor on the arbitrary use of executive power. Hopefully the recent arrests of bigwigs will help in demolishing the belief that "rules are for fools", and it is one step forward to restore the rule of law in our country. Just as Bofors was a turning point in the history of our country which legitimised corruption, the arrest of Laloo Prasad Yadav, Chandraswami, HKL Bhagat, Kalpanath Rai, Sanjeeva Rao, etc. has to some extent restored the faith of the common man in the rule of law. When some IAS officers were arrested in Tamilnadu recently, another IAS officer of HP wrote a middle in Indian Express, that now IAS officers should include in their career graph a stint in the jail, not as Jail Superintendent or IG Prisons, but as jail inmates! Hopefully other IAS officers will take a cue from the fate of their brethren in Tamilnadu and Bihar.
One factor why officers thought that they were beyond law is because of the licence-permit Raj which had permeated the Indian economy for the last 20 years. Every little business activity was dependent upon the goodwill and the good wishes of the administration which gave a feeling of absolute power to the officers. With the demolition of licence-permit Raj and liberalisation, there would emerge a group of professionals, journalists, and academicians who would be entirely independent of the Government. Their bread and butter would not be dependent upon the bureaucrat's smile and they are the ones who would be in the forefront of a campaign against bureaucratic indifference and poor performance. Zee TV comes up with a programme, Helpline, which highlights the problems of consumers, it shows bureaucrats in very poor light, be they incharge of DDA or Directors of Telephone services, because these civil servants are unable to explain delay or inaction on the part of their departments. In future there would be more independent TVs and radios to apply healthy pressure on administration.
Another important element that could change the bureaucratic inertia is the emergence of a strong NGO movement in the country. Admittedly there are fly-by-night NGO operators just making money and doing nothing wonderful, but there are also a large number of good NGOs who are working towards empowerment of the people. They would after some time be very powerful and the Civil Services would have to come to terms with them. In Bangladesh, 80 to 90% of all development funds are spent through the NGOs. The coming years will see increasing importance of NGOs in policy making and implementation in India too.
So long as government controlled all the goodies of the world, the civil servants looked upon government as mai-baap. They defined their relations with government as jeena yahan marna yahan, iske siva jaana kahan, and were prepared to do all kinds of wrong things for the politicians. But today there are several escape routes, and new powerful forces are emerging in India making it a truly plural society. Just to give one example, in the 1970s states wooed Government of India if they wanted projects, and this required political maneuvering, now the states have to woo private capital and specially foreign capital, and these new donors will demand better administration and better professional management. It is a very healthy trend that the monopoly of capital, the monopoly of power, the monopoly of authority which government enjoyed in the past is breaking down today. The civil servants have to operate in the open market, and establish their credentials and then only they would be able to build up their careers. Top jobs would be given not on the basis of pulls or manipulations but expertise. In the Finance Ministry today, which is the Mecca of all IAS, IFS and IES officers, the three top positions are occupied by academics, Montek Ahluwalia, Jairam Ramesh, and Shankar Acharya. It is they who make all decisions, and not any pen pushing IAS bureaucrat. And knowledge is going to emerge as one of the most important resource of the 21st century. Marx talked about three resources: land, capital and labour, I think if he had been alive today, Marx would have added knowledge as the most important resource, much more important than land, labour and capital.
The new pressures on the political system generated by judiciary, NGOs, an elite which is independent of government, and International donor agencies are likely to act as a sobering influence on political irresponsibility. It also creates a favourable climate in which some of the reform proposals designed to give more functional autonomy to the civil service and to make it resist unwanted political pressure would be acceptable to the decision makers. These proposals are discussed below.
Where is the solution? How do we restore the credibility of the 'steel frame'? How to make more IAS officers stand up to the illegal pressures and temptations? As already stated, it would be unfair to lay the blame with the politicians alone. The problem is similar to what is known as 'tragedy of the commons'. It is rational for the individual politician and civil servants to use the government machinery for narrow ends, creating a situation where individual rationality does not lead to group optimality. The classical solution which is advocated in such situations is to change the terms at which interaction takes place between the two groups, in this case civil servants and politicians, so that corruption and misuse of power turns from a low-risk and high-reward to high-risk and low-reward activity. This change can be brought about in several ways discussed below.
A malaise afflicting the civil service generally is the instability of tenures, leading not only to a lack of sense of involvement but also to the inability to contribute effectively to amelioration of the system. In U.P., the average tenure of an IAS officer in the last five years is said to be as low as six months. In the IPS it is even lower, leading to a wisecrack that 'if we are posted for weeks (Haftas) all we can do is to collect our weekly bribes (Haftas). Transfers have been used as instruments of reward and punishment, there is no transparency, and in the public mind transfer after a short stay is categorised as a stigma. Officers who are victimised are not in a position to defend themselves. Internally the system does not call for any reaction to explain one's conduct, while externally public servants are debarred from going public to defend themselves.
Frequent transfers and limited tenures are playing havoc with public organisations. With every quick change in the head of the office, a funereal air is noticeable and down the line the respect for authority is wittled away. Rapid changes erode the mandate of the Department or Organisation. There are two other consequences. The incumbent himself is not sure of how long he will stay. This affects his attention to detail, the capacity to master the situation and begin thinking, even incrementally, about how to change things and improve them. Since he is not too sure of what has to be done, the preference is to opt for whatever was tried out in the past and seemed to have sufficed. In the process, changes which may have been initiated by the predecessor are either disregarded or thought of as being disruptionist. Most public organisations do not possess the 'memory' which will absorb change and continue it even under adverse circumstances. Second, there are even more deleterious consequences down the line. Other staff in the organisation do not extend the commitment so necessary for change to be institutionalised. Their assessment is that everything new being temporary administrative improvement and practice, different from the ordinary way of doing things, represent the foibles or prejudices (at worst) of the incumbent, to be sent packing immediately on the departure of the officer. An attenuated hierarchy, which disorts intent and initiative, further impels the status quo.
It is in this context that it is crucial and critical to remove uncertainty and imbue the officers with a certain security of tenure in every post, barring cases of promotion. In order to ensure this several options are proposed, with varying degree of political acceptability.
It is not correct to assume that there would be political resistance to the idea of stability of tenure. Many Chief Ministers would welcome this proposal, as they are often pressurised by their MLAs to resort to frequent transfers, and with a change in law, they would be able to resist the pressure in a better manner. It may also be mentioned here that many transfers are initiated at the request of the officer himself, and this tendency will also get curbed with new laws.
The hankering after posts is also linked quite often to the 'trappings' of the post - vehicles, domestic help etc. It is clear that to a large extent these are dictated by the nature of jobs and should also constitute an element in determining how to categorize posts. If minimum levels of 'perks' can be made uniform at certain levels of government, it will reduce the temptation of officers to seek political favours.
During the last ten years there have been many instances of the high and the mighty being accused of corruption, the hawala scam being the high point of this trend. But what about the all-pervasive, petty, institutionalised corruption, in public works and police stations, collectorates and courts? The fatalist ordinary Indian has learnt to live with these varieties of corruption as easily as with his pantheon of Gods. The Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) in the districts of Rajasthan has tried to break out of this circle of fatalism and despair by pressing on the citizen's right to information. This has enabled poor farmers to realise that it is possible to corner the corrupt and seek remedial action. If the right of the ordinary citizen to information is recognised, it will dramatically increase the strength of the citizen to understand and challenge corruption and the arbitrary exercise of state power.
It is not enough only to recognise this right, and accede to it if and when an organisation like MKSS or the independent ordinary citizen demands information. It should be the duty of an officer who is genuinely committed to fight corruption and oppression by the state machinery, to pro-actively attempt to increase the power of the citizen in his or her relation with the state, through building in transparency into all official procedures and systems, and suo-moto making available all relevant information to the people. In the context of development workers, for instance, this would mean enforcing the rule that all muster rolls and bills are regularly read out and explained to the people in gram sabhas.
To do this, no radical change in official rules is required. On the contrary, existing rules already provide for such sharing of vital relevant information with the public and gram Sabhas. However, such rules are mostly observed in the breach, because it suits the bureaucracy to sustain or even enhance the capacity of its functioning to enable its arbitrary malafide, nepotistic and corrupt exercise of power. It is therefore necessary that GOI issue clear guidelines on the subject.
Most political manipulations succeed because of the environment of secrecy which pervades government functioning. There is no early check because decisions are taken behind closed doors. The sharing of information and making the entire system more transparent would certainly reduce the danger of the system being hijacked by crooks. In particular:
In the long term, steps need to be taken to drastically reduce the number of meaningless posts in the IAS, so that only such posts where people can contribute meaningfully are retained. After the first fifteen years in service, an average officer spends at least 50% of his time doing useless work on posts that call for no challenge. Chief Ministers in India have got used to be waited upon by a horde of politicians jockeying for power, and they have developed a mind-set of meting out similar treatment to civil servants keep half of them under-utilised to make them pliable. The Indian Government must be the only organisation in the modern World where half of the top management is deliberately and consciously forced to waste its time on useless posts, both at the Central and the State levels. Working much below their capability results in stagnation and low self-image, and many officers ultimately become 'dead wood'. The suggestions are:
All talk of excellent or brilliant performance is meaningless unless a bottom line of minimum acceptable standard of performance is stipulated. This has to be at two levels viz. organisational and individual. It is imperative that each Ministry/ Department of the central and state governments and all departments and agencies under the district administration, have a well defined and spelt out criteria by which performance of their functionaries can be evaluated. For example the Railways/ Airlines promise running of trains/planes as per the announced schedule. Non-adherence to this should entail adequate compensation for non-delivery of promised service. This concept could also be extended to other service sectors, such as Banks, Telecommunications, and Post Offices.
In consonance with the organisational performance standards, each individual's performance standard needs to be spelt out. Such a measure will perforce compel imbibing of professionalism and performance norms will shift from platitudes and aspirations to concrete output. This will in turn arrest the tendency of seeking 'plum' posting as the capacity and ability to take the challenge will determine the choice.
At present the system of government is such that it is difficult for an average citizen to have access to information about schemes and programmes that affect him, and even about his rights and records. The complicated procedures not only distance government from the very people that are sought to be provided with services but also create possible sources of corruption. Therefore the stress needs to be on developing computer based information systems so that discretion and delay can be reduced. For instance, why can't in some tahsils we instal a computer where you insert a ten rupee note and get land ownership record of the entire village? Some suggestions are:
In Britain the sweeping changes that have taken place have been possible because of the priority that has been accorded at the highest level to the implementation of change and a regular system of monitoring and evaluation. At present the status of the Department of Administrative Reforms in both the states and the centre is as an appendage to the Department of Personnel and the advice is considered recommendatory but not necessarily binding on other Ministries etc. If evaluations become more open, as suggested, departments would find it very difficult not to carry out the changes suggested.
There are a large number of IAS officers in Delhi who do not have more than an hour's work. On the other hand, the Department of Administrative Reforms does not have trained personnel who can carry out evaluation studies and interact with the top managers in government. Teams of IAS officers who are otherwise idle may be made to study the procedures and policies, and suggest reforms. Similar step should be taken at the state level. Rather than recruit new researchers for Administrative Reforms, the existing idle manpower should be harnessed.
The 73rd Amendment envisages a polity where more and more powers are decentralised to the third stratum, but ironically often it has only meant decentralisation of corruption. A detailed field study of several village level Panchayats in U.P. indicated that the objectives of promoting grassroot democracy and increasing the participation of the poor in the implementation of rural development programmes were only being partially met. Excerpts from the study are being quoted below:-
"Even two years after the new legislation imbued the panchayats with responsibility for developmental functions (albeit with an instrumentalist orientation) listed in the Eleventh Schedule, no substantive changes have occurred in the nature or extent of financial devolution or bureaucratic control."
"In the formal sense, therefore, panchayats have had a limited but important role in the various stages of planning and implementation of several developmental programmes, especially anti-poverty programmes. However, there is no evidence from the study panchayats that the gram sabhas have been involved in any of the roles assigned to it, even though on occasion the rare meeting has been held under some external compulsion. For practical purposes, the panchayat is identified with the office of the Pradhan and the role of the Pradhan is itself subsidiary to the bureaucratic functionaries. The poor respondents mention periods when enlightened Pradhans or even bureaucrats have been able to accelerate the implementation of these programmes or have been able to steer them more firmly in the direction of the poor. Generally, however, this is not the case. Benefits from programmes accrue to a group of people who are close to the Pradhan or the official machinery. Some of them acquire multiple benefits."
"Devolution, as it has been implemented, in the opinion of the villagers, may not have brought about development, but it has on the other hand reinforced the unequal access to power."
"References to the works are often accompanied by sneering remarks about the money which has gone down the drain, or has disappeared into the pocket of the pradhan and the block officials. Much of what comes from the government, they feel, is snatched away by the important people."
"This rather negative assessment of omissions and commissions should not lead us to the conclusion that panchayats and local level planning have lost their attractiveness for the villagers. On the contrary our survey of 397 villagers showed that an overwhelming 80 per cent of all respondents feel that the responsibility of village level development should be reposed with panchayats (84 per cent males; 77 per cent females). Only 9 per cent respondents (13 per cent males and 5 per cent females) thought that the Block should be responsible. Of the respondents, when asked to choose between a variety of arrangements for evolving and implementing schemes and programmes at the village level, 79 per cent favoured stronger panchayats but with more accountable pradhans and 17 per cent favoured stronger panchayats and stronger pradhans. The verdict was clearly against the Block Development Officers who received only 4 per cent support."
From this study, it appears that though the ordinary village people feel optimistic about the potential of panchayats, they think that it has not brought the fruits of development to them. Corruption is singled out as the most important cause for the ineffective functioning of these institutions. Control which is exercised by Block Level officials over the village panchayats has not only buttressed corruption, but it has also led to pessimism that villagers at their own level cannot change and improve performance because of heavy dependence on Block officials. The present system is, therefore, seen as to have actually reinforced dominance and unequal access to power, besides rendering the villagers helpless and alienated.
An important factor for the success of the Panchayati Raj system is the need for transparency in the functioning of these bodies. Panchayats being closer to the people, their right to information and accessibility to the Panchayats must be ensured. Except in a few States such as Himachal Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, orders emphasizing transparency have either not been issued, or these are incomplete. Therefore each State should consider passing orders highlighting three different aspects of transparency. First, the Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs), especially Gram Panchayats, should display all vital information pertaining to development projects, especially receipt of funds and how they are being spent, in the Panchayat Offices or on a prominent board outside the school, for the information of the public. Second, all relevant records should be open to inspection, and third, members of public should also be able to obtain photocopies of documents pertaining to development projects as also matters of general public interest by paying a nominal charge. Particularly, all bills, muster rolls, vouchers, estimates and measurement books, also the criterion and procedure for selection of beneficiaries, and list of beneficiaries should not only be available for inspection, but photocopies of these relevant documents should be given on demand from a convenient place, such as Block or Tehsil Office. In case photocopying machines are not already in position in the office, loans could be given from Banks to educated unemployed under various schemes, such as PMRY, for this purpose.
Instances have been reported where the Gram Panchayat Pradhans have to spend extraordinary amount of time visiting Block Offices. There are also instances of harassment by Block level officials. Systems which require Gram Panchayat Pradhan / Sarpanch to approach Block office for funds and/or technical approval need to be drastically changed. Village bodies should be able to spend funds on their own without having to take technical approval from government officials. These interactions with the Block staff distort the role of Pradhans as elected representatives of the Gram Sabha and induct them into the bad old ways of officialdom, besides encouraging corruption.
The 73rd Constitutional Amendment makes a provision for a Gram Sabha in each village, to exercise such powers and perform such functions as the legislature of a State may, by law, provide. This is a provision of great import in so far as the Gram Sabha constitutes the entire electorate to whom all elected representatives in the local bodies, state legislature as well as Parliament are accountable. Proper functioning of the Gram Sabha could ensure a vibrant democracy with a great degree of transparency and accountability. However, several states have given short shrift to the institution of Gram Sabha and vested them with only ritualistic powers of consideration of annual accounts, administration reports, audit notes, etc. of the Gram Panchayat. Even the suggestions and recommendations made by the Gram Sabha could be ignored by the Gram Panchayat.
On the other hand, certain States like Punjab, Haryana, Bihar, Himachal Pradesh, Tripura, Maharashtra, etc. have devolved more effective powers to the Gram Sabha, such as approval of the budget of the Gram Panchayat, identification of beneficiaries for developmental programmes, constitution of vigilance committees, etc. In some States, failure to convene the Gram Sabha disqualifies the Sarpanch from holding his/her office. If more powers, such as power to sanction and disburse old age pensions and power to decide the location of drinking water handpumps, are given to the Gram Sabhas, not only would it bring more transparency in the working of the Panchayats but it would attract more attendance in the meetings of the Sabhas.
Apart from the inadequate devolution of powers and functions to the Gram Sabha, the experience shows that the meetings of the Gram Sabhas are organised at a time of the day when most of the weaker sections are busy working in the fields and the women are busy with their house-hold chores. This hampers effective participation of the weaker sections in the deliberations of the Gram Sabha.
Strengthening the village level bodies will certainly improve the performance of development administration, and in addition will provide a sense of participation to the common man in the implementation of schemes.
Despite emphasis on administrative delegation, in many of the States (barring W.B. and Maharashtra perhaps) administrative and financial powers have been heavily concentrated in the Secretariats and Directorates. This process of centralisation of authority has specially been going on in the last thirty years. At one time the Chief Secretary of U.P. used to be the junior most Commissioner, and all Secretaries used to be junior to Commissioners. Today priorities have entirely changed. A few years back, a Secretary of a minor department felt humiliated, and moved heaven and earth, when he was transferred as Commissioner Lucknow! The reason is that Secretaries have become Zamindars - all power and little responsibility - and therefore everyone wishes to be there. This concentration, in addition to facilitating political corruption, results in making decisions the outcome of a long and tedious process that inconveniences the public.
Every organisation/department/Ministry needs to clearly work out a plan for reduction of its powers. This decentralisation would naturally devolve greater responsibility down the line as well, and would have to be accompanied by delegation of powers, both administrative and financial.
Specifically in the context of the I.A.S, the tendency to concentrate powers and functions which are rightfully the domain of other departments needs to be curbed. This manifests itself in various ways, for example, District Magistrates are quite often designated as Chairpersons for a plethora of meetings, not always in a coordinating role, but more as a target chaser for various departments. The DMs do not have adequate time to actually supervise or coordinate effectively, and in any case the task at hand has to be performed by functionaries of other departments. With a proper definition of objectives, and the concomitant accountability these functionaries would be responsible for their own actions.
As already stated earlier, de-regulation has made almost no impact at the state level. No wonder, opening up of the economy has not been seen as a political asset by the political parties. A Committee should be set up to identify specific laws and rules that hamper entrepreneurship. A systematic review needs to be undertaken to review the areas in which government must withdraw, albeit in a phased manner, and departments that need to be wound up should be defined. I will also suggest that officers should be encouraged to take mid-career sabbatical, and live in the rural areas, so that they can see for themselves how the various organs of administration exploit the common man.
With the changing role of government the size and scale of the civil services no longer relate to the nature of functions that government can or should undertake. One should identify surplus staff, set up an effective redeployment plan, and a liberal system for exit. For the time being recruitment should only take place of functional posts, and vacant posts of secretarial and clerical posts should not be allowed to be filled. Generous golden hand-shakes have to be introduced. One should learn from China, which in a span of three years reduced its bureaucracy by 25%.
It is clear that reducing the size of government, ensuring more goal orientation, and stability of tenure leading to specialisation is likely to be a time consuming process. But if the process is initiated immediately and in right earnest, the country should be able to enter the 21st century with a vision of the future.