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Bureaucracy Recast

After Independence, ministers with a vastly different set of values and perspective came to wield authority. Civil servants realised that circumspection rather than pure efficiency was needed to make things work. However, no one took the trouble to educate the electorate about the fine distinction between a political party and a government of that party. The result was a conflict between the bureaucracy and the political executive, who wanted to control all levers of power

DEVENDRA SAKSENA | New Delhi |

Sardar Patel, the architect of modern India, is also remembered as the “patron saint of India’s civil servants.” Arguing forcefully in the Constituent Assembly for the retention of the Indian Civil Service (subsequently renamed as the Indian Administrative Service), Sardar Patel said: “I wish this to be recorded in this house that during the last two or three years if most of the members of the services had not been serving the country efficiently, practically the Union would have collapsed.”

However, Patel’s views were in direct contrast to those of Jawaharlal Nehru, who famously termed the ICS as “neither Indian nor civil and not a service.”But even a visionary like Patel could not have foreseen the aberrations that now mar the Indian bureaucracy. The protection and patronage Patel extended to the higher bureaucracy emboldened it to continue being hierarchical, centralised and monolithic ~ a “soulless machine,” according to Mahatma Gandhi. Lower rungs of bureaucracy, enjoying Constitutional protection after Independence, saw no need to change their despotic ways.

With time, the bureaucracy metamorphosed into a self-serving organisation, existing for its own benefit, which even its political masters dared not displease. While lower rungs developed a tendency to avoid work and indulge in corruption at every opportunity, the top bosses believed in empire building and perpetrating scams. A cosy relationship between bosses, subordinates and the political executive ensured that the undesirable activities of bureaucrats went unpunished.

Structural imbalances compound the rot brought about by substandard human capital; top level positions have proliferated at the cost of lower-level posts, making the bureaucratic structure resemble an inverted pyramid. For example, States that had only one Inspector-General (IG) of Police now have several Director-General level posts with a proliferation of IGs, while myriad posts of constables and inspectors lie vacant. Mutatis mutandis, the same is true for the IAS and Central Services, resulting in a huge administrative imbalance; an army of commanders with few soldiers. A surfeit of paper
work with little to show on the ground has been the net outcome of the entire exercise.

After almost eight decades of independence, when the chickens have come home to roost, politicians blame bureaucrats for faulty implementation of their reformist agenda while bureaucrats hold political interference responsible for the Government’s failure on various fronts. It is quite another matter that the public blames both politicians and bureaucrats for maladministration and loot of the country’s resources. A quick stock-taking would show that there is more than an iota of justification for all the three views.

Even in its heyday, many did not view the ICS as an epitome of perfection. After the Congress formed provincial Governments in 1935, Jawaharlal Nehru observed that the way in which ministries operated “exploded the myth of ICS competence… accustomed to work in a stereotyped way, it cannot adapt to new changes or directions. It put obstacles and showed deliberate disloyalty to the Congress ministers… It showed itself very slow and could not execute the orders issued by the ministers with promptitude.”

Delays have been a hallmark of bureaucratic processes since time immemorial. By the beginning of the twentieth century, the secretariat system had taken root in India. A British administrator of that time, Fendall Currie, observed that the secretariatwallahs kept the district officer “tied to his desk writing voluminous reports, which nobody ever reads, and compiling returns and statistics of… hopeless inutility.”

Practices like keeping files, making a precis of letters, “putting up” etc. that evolved during this period continue even in the present era of full-fledged computerisation. After Independence, ministers with a vastly different set of values and perspective came to wield authority. Civil servants realised that circumspection rather than pure efficiency was needed to make things work.

However, no one took the trouble to educate the electorate about the fine distinction between a political party and a government of that party. The result was a conflict between the bureaucracy and the political executive, who wanted to control all levers of power.

Slowly, realising the cost of conflict, bureaucrats and politicians decided to bury the hatchet and collaborate. Bureaucrats who brought to the table their administrative experience were hindered by their inability to achieve worthwhile results mostly because they no longer wielded sufficient power over their subordinates. Ministers controlled the Government but were hamstrung by a limited tenure and a lack of knowledge of the nitty-gritty of administration.

The bureaucrat politician partnership could have been transformative for the country had it not been used mostly used for ulterior purposes. In the present milieu, honest bureaucrats feel dejected, while the less scrupulous align themselves to individual politicians and factions. The mass transfer of bureaucrats and police officers on every change of regime is proof of this fact. The ugly confrontation between officers of West Bengal Police and the CBI or the internecine wars of Maharashtra Police provide more proof of this proposition.

The unpleasant truth is that there is a tough competition between bureaucrats for the loaves and fishes of office; dog eat dog rather than service brotherhood is the new culture of the bureaucracy. Inability to act against trouble mongers has forced the Government to outsource ministerial and manual functions even though it has sufficient manpower.

Many a time, the Government has to shift responsibility for lower-level functions upwards because lower-level functionaries, protected by their Unions in addition to service rules are almost immune to discipline. In a telling instance, the entire Class IV cadre was abolished for non-performance. Governments come and go but the public, which deals with grass-root level officials, hardly perceive any change in governance. The much-reviled Emergency was the last occasion when the lower bureaucracy performed its assigned role e.g., of running trains on time and of being punctual in office.

The lesson: the only way to ensure a responsive and responsible administration is to get rid of the convoluted procedures that make action against erring Government employees virtually impossible. Perhaps, at the time of Independence, instead of taking the ICS and the Central Superior Services (pre-cursor of the Central Services) with their substantial baggage, newer services with an Indian ethos could have been constituted. That moment is lost, but the bureaucracy could do better with some changes.

Post-computerisation, the vast army of ministerial staff, that was the backbone of the Indian bureaucratic structure, is now superfluous. Instead of desk-bound staff, we need persons who would go out in the field and connect with the public like agricultural graduates who could explain advanced farming techniques to farmers or officials who would ensure that benefit of the various schemes reaches their intended beneficiaries.

We also need sufficient staff at the cutting-edge, like primary school teachers and constables. Enforcing accountability at all levels is the second necessary reform. The third reform could be laying down of SOPs in the modern computerised environment. Reform of the bureaucracy has engaged the attention of successive Governments; two Administrative Reforms Commissions were constituted, the first one in 1966 and the second one in 2005. However, no key recommendation of either Commission has been implemented.

Soon after assuming office, in 2015, the present Government introduced practices like biometric attendance, that was designed to keep Government employees in their offices rather than on golf greens. More substantial reforms were initiated in September 2020, by launching the National Programme for Civil Services Capacity Building (Mission Karmayogi), aimed at capacity building of Government employees, by upgrading their training mechanism. Later on, the Government floated a Request for Proposal for  hiring a private consultant to design and develop a Framework of Roles, Activities and Competencies (FRAC) for civil servants, so that the country can have a “fit-for-future civil service.”

FRAC is complementary to Mission Karmayogi, eventually slated to dovetail into it. Working in tandem, both would provide enhanced competencies and better-defined roles and activity profiles at all levels, leading to a ‘Roles based HR Management System’ for the bureaucracy instead of the present ‘Rules based’ one.

Last month, a draft FRAC, providing an overview of the guiding principles, common vocabulary and the steps required to complete the pre-FRAC process was published by the Department of Personnel and Training. Reforming the bureaucracy, in order to align it with twenty-first century requirements, is urgently required, but changing the ethos and work culture of a massive and well-entrenched bureaucracy, within one year, is a daunting
task. One can only wish success to the new initiative.

(The writer is a retired Principal Chief Commissioner of Income-Tax)