Good bureaucrats are supposed to implement Government policies efficiently and unbiasedly, operate by a set of formal rules and remain invisible throughout. Respecting these principles, the performance of all bureaucrats is reviewed annually. Additionally, anonymity is considered so important that decisions taken by the highest bureaucratic authority are circulated under the signature of the junior-most officer. No doubt, with such SOPs, the Indian bureaucracy is centralised and monolithic ~ almost a “soulless machine,” according to Mahatma Gandhi.
However, this bureaucratic system worked well, with everyone including the political executive, despite anonymity, taking responsibility for their actions e.g., Lal Bahadur Shastri resigned as Railway Minister after a major train mishap. Worryingly, in recent years, the Government’s effectiveness has been eroded by a marked fall in integrity ~ both of politicians and bureaucrats ~ and a decline in their ability to take hard decisions.
A case in point is the inability of the Central, Delhi, UP and Haryana Governments to control the annual spike in pollution in north India. All year round, every Government tom-toms the measures taken by it to control pollution but falls strangely silent when pollution levels spike in winter. The frustration of the public with the non-performing bureaucracy was summed up by the Chief Justice in the Delhi Pollution Case: “… the bureaucracy has developed an inertia, an apathy…They wait for the court to pass an order even on things like how to stop a car or a fire by using a bucket or a mop… This is the attitude developed by the Executive…. It is unfortunate the Executive has come to this… They just say ‘let the court pass the order and we will sign’.”
The Supreme Court made similar observations, on the inaction of the police in the Lakhimpur violence case, where politically powerful persons were being shielded by the administration. Recent years have witnessed the unseemly spectacle of the three pillars of Government ~ the Executive, the Judiciary and the Legislature, trying to encroach on each other’s territory, with a blame game playing in the background.
The judiciary’s foray into the territory of the executive and legislature, mainly through PILs is well documented. However, the legislature makes the work of the judiciary more difficult by enacting unsustainable laws and by defining crimes in utter disregard of the principles of jurisprudence. The executive often plays fast and loose; sometimes by inaction and at other times by taking inappropriate action, knowing fully well that by the time a judicial remedy becomes available, the issue would have lost its relevance.
However, the blurring of the line between the political executive and the permanent bureaucracy has gone almost unnoticed. Mimicking the political executive, an increasing number of officers do not want to remain anonymous and willingly assume a public role. At the time of the Covid pandemic, a Joint Secretary and not the Health Minister gave daily bytes to the press. Initially, farmers protesting against the Farm Laws were directed to meet the departmental secretary, enraging the protesters no end. This trend is exacerbated by the creation of a cadre of quasi-bureaucrats like members of the Niti Aayog who don political robes without any compunction.
Probably, we would be better off with the American system, where top bureaucrats hold office co-terminus with the President or Governor who appointed them, and everyone’s interest is well known.
On the other hand, ministers are not satisfied with laying down policy but want to participate in day-to-day administration; many ministers like to decide on annual transfers of peons or accord approval for a contract to whitewash the office building. This malaise has travelled down even to the local self-government institutions, making elections to the posts of corporators, pradhans etc. highly combative ~ all at the cost of the poor taxpayer whose hard-earned money is lost in corruption.
The move to grant extensions to top bureaucrats, including an unprecedented five-year extension to those manning top enforcement posts, will hasten the politicisation of the bureaucracy. Such extensions go against the grain of Government functioning where even low-ranking bureaucrats are transferred every two or three years, lest they develop a vested interest in their post. Not surprisingly, according to the new rules, extensions in service will be granted one year at a time.
Even otherwise, officers on extension serve at the mercy of their political masters, as the extension granted to an officer can be withdrawn at any time. The public spat between a cabinet minister of the Maharashtra Government and the Zonal Director of the Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB), provides food for thought to those interested in administrative functioning. To recapitulate, the controversy originated with a drug control operation by NCB.
Flouting Government rules that enjoin officers to shun publicity, officers of NCB allowed full access to 24-hour news channels who made the worst kind of imputations against the accused, dragging the reputation of everyone associated with the accused through mud. Social media, too, was busy in character assassination. Shockingly, the informant was allowed to photograph the accused and take selfies with him, which violated the right to privacy of
With such publicity, the accused were judged guilty by the public even before being produced in court. But because the accused were rich and influential people, politicians waded into the acrimonious debate giving tit-for-tat to the officers of the Enforcement Directorate. Highly personal details of the Zonal Director (ZD), like his birth certificate, were put up on social media.
More controversy followed when a witness to the drug seizure claimed that he had been made to sign a blank panchnama and later on alleged that he had personal knowledge of the ZD negotiating for an unlawful monetary consideration from the accused persons. After such developments, the accuser became the accused in the public eye, and in an about turn, the media made it appear as if the ZD was on trial and not the drug runners.
This denouement could have been avoided had proper procedure been followed in the drug bust operation by avoiding undue publicity, taking respectable persons as witnesses and keeping the informant away at the time of the raid. An alarming development is the emergence of rogue officers in all branches of Government. Rogue officers damage the Government from within and dent its credibility irretrievably.
Such officers, totally fearless because of their political connections, are ready to do anything at the command of the highest bidder; in the administrative service such rogues allow illegal mining and falsify records, in the police service they are guns for hire and in the revenue service they are the ones who facilitate tax evasion and money laundering.
With their capacity of doing the impossible, rogue officers are always in demand with politicians and top businessmen while colleagues and superiors stay away from them. The drama playing out in Mumbai, where some former policemen are accused of planting of explosives near the house of a top businessman with the aim of extortion and a former police commissioner went incommunicado after various extortion cases were registered against him, signifies the worst that can happen to the bureaucracy.
Significantly, a former cabinet minister of Maharashtra is behind bars for exhorting policemen to collect a monthly hafta of Rs.100 crore. There are also lesser-known instances of customs officers who facilitated smuggling, revenue officers who indulged in tax evasion and IAS officers who sheltered illegal mining activities.
With such functionaries at cutting-edge positions, it is not surprising that governance is in the pits and a common man approaches Government agencies only as a last resort. Various commissions like the Administrative Reforms Commission and judgments like that of the Supreme Court in the Prakash Singh case have stressed the need for police and civil services reforms and have suggested ways and means for the same.
Regrettably, because the political executive wants a pliable and subservient police force and bureaucracy, no significant recommendations of any august body have been implemented. The current situation can be remedied to a large extent by enforcing accountability, simplifying the process of punishment of erring bureaucrats and imparting transparency in transfers and postings.
The current inefficacy of the bureaucracy has been beautifully summed up by the British author Peter F. Hamilton: “How many twenty-second century bureaucrats did it take to change a light panel? We’ll have a sub-committee meeting and get back to you with an estimate.” (Sci-fi novel Great North Road, 2012).
(The writer is a retired Principal Chief Commissioner of Income-Tax)