THE JOURNEY OF A FILE...
How slowly—and far—a project file moves through the labyrinth of the Indian administration
More Tail Than Teeth
While some experts consider the bureaucracy “bloated” and therefore advocate trimming flab, others argue that India, unlike the West, has an acute shortage of government employees—be it civil servants in the top echelons of the IAS to the lower levels like the Block Development Officers.
Of the 3.1 million central government employees, only a little over 5,000 are IAS officers. India has 257 central government employees for every 100,000 people, against the US federal government’s 840. As on January 1, 2017, there was a shortage of 1,496 IAS officers against the sanctioned strength of 6,500, Union minister of state for personnel (independent charge) Dr Jitendra Singh recently revealed in a written reply to the Rajya Sabha. This is because despite an incredibly competitive entrance examination—in 2016, 180 candidates were selected from a pool of 465,882 applicants (a success rate of .038 per cent)—the government is finding it hard to wean young talent away from the more attractive private sector opportunities.
Successful candidates are also getting older (32 being the upperage limit for merit-based exams, up from 26 in the 1980s), take an average of four attempts (out of six) to pass the entrance exam. The rising average age implies that many candidates spend most of their 20s and early 30s preparing for and taking civil service exams.
The problem is worse at the lower levels. Only 10 per cent of the public servants in India are in Group A and B, 60 per cent belong to Group C and another 30 per cent to Group D, the two lowestpaid and least skilled categories. Not surprisingly, India has a low bureaucracy to population ratio: 1,622.8 government servants for every 100,000 residents. The US in comparison has 7,681 for every 100,000 residents. As for policemen, India has 123 per 100,000 persons, almost half the UN-recommended level of 220 and far below the levels in the US (352) and Germany (296).
In another research paper, authored by Aditya Dasgupta of the University of California, Merced, and Devesh Kapur of the University of Pennsylvania, a 2017 survey of 426 block development officers (BDOs) in 25 states, covering roughly a rural population of 70 million, showed that, on an average, there are just 24.5 full-time employees. Nearly 48 per cent of sanctioned positions were reported vacant, a result of budget constraints, political conflict around hiring decisions and red
“Once IAS stood for ‘integrity, anonymity and service’; today, it is just ‘I agree, sir’,” rues an ex-bureaucrat
tape in the hiring process.
Shortages and lack of talent apart, Columbia University professor Sudipta Kaviraj points to another anomaly in the Indian context: “There is a vast gap between the language and culture of the two bureaucracies, one westernised, the other vernacular.” The training at the lower levels of bureaucracy, if any, is abysmal.
All this leads to ineffective implementation of national development programmes at the local level. “Local bureaucracies,” says the Dasgupta-Kapur paper, “are chronically under-resourced relative to their responsibilities because politicians make these decisions (inefficiently). BDOs are responsible for the implementation of dozens of different schemes, from national ‘flagship’ programmes such as NREGA and Swachh Bharat to state development programmes. Consequently, they are either multi-tasking excessively or firefighting all the time, leaving no time either for specialisation or rational thinking.”
Little wonder then that according to a World Bank measure of government effectiveness that captures the quality of a country’s civil service, its independence from political pressure and the quality of policy formulation and implementation, India was in the 45th percentile globally in 2014, nearly a 10 percentage point decline from 1996, when the data first began to be collected.
A closer look at the indicators provides clues to where some of the problems might lie. Except corruption, where India’s rank has improved from 124 in 2006 to 111 in 2016, its position on other indices has remained unchanged or worsened in this period. It slipped one rank on government effectiveness (90 from 89) and political stability (181 from 180), eight on rule of law (100 from 92) and three on regulatory quality, and remained where it was on accountability of public institutions.
Spearing the Corruption Monster
Following the Commonwealth Games and coal licensing scams, the onslaught of a combined Opposition and the Anna Hazare-led anti-corruption movement, it was decided to amend the Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988, and make the provisions more stringent. The 1988 Act defined bribe-taking by a public servant as accepting any reward other than salary for performing one’s official act. The UPA government sought to amend this in 2013 to cover actions by a public servant who accepts any undue advantage other than legal remuneration, amasses disproportionate assets and misappropriates property. The bribe giver too is charged with abetment. When the bill failed to pass in Parliament, the Modi government in 2015 expanded it to include abuse of position, use of illegal means and disregard of public interest. It also mandated prior sanction from the Lokpal or Lokayukta before investigating a public servant.
However, the proposed amendments led to resistance from the bureaucrats. “Fear of prosecution by the audit, vigilance and CBI simply for taking key decisions and performing one’s job emerged as the main bugbear,” says one secretary. Prompted by the conviction and sentencing of former coal secretary Harish Chandra Gupta and two serving IAS officials by a court, the powerful IAS lobby demanded major changes in the PCA.
It has taken four years for the civil servants’ fears to be addressed. On July 26, the President accorded his assent to the Prevention of Corruption (Amendment) Act, 2018. A new Section, 17 A, has been inserted, which bars enquiry or investigation by an anti-corruption agency (including the CBI and the Chief Vigilance Commissioner) against a public servant, regardless of rank, in matters related to discharge of official duty, without prior approval of the central or state governments. Additionally, Section 13 (1) (d) (iii), which defines ‘criminal misconduct’ as the acquisition of a ‘valuable thing’ or ‘pecuniary advantage’ in a dishonest manner, has been deleted completely.
This has led to a ding-dong battle between the IAS and IPS lobbies. The deleted clause, writes former CBI director R.K. Raghavan, was “the sole effective weapon against a misbehaving senior official. This deletion (without substitution with another clause) is disappointing because corruption in high places is sophisticated and takes place in a highly clandestine manner.”
Former CBI special director M.L. Sharma agrees. In a recent newspaper editorial, he wrote, “Prevention of Corruption (Amendment) Act, 2018, might help some honest public servants, but more than a few offenders will slip through the cracks. Divesting anti-corruption agencies such as the CBI and state anti-corruption bureaus of initiative in combating corruption will render them toothless.” One additional secretary-rank officer sees it as a “successful conspiracy hatched by the IAS cartel to rebuff the IPS, reminding them of their subordinate status”.
With corruption corroding the steel frame of the bureaucracy, what can be done to stem the rot?
How to Fix the Bureaucratic Malaise
In 1901, historian David Gilmour in his book, The Ruling Caste: Imperial Lives in the Victorian Raj, pointed out, that colonial India was administered by a mere 1,000 civil servants when the population was 300 million. Today, 117 years later, there are only 5,000 IAS officers for 1.3 billion Indians. While India has evolved from a rentseeking model of British imperial territory to an independent democratic nation, the ratio of a DM to the population has remained the same. Brown sahibs have only replaced the white colonials and the institution of civil service remains as aloof, elitist, egotistical, narrow and alien as it was when it was conceived by the British. From recruitment to retirement, the IAS officers are as shielded from the local population as they were from the “natives” in the colonial era.
So much so that Jawaharlal Nehru was at one point forced to say that the Indian Civil Service is “neither Indian, nor civil, nor a service”. When asked in 1964 what he considered his greatest failure as India’s prime minister, he replied, “I could not change the administration, it is still a colonial administration.” It’s a different matter that his daughter Indira ushered in the “neta-babu raj”, as Mark Tully put it. And despite the reforms of 1991, successive prime ministers have largely failed to reform the obdurate bureaucracy. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has also made some moves in that direction but they are far from enough.
The need of the hour is fundamental reform, whether it is depoliticising the bureaucracy, cutting flab wherever it exists, strengthening state capacities, or streamlining delivery mechanisms that have become sclerotic and arduously slow. A number of reform commissions and committees—including the most recent one, the Moily-led second ARC—have recommended what needs to be done to refurbish the country’s falling administrative standards. These need to be implemented. Some of the key reforms the central and state governments need to introduce are:
# Protect the bureaucracy from political interference.
This will help restore their neutrality and autonomy. Civil servants need to be protected against political retribution. In the absence of a strong convention, judicial intervention—such as by the Supreme Court in TSR Subramaniam versus Union government—to protect civil servants from frequent transfers and making it mandatory for politicians to give written instead of oral orders can act as precedent.
The Modi government has made a few changes in this regard. According to the 2016 rules framed by the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT), the nodal authority that deals with matters related to the IAS, the PM and CMs have been made the final authorities to decide on the transfer and posting of civil servants before the completion of their minimum prescribed tenure. All states are required to have a civil services board or committee on minimum tenure to decide on transfers and postings; they are mandated to record the reasons for transferring a civil servant before the completion of his fixed two-year tenure in a posting. The civil services board may obtain the information from the administrative department of the state concerned while considering such a transfer.
Though the SC judgment and DoPT rules are binding, violations are frequent, according to civil servants, and most states have stalled such moves. “Bureaucrats, in the ultimate analysis, are as good as the chief executive of the state or the country; a better CM or PM will inspire a better team of civil servants, a weak leader weakens his own bureaucrats,” says a chief secretary-level officer.
# Ensure bureaucrats serve the public, not politicians.
In continuation of the colonial legacy, babus regard themselves as “brown sahibs”, an exclusive club, the chosen few. The social distance and the prevailing hierarchy between the civil servant and the public must be reduced. “During the colonial era, the bureaucracy was mainly a rent-seeking institution, today the main purpose of civil service is development, fighting poverty and transformation of the country,” says rural development secretary Amarjeet Sinha.
# Reduce upper age limit from 32 to 26
to bring back idealism and youthful vigour among entrants to the prestigious service. A similar merit-based recruitment system and rigorous training must be introduced at the lower levels of bureaucracy. Some bureaucrats suggest a replication of the UPSC and state-level public service exams and training for all lower levels of bureaucracy.
# Allot cadre after Common Foundation Course.
The Moily-led ARC report suggested cadre allotment after the foundation course (FC). Towards
this end, the Modi government is considering that officers selected into the various civil services be allocated different states on the basis of their ranking after completing the FC at the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration (LBSNAA) at Mussoorie and not on the basis of their ranking in the UPSC exam. This is being done to ensure that new recruits take their training at LBSNAA seriously. However, the Moily report had suggested that the responsibility of such evaluation should lie with the UPSC, which should give 10-20 per cent weightage to performance in the FC.
The Moily report had suggested three other reforms. The first was setting up an Indian Institute of Governance (IIG), admission to which could be through an entrance exam after Class XII. Individuals recruited through IIG would go through three or five years of training for general or specialised services parallel to the UPSC exam. The second reform recommended was offering a golden handshake after 15 years of service and compulsory retirement every five years thereon, based on the evaluation of an independent body. The third was to allow movement to non-governmental employment after 12 years of service with a maximum of three years’ lien.
# Make the appraisal system more professional.
As a first step, the Modi government has recently launched a 360-degree empanelment process inspired by corporate practices. Under this, an anonymous committee of retired bureaucrats assesses an officer’s efficiency and efficacy on the basis of feedback from seniors and subordinates, colleagues and external stakeholders. The bureaucrats are also assessed on moral grounds through a comprehensive background check of their integrity and reputation.
To put the entire appraisal system online and accessible for review by the concerned ministries, the government has started a Smart Performance Appraisal Report Recording Online Window or Sparrow. The DoPT has recently extended Sparrow from the IAS to other cadres. Another DoPT portal, System for Online Vigilance Enquiry or Solve, helps assess board-level appointees.
The PMO has earned praise from several quarters for recognising merit over seniority for top positions. But critics like former home secretary Wajahat Habibullah say: “Nearly 35 per cent IAS officers due for empanelment as secretaries have been passed over, with little transparency in the process.” The system is criticised for undermining the traditional ACRs written by seniors for shortlisting and empanelment. Former cabinet secretary K.M. Chandrasekhar says: “There is a discernible lack of transparency in the 360-degree appraisal since the officer concerned does not know who is conducting the appraisal. The opaqueness of the system is not in conformity with modern management practices.”
# Permit lateral entry.
The Modi government’s pilot project to induct direct recruits from the private sector must be extended. Agriculture secretary Ashok Dalwai feels that reform must disrupt and change the hierarchical culture of the bureaucracy. “Colleagues from outside the bureaucracy who we work with are highly qualified and competent. In the past, IAS officers acted as if they were superior to outsiders. Today, we must compete and collaborate with outside colleagues. Such an attitudinal change can transform the bureaucracy and India.”
# Trim the flab.
This can be done by identifying areas of excess bureaucracy and working towards reducing them. To tackle shortages at the level of lower bureaucracy, work can be outsourced to universities and research institutions.
# Digitise, digitise, digitise.
Digitise all that can be digitised—land records, plan submissions, licence approvals and issuance—ensuring transparency and efficiency. The outdated filing system has to end.
What the bureaucracy needs is fundamental reform, whether it is depoliticising it, reducing flab, strengthening state capacities or streamlining delivery