How slowly—and far—a pro­ject file moves through the labyrinth of the In­dian ad­min­is­tra­tion

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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

Based on real case study Graph­ics by TANMOY CHAKRABORTY

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