Remoulding the Steel Frame

Modi’s promise of maximum governance crucially depends on the herculean task of making bureaucracy efficient and accountable


Shishir Tripathi | June 26, 2015 | New Delhi

#steel frame   #narendra modi   #prime minister narendra modi   #maximum governance minimum governnment   #modi cabinet   #ias officers  

Some five years ago NR Narayana Murthy, one of the founders of Infosys Technologies, called for abolishing the Indian administrative services (IAS) and replacing it with an ‘Indian management service’ where specialists and experts would play a vital role. Of course, Narayana Murthy was part of the progress made in the private sector and was cynically disheartened at dismal state of affairs in the administration of public policies.

READ: Contours of a new architecture of governance

This was not the first time that India’s ‘steel frame’ was under fire. It has faced charges of incompetency and despotism, corruption and parochialism, in the last few decades. However, no matter how intense the fire, the frame has refused to melt down under its heat, keeping its position intact. Various committees have been formed, numerous recommendations have been made, and yet little has changed in the overall edifice of the civil services of which IAS is the most important part.

What necessitates the reform is the blatant abuse of powers by the officers for self-gratification and inefficiency in improving the delivery system, the primary aim of the service.

The rot within

In the early 1990s, a group of IAS officers in Uttar Pradesh formed an ‘action group’ and held a secret ballot to pick the ‘most corrupt’ IAS officers. Two of the four who emerged as the most corrupt were Neera Yadav and Akhand Pratap Singh. Ironically, both went on to become chief secretaries of the state. However, later both were booked for corruption. Singh was charged by the CBI in 2007 with fraud, forgery and acquisition of wealth disproportionate to his disclosed sources of income. Earlier in 2003, he was indicted by the supreme court and had to resign from his post. Yadav was found guilty by a CBI court in a land allotment scam of Noida that took place during 1993-95. She was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment in 2008.

The perennial generalist vs specialist debate, writes former cabinet secretary TSR Subramanian

The recall of these episodes are important for two reasons. Firstly, it reflects the rot in the system and secondly it mocks the system’s inability to fully nail the corrupt. And this was to a great extent because of the protection provided to the civil servants.

TSR Subramanian, a former cabinet secretary who has been at the forefront of civil service reform campaigns, says, “In 1993 we identified them as corrupt. But they went on to become chief secretaries, one of them Neera Yadav was convicted 20 years later. In 1993 we understood that she was corrupt. But nothing happened to her for more than a decade. It is like they were encouraged to share the loot.”

The commission to review the working of the constitution, headed by justice MN Venkatachaliah, has observed that “the constitutional safeguards have in practice acted to shield the guilty against swift and certain punishment for abuse of public office for private gain” and to overcome this lacuna it suggested revisiting the constitutional provisions and adjoining safeguards under Article 311 which deals with “dismissal, removal or reduction in rank of persons employed in civil capacities under the Union or a State”.

BP Mathur, former deputy comptroller and auditor general who was also a member of civil services examination reforms committee headed by YK Alagh, says, “Currently there is too much security available to a public servant, developing a tendency of sloth and indifference towards work. Dead woods should be weeded out and only the meritorious be promoted to responsible positions.” The second administrative reforms commission, formed in 2005 and headed by M Veerappa Moily, echoes similar views.

No wonder, the Indian bureaucracy was adjudged the worst in Asia with a rating of 9.21 out of 10 by Hong Kong-based Political & Economic Risk Consultancy Ltd in 2012. The report said India’s inefficient bureaucracy was largely responsible for most serious complaints that business executive had about the country which among others included inadequate infrastructure and corruption, where officials were willing to accept under-the- table payments.

Much damage has been done to the image of the civil services in the last few decades with such reports and cases of inefficiency and corruption coming to light. However, some course correction is under way since Narendra Modi took over as prime minister.

Kick-starting the change

Around 9 on a chilly January morning, three employees of the post department are sitting at the reception of the Dak Bhawan at the Sansad Marg. While flipping through the newspaper one of them gladly informs the other two about the decision to provide leave travel concession (LTC) to government employees for visiting Nepal, Bhutan, Maldives and Sri Lanka.

While their excitement is understandable, what seems rather unusual is the fact that they are already in office, well ahead of time. When I inquire about a senior officer I want to meet, one of them replies, “Sir is already in the office. You can find him here by 9 am any day.” This explains their on-time presence in the office. 

The Dak Bhawan is not a multinational firm or a tech start-up where being on time is a norm. It is one of the several government offices not well known for adhering to the time table. However, since Modi took over the reins of power, the capital’s babudom has been ripe with such anecdotes. Bureaucrats reaching their offices in North and South Blocks before time and working till late, their leisure abodes like the Gymkhana Club and the India Habitat Centre wearing rather a deserted look, have been all part of the talk of the town.

The time factor in itself may not be a big deal and cynics can reject it as mere symbolism, the fact remains that there is a possibility of a trickle-down if there is a change at the top. Still, the question remains why a tough task master is required at the top to ensure an efficient bureaucracy. The answer perhaps lies in the fact that India’s bureaucracy is still trapped in the Weberian model where promotions based on seniority and appraisals unrelated to performance are the norm. The need is to move towards the new public management (NPM) where performance contracting is a major component. 

While some believe that bureaucrats should be subject to performance-based appraisal, others reject it as impractical. “Clearly there is a difference between how the private sector and public sector work. If you have to judge a home secretary, can you judge him on the basis of how swiftly he can solve the Naxal problem? Give him two years and tell him to solve left-wing extremism or the border issue... Is it possible to judge him in this manner? Here, however, he is a prisoner of circumstances. In the private sector the targets are very well defined, like the sort of product you want, which is not the case in public service,” says Subramanian.

He adds, “A pig skin is thrown and a riot takes place, and this can happen in the presence of the best district magistrate. In most states today, postings and transfers of thanedars are done through a computer in the chief minister’s office. In this scenario how do you judge the work of the superintendent of police (SP)? What I want to point out is that these are theoretical management concepts and they by definition will not do any good.”

Mathur, on the other hand, favours a NPM philosophy, provided “we have the necessary political and administrative will”.

Civil services in present times

Narayana Murthy’s advice of abolishing IAS can be taken as a lazy prescription with serious side effects. Moreover, it is a perfect example of throwing the baby with the bathwater as hardly anyone considers the whole of the civil services redundant. Mathur, who is not only aware but also has been critical of the several problems in the bureaucracy, still feels that “Civil services are very important to implement government policies.”

Financial inclusion in the country got a major boost with the launch of the Jan-Dhan Yojana in August last. This was perhaps for the first time when bankers were told to cover all unbanked households in a set time making them work in ‘mission mode’.

Initially the target was of opening 7.5 crore accounts by January 26. However, that target was achieved by November 27. Finance minister Arun Jaitley set a new target of reaching the 10 crore mark, and that too was achieved before time.

The Jan-Dhan experience shows that if a target-specific job, result-oriented approach and performance-based appraisal are ensured, the civil services are the best instrument to reach out to the people.

Politic-bureaucracy interface

In 2011, TSR Subramanian along with 82 other retired bureaucrats filed a public interest litigation (PIL) in the supreme court, seeking urgent reforms in civil services. In 2013, the apex court issued directives which included restrictions on oral instructions from political masters and superiors and a fixed tenure in posting. Both were ignored by the government. Subramanian says, “The first direction was that there should be a civil service board (CSB) [to decide on transfers and postings]. It was supposed to be independent. It was to have outside expertise from the department of personnel, ministry of finance, etc. Civil service boards have been constituted in many states but sadly they consist of the chief secretary, the personnel secretary and the secretary to chief minister. It is basically an echo of CM’s voice and is a breach of trust and of the apex court order. Many states have come to the stage where they are not even gazette-notifying the postings and transfers.”

He adds, “The principle of two years [as minimum period of posting] is very simple. By the time the officer has visited all tehsils you transfer him in four months. In the first place let us ask why he is transferred. Probably he is inconvenient to somebody. But the question is, who is the loser? It is clearly the people. If an officer is bad, give him bad entry and remove him. What is the rationale behind transferring a bad officer to some other place? Take the example of Ashok Khemka. He was transferred 45 times in 23 years. Look at his service record. It is really good. But today I am afraid to say that political interest will weed out all good officials and it will be only crooks that will stay.”

The supreme court direction, asking bureaucrats to write down oral instructions from politicians so that a record could be kept of all decisions, was also of utmost importance if one refers to the recent controversy unleashed by former telecom regulatory authority of India (TRAI) chief Pradip Baijal, who alleged of being pressurised by then prime minister Manmohan Singh for cooperating in the 2G scam.

However, Subramanian feels that in such cases, the officer should stand the ground. “I am very clear about this. The whole purpose of creating TRAI was to ensure that there is no pressure. Telecommunication was a fast-growing sector at that time. The need was to put an institution in place which is not shock-absorbent but shock-proof. With all due respect, Baijal cannot say that PM pressurised him. The whole point is that he is insulated. If the comptroller and auditor general (CAG) says somebody put pressure on him, he should know he is insulated. They all are constitutional agencies. He can register his dissent. He is as much a constitutional functionary as PM.”

He adds, “I think very poorly of an officer who is given a constitutional or statutory post and tells that he is pressurised. I can go to an extent to understand that he is in a hierarchy. However, he already has protection as member of the All India Service.”

To ensure a clean administration what is required is will. Setting up more committees will yield nothing unless the recommendations made so far are implemented.

The second administrative reforms commission (ARC) has remarked that the present process of empanelment of officers for the post of joint secretary and above is not fair, objective and transparent. But nothing has been done to make any change. Subramanian says, “It is true to some extent but I cannot say as to how it can be improved because there is no uniformity in the assessment of merit in different states. When I was personnel secretary in Uttar Pradesh, I was in charge of this cell which had confidential reports (CR) of all senior officers. There were CRs of people who joined Indian civil service (ICS) in the 30s and 40s, the same people who were then in their 60s.

The CRs did not mention whether they were good or outstanding. They summarised their strengths and weaknesses. Looking at the officers, I found the assessment accurate. Nowadays nobody has time for this kind of assessment. However I say that till you invent a better system do not throw the baby with the bathwater.” 

While committees will still be formed it will be of use only if their recommendations are taken seriously and implemented. “Around 350 reports starting from Appleby are there. Please do not reinvent the same damn thing. Everybody is just rehashing the whole thing. If you line them up here, they will fill this whole room. The point is that you do not have the power to implement them,” says Subramanian.

(The story appears in the June 16-30, 2015 issue)



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