Absentee administration breeds crop of middlemen in Bihar

In Nalanda district, how gains of governance are squandered by a non-performing and callous lower bureaucracy


Pankaj Kumar | October 18, 2012

Most block offices, like this one in Noorserai, remain nearly empty till almost noon before the officials trickle in
Most block offices, like this one in Noorserai, remain nearly empty till almost noon before the officials trickle in

A dilapidated structure that houses office of the block development officer (BDO) of Noorserai block of Nalanda district is symptomatic of the ills that afflict governance in Bihar. Till 11 am on September 11, offices are either closed or partially opened with employees still not ready to come to terms with the daybreak after a night-long sleep.

Over decades, government offices in Bihar have come to be identified with a reigning slogan in Hindi, “Barah baje tak late nahin, teen ke baad bhet nahin” (Till 12 noon, nobody is late and after 3 pm, nobody is there). Though the office hours start at 9 am, government officials and employees are in no hurry. However, as soon as the BDO comes to know about the presence of Governance Now team on the office premises, there is a flurry of activities. Within five minutes, offices are all open and employees have taken their seats in the right earnest. The BDO comes in rushing, trying to explain how sincerely he has been in implementing welfare schemes of the centre and state. Surprisingly, the BDO is not wrong. By all accounts, he has been working in a district, which is run by a district Magistrate (DM) known for his efficacy and dedication. Then Nalanda is also the home district of chief minister Nitish Kumar.

Soon a serpentine queue is formed at the office which provides various certificates – caste, income, residential, birth and death. People seem frustrated with the delay and corrupt practices of the lower bureaucracy. There seems a distinct bond between politicians at the panchayat level and the lower bureaucracy to intimidate and fleece the hapless villagers through a system complicated by rigmarole and officialese. The work culture in Noorserai is only symbolic of the sloth and corruption that Bihar's bureaucracy has come to represent. 

That this forms a pattern is evident at Baghar where a village development camp (gram vikas shivir) was organised only a week ago. Baghar comes under Charuipar panchayat, which is one of the seventeen panchayats of Noorserai block. A huge turnout was seen at the gram vikas shivir. It is similar to janata durbar where responsible officers of the block, including the SHO, were expected to be present. But none of them were. However, there was a palpable change in the air as the experiment of “administration at the doorstep” continued.

People, particularly from the marginalised section, have increasingly found their voice. “I have got my name in voters’ list but could not get an ID card,” said Karu Singh of Baghar village. Mukesh Paswan of ward number 10 said, “The village does not have roads and a drainage system. Particularly, people from scheduled castes are living in ward number 10 and they have been deprived of basic facilities for a long time.” A sense of anger and frustration is visible in utterances of Ranveer Kumar Gehlot, an undergraduate student. “We are demanding the construction of a water tank as there is only one hand pump in ward number 10,” he said, adding that the entire area is devoid of a drainage system, absence of which creates miserable conditions or them during the monsoon.

Along with the demands for basic amenities which have been denied in the area, complaints about the official apathy galore. Rana Pratap Singh said, “My mother is 65. She was widowed 20 years ago. But she is getting neither the old age pension nor widow pension.” Singh has been running from pillar to post to get his complaints addressed but to no avail. 

Another villager Tapeshwar Singh questioned the rationale behind organising a camp when all officials of the block were absent.

The absenteeism of all relevant officials from the "administration at your doorstep" campaign was also visible in Bhedia village of Chandasi panchayat which Governance Now visited on September 26. What appears striking is the emergence of a tribe of middlemen who have been allowed to act between villagers and lower bureaucracy to extract money. Governance now came across these middlemen who were discharging the responsibilities of absent government employees.

Though the campaign has helped in sensitising the lower bureaucracy to people's problems, the experience in the camps shows that the lower bureaucracy is still not ready to shed its opacity. In many cases, ordinary men and woman were seen fighting it out with the village headman for their genuine rights. Strangely, in most of these instances, the lower bureaucracy in tandem with the village headmen was seen fobbing the villagers off by resorting to complex legalese. Absence of relevant block-level officials in these camps has only added to people's woes. By all accounts, it appears to be a classic case of good intentions not translating into actions by a deliberate design. The area, ironically, is known to a better-administered part of the state.





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