The present governance failure can be overcome by rationalising the bureaucratic structure and inculcating a proper work ethic in government employees – a process which can take many years. In the short run, enforcing accountability is the only option
Shouting vengeance at all and sundry while wriggling out of holes of our own making seems to be our very special national characteristic. Some recent instances are illustrative of this attribute. A number of business tycoons with thousands of crores of unresolved debts have fled abroad with the government desperately trying to bring them back by expensive and protracted litigation in foreign courts. Why were these defaulters not apprehended while they were still in India is a question no one in authority is willing to answer. The aftermath of the Pulwama tragedy and the umpteen Naxalite ambushes had the government waxing eloquent about the retribution that followed these incidents but no mention is ever made about the intelligence failures that caused the loss of the lives so many brave men.
Given the generally inadequate official responses to the myriad catastrophes that befall us with amazing regularity, the public too has toned down its expectations from the government. The latest foot-overbridge collapse in Mumbai at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminal (CSMT), engaged much less public interest than the preceding bridge collapses at Andheri and Elphinstone Road (subsequently renamed as Prabhadevi). Probably, by now, the public is inured to bridge collapses, as it is to accidents at unmanned level crossings or accidents involving horribly overloaded school buses driven by unlicensed drivers.
Meaningful investigation of such mishaps by government experts is almost never done. In the rare cases where a proper inquiry is made, reports are almost never made public, like the Henderson Brooks-Bhagat report on the 1962 war which has not been put in the public domain till now. The only analysis of such events which the public gets is through discussions on TV, in which panellists engage in shouting wars with scant regard to the sensibilities of the bereaved. TV discussions on security issues invariably have military types with bristling moustaches who go hammer and tongs after Pakistan and refer to some mythical War Plan drafted years ago to justify their views. Most such programmes leave us with the distinct feeling that we are a people who always get wise after the event – till we get overtaken by the next one. The print media carry news about the worst happening only for a few days before moving on to more current topics.
At any government office, at any given time, you would find a significant number of employees absent. Request for any kind of action would be stonewalled citing some procedural requirements. Given this kind of response, in an ordinary situation, the reaction of government employees to an emergent situation can well be imagined. There was no ambulance to carry Indira Gandhi when she was shot, the staff having gone for chai-pani. Senior police officers present at Sriperumbudur for Rajiv Gandhi’s security simply fled after his assassination.
Good governance in India is a scarce commodity. A number of malaise ail the government machinery; chiefly lack of devotion to duty by public servants, non-adherence to or absence of standard operating procedures and a humongous lack of foresight coupled with an unmatched capacity for blame shifting.
Lack of output by regular employees forces most government departments to hire contract workers even for their core work. A simple example would suffice. All government offices hire casual labour for cleaning and office maintenance though they have a number of regular staff members for this purpose; no one seems to notice the waste of public money. Hiring of casual teachers and casual policemen is a common all-India phenomenon. Obviously, the legitimate expectations of service delivery from the government cannot be met by such ill-paid and ill-qualified workers.
Governance is bound to suffer till the time senior officers can make their juniors work because government schemes are premised on the assumption that government employees would do their part diligently and honestly. Most government schemes fail because government employees believe that their role is restricted to writing notes on files and making some moolah on the side. The government has tried to leverage technology, mostly computerisation, to make up for the lack of performance of its employees.
The government has not succeeded because employees who do not do Job A, would not do Job B also. Additionally, the untried and untested Version 1 computer programmes as also the casual employees operating these programmes are not up to the mark. The death of subsidised ration beneficiaries who could not purchase food grains because of Aadhaar mismatch highlights the ill effects of badly implemented technological solutions. In many cases, technology has compounded operational problems because most government departments have failed to formulate SOPs for the new technology enabled environment.
Security of tenure of government employees has nurtured a casual approach towards work and a superior attitude towards the public, which often leads to disastrous consequences. During enquiry into the Elphinstone Road foot-overbridge collapse, it emerged that on public demand, the railway minister had sanctioned a new foot-overbridge for Elphinstone Road railway station much before the stampede that killed 22 commuters but railway officials had not implemented the minister’s directions. The Bombay high court had ordered structural audit of all foot-overbridges after the Elphinstone Road tragedy but such was the quality of audit that the foot-overbridge at CSMT collapsed shortly after being certified fit and fine by the audit.
A cavalier attitude is common to employees across all departments of the government and PSUs. Bank frauds are becoming increasingly frequent only because most bank employees neglect basic precautions and almost never display devotion to duty. The resultant Nirav Modi type scams of varying amounts have brought our banking system to its knees. Public sector banks combine the worst of both worlds; poor service and a propensity for scams make them attractive only for similarly inclined clients.
National security should be our highest priority but the goings on in la affaire CBI had highlighted a number of violations of established procedures as also oblique references to top officers in security agencies, which have not been clarified till now. A certain degree of opacity in security matters is understandable but not providing answers to genuine questions by taking shelter behind the catch-all phrase, “national security”, raises rather than quells doubts in our minds. The Pulwama ambush, where terrorists could smuggle and store hundreds of kilos of RDX and infiltrate a CRPF convoy at a place of their choosing has intelligence failure written all over it. Sadly, this facet of the tragedy would probably never be clarified.
Over time, the bureaucracy has become a hydra-headed monster. Despite the best efforts of successive governments to rein it in, bureaucracy has shown no signs of retreat. Top ranks of the bureaucracy have expanded beyond belief. States which had only one inspector-general level officer have now ten director-generals; a number of chief secretary equivalent posts exist in every state. Other services also have not done badly. Instead of commissioners, the revenue departments have chief commissioners, principal chief commissioners and principal commissioners. These high-sounding posts were created by abolishing a large number of lower level posts. No wonder the bureaucracy now resembles an army of generals with few soldiers. The armed forces also want to follow the suit but that is another story.
At present, anyone questioning government functioning is bombarded with rules, sub-rules, instructions and circulars which are pressed in service to prove that no one is responsible when things go wrong. At the most a junior functionary is made the scapegoat. Some years ago, when biometric authentication of municipal staff was done in Delhi, almost 23,000 employees were found to be non-existent. It would appear that the output of municipal employees was so abysmal that the absence of such a large number of employees was never felt. The scam had gone on for years and crores had been siphoned off but punitive action in this case was only taken only against an assistant sanitary inspector, who was in charge of marking attendance. A few others had to face departmental inquiries but all miscreants were shielded from criminal liability.
Reverse is the case when things go smoothly. The entire official machinery – right up to the top– throng to hog credit. The saying that success has many fathers while failure is an orphan was probably coined with the Indian bureaucracy in mind.
Making the bureaucracy perform is the greatest challenge for any government. Aspirations of the common man and the agenda of the government can never be fulfilled till all levels of the bureaucracy deliver what is expected of them. The present governance failure can be overcome by rationalising the bureaucratic structure and inculcating a proper work ethic in government employees – a process which can take many years.
In the short run, enforcing accountability is the only option. The self-perpetuating instincts of the bureaucracy, which come in the way of action against the non-performers and the outright corrupt, have to be curbed. Departmental procedures have to be suitably revised so that punishment can be meted out to the delinquent in a finite time frame. The much-reviled Emergency proved that the government employees would perform if the fear of God was put in them.
Justin Brooks Atkinson described the perfect bureaucrat as one “who manages to make no decisions and escape all responsibility.” Having borne the torment of ‘perfect bureaucrats’ for a long time, it is high time that we designed some imperfect ones.
Saksena, an IRS officer of 1979 batch, retired as principal chief commissioner of income-tax, Mumbai.