Stains on the steel frame
JB D'Souza, a retired civil servant from Independent India's first batch of IAS officers, wrote, in a letter to me last year, "At my age (84), I alternate between anger and sadness over the miseries our colleagues are inflicting on the poor, over the wretched condition 58 years of 'freedom' have brought them to... We are no longer a service; we have become a set of parasites, palanquin commanders, as you put it, or just expensive prostitutes."
He added, further, "As a member of the very first IAS batch, I ask myself whether the training we got was deficient. There was a smatter of law, a superficial look at India's history, and a bit of economics. Nothing on ethics, the sanctity of the law of the land, the irrelevance of political intervention when it is illegal, or the management of politicians. Some of us in that first batch were, within five years of entry, already suspected of corruption."
It is startling that the taint of corruption was already spreading so soon after Independence, but the crisis of administration has abruptly deepened in the 21st century. Tremendous opportunities have opened out for national development, and India appears now to be surging with a new confidence. But all this is in jeopardy if we are unable to rid ourselves of the endemic administrative inefficiency that afflicts every sector of governance. There have, of course, been some peripheral improvements in narrow sectors of the economy, but these are far from sufficient.
The Prime Minister recently promised more reforms that would make 'doing business' with India "less intimidating, less cumbersome and less bureaucratic to attract more investment". This is, of course, crucial. Among all the economies that are currently vying for FDI in the region, bureaucratic stumbling blocks are probably the most numerous in India, and the processing time for project approval the longest.
But, crucial though these things are, 'India' is much more than the narrow enterprise economy and the prospects of attracting increased FDI flows, on which so much attention is currently focused. The tremendous waste of national resources in the 'developmental sector', the colossal 'leakages' that characterise most government programmes, the collapse of order and administration in the States and its corollary, the failure of the delivery systems for basic public goods -physical and human security, health, education - to a vast segment of the population, all these ills can be traced back, not to any manifest dearth of resources, but to administrative failures.
Not even a fraction of India's ambitions to secure 'global power' status can be fulfilled unless the benefits of contemporary technologies and increased investment can be harnessed to improve the quality of life for its masses; and the private sector, though it can play a significant and positive role in this direction, cannot match or supplant the outreach of the Government in this field.
But the system of governance is putrefying, not just in Bihar, but across the country. In Punjab - one of India's more dynamic states - there were as many as eight supercessions in the current appointment for the post of Chief Secretary; an entire batch of IAS officers had to be 'overlooked' for reasons that are no secret to those who know the State. Whatever these reasons, the supercessions themselves reflect on the condition of the premier administrative service in the country, and there is urgent need to review a system that allowed such officers to reach positions of seniority.
While the Punjab Government can take credit for pre-empting the appointment of these officers to the highest administrative post in the State, it must be clear that what is needed is a system that weeds out such officers at a much earlier stage in their career. Even after they have been superceded, moreover, such officers currently remain in service - they are promoted and given sinecures in unimportant jobs, but continue to receive pay and perquisites that go with the rank of Chief Secretary. Another case in point at the same level was the recent controversy over the posting of a Chief Secretary in UP, despite a multiplicity of pending charges for corruption.
Such corruption, which we rue every day is, of course, a great part of the problem - but it is far from the greatest. An inefficient or incompetent officer often does far greater harm than one who is corrupt. Of course, a combination of incompetence and corruption is altogether lethal. Yet, once officers enter a 'gazetted service', there is little impediment to their smooth progression on time-bound scales to positions of seniority, and virtually no possibilities of the service ridding itself of them, except in the case of the most extraordinary malfeasance.
Even in cases where officers are caught red-handed, disciplinary and judicial processes linger on for decades, by which time they have served their full tenures - interrupted, perhaps, by a few months of suspension - and retired with full benefits, as well as substantial caches of ill-gotten wealth.
Absent an efficient judicial system to try and dispose off cases of corruption and administrative defalcation in the shortest possible time, and a very significant enhancement of penalties, little is going to change. Recent announcements of new systems of performance appraisals by 'eminent persons', and recommendations for constitutional amendments that would allow for the termination of services of 'corrupt' and 'inefficient' officers cannot even begin to address the issue and will only lend themselves to abuse within the current context of enveloping dishonesty and partisanship.
There have also been some suggestions that the pool of administrative talent can be replenished from the 'outside' through augmentation from the private sector and other technical streams, but this is, again, incorrect. With rare exception, efficient managers and technocrats will not join Government because of the pay scales - and these cannot be raised to match the private sector; nor can discriminatory scales for people from the services stream and from the private sector be maintained.
The only 'outsiders' who would be brought into Government under such schemes would overwhelmingly come through the crony system. 'Outside' recruitment was attempted once in the 1960s, but was an abject failure and the truth is, the only choice available is to improve the quality and skills of administrators within Government.
There are, of course, specific possibilities of transformation. One is technology - a large number of activities can be (and some have been) brought under computerisation and other forms of mechanical, consequently non-discretionary, processing, eliminating touts, middlemen and the possibility of corruption. Greater faith can also be placed on self-certification and voluntary disclosures, as has, in some measure, been done in the sphere of taxation, though this would, naturally, have to be backed by systems of random checking and enhanced penalties for falsification of statements and records.
Further, there is enormous scope for a simple elimination of a large number of processes - and even Government departments - whose existence is an anachronism in the present age, or where there is significant duplication.
The radical reinvention of governance and the restoration of the complex mix of institutional processes and services the state is meant to provide will have to precede the possible reconstruction of the economy and the revitalisation of the developmental impetus.
the integrity and efficiency of governance is, indeed, the sine qua non of all
progress, absent which all plans, programmes, ventures and calculations will remain
wishful thinking. Indeed, the success and utility of expanding private enterprises
also depends significantly on efficient governance, which is necessary to facilitate
such expansion, as also to prevent a number of abuses of the market system. India's
economic future remains contingent upon a renaissance in administration that is,
at present, nowhere to be seen.
(Published in The Pioneer, February 4, 2006)