Friday, June 19, 2009

Indian bureaucracy -"slow", "suffocating" and spineless

Reams have been written in recent years about the Indian bureaucracy. Established by the British in order to consolidate their hold on the vast territories that they acquired in the country, its main component the Indian Civil Service (ICS) was once described as the “steel frame” of the Indian government. Post-independence, however, the Indian bureaucracy progressively got politicised and became increasingly sleazy and venal. The Indian Administrative Service (IAS) – the successor of the famed ICS – dominates the entire spectrum of Indian Administration, both at the Centre and in the states. Occupying virtually all positions of consequence, its members, lavishing on themselves generous perks, slowly and inefficaciously grind out, if at all, measly lumps of favours for the common folk.

A recent survey by the Hong Kong-based Political & Economic Risk Consultancy found the Indian bureaucrats “a power centre in their own right at both the national and state levels, and are extremely resistant to reform that affects them or the way they go about their duties". According to its report, while the Singapore civil servants were the most efficient among their Asian peers, their Indian counterparts were found to be “suffocating”, working with whom was a “slow and painful” process.

But that is not all that can be said about the Indian bureaucracy. There is another quality of it that seems to have been missed by the Consultancy, and that is it has progressively become spineless. The much-vaunted “steel frame” has become a frame seemingly made of fragile twigs that the sparrows use to build their nests. Attempting to feather their own nests they have sold their soul to their political masters. Those, whose raison d’ĂȘtre was aiding and advising their political superior, have actually ended up doing, for better or for worse, the latter’s bidding, thus becoming the latter’s foot soldiers.

The history of sixty years of the IAS is littered with instances that illustrate this attribute. But a recent instance from the central Indian province of Madhya Pradesh (MP) lends a contemporaneous touch to it. Sanjana Jain, a spunky woman in the revenue and administrative services of MP, recently stood up to a bully of a politician, a minister to boot and was promptly let down by the senior bureaucracy of the state.

Until recently, a sub divisional magistrate in Dewas, a district headquarter in the state, Sanjana while functioning as the Returning Officer of Sonkutch constituency for the MP Legislative Assembly elections in November 2008 happened to have a confrontation with one Tukoji Rao Puar, a minister in the state government. He tried to browbeat her to cancel the candidature of the adversarial Congress nominee for this constituency. The minister, barging into her office, entered into an unseemly argument with Sanjana and, losing his equanimity, threw a bunch of papers at her. This was caught on camera and was telecast virtually by all the news channels. At the instance of the Election Commission a report was duly filed with the police and the minister was arrested, though, was bailed out later.

Post-elections, the officer was reverted to her administrative post and, under orders of her superiors, happened to be checking out a food-joint in Dewas – a city, currently, prone to cholera and other infectious diseases – when she fell afoul of the same politician who had again become a minister. The food-joint owner was found to be indulging in many irregularities and was operating without the necessary permissions. He, however, happened to be a lackey of the minster. Soon, he pulled his influence with the politician, who, true to his form, again entered into a lengthy argument with the officer charging her of bias against his party men. As the officer did not succumb to the minister’s pressure, the matter was taken right up to the chief minister.

That the lady took on this politician even after the earlier unpleasant incident speaks volumes about her guts, courage of conviction and commitment to her duties. Very few of her colleagues, including her seniors in the IAS, have seldom displayed the same. As expected by her and her colleagues, she was peremptorily transferred by the state administration under pressure from the political executive. That, however, is neither here nor there. She made her point and, hopefully, created a benchmark for official conduct, which many of her junior and senior colleagues might like to strive to work up to. The ruling party, on the other hand, came out in poor light. Surely, people will not easily forget this sordid episode of a minister preventing an official from taking administrative action to ensure public health and general wellbeing.

The most condemnable attitude, incidentally, was displayed by the state’s bureaucracy. It was sickening to see its lack of spine. It did not come to the rescue of a field officer who was literally stopped in her tracks from doing her duty. Not only was she bullied by a brash minister before a crowd of onlookers, she was also reported to have been insulted in front of a defaulter whom she had been able to catch breaching the relevant extant laws. The bureaucracy, members of which are called public servants, failed to put up a fight, forget the officer, even for the cause of the public, and caved in in the face of political pressure. Such brazen political interference in administrative work may have acquired run-of-the-mill character for the higher bureaucracy but it should have been the business of those who wield power over junior functionaries to sift chaff from the grain and be more judicious and circumspect before handing out decisions. What the needlessly penalised officer was attempting to do was, after all, of direct benefit to the people – trying to ensure their health and wellbeing. Besides, her efforts would also have saved public expenditure on maintaining public health. It is not unknown to the bureaucracy that it is largely the unscrupulous operators in the food sector who, generally, are responsible for choking up the public healthcare facilities, especially during the hot and humid season when adulterated and rotten stuff are often dished out to the unwary customer.
As it is MP is a state which suffers from a severe deficit of governance. By giving short shrift to the courage and righteousness of the officer, who happened to be the unwitting victim of crude exercise of power by a rash politician, the state bureaucracy has further demoralised the state’s official machinery, giving fillip to further non-governance. And, quite reprehensibly, it has left the people at the mercy of unscrupulous politicians and their crooked supporters.
(Published by Indian News & Features Alliance, Delhi, on 19th June 2009)
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