How to chasten the venal babu

Despite a dramatic uptake in the economy in recent years, satisfactory social outcomes have eluded India, where mass poverty and near-chaotic civic life refuse to go away. Among the reasons identified for this is its decrepit public administration. Pointing in that direction, the Second Administrative Reforms Commission observed: “The state apparatus is largely inefficient with most functionaries serving no useful purpose… the bureaucracy is…tardy, inefficient and unresponsive. Corruption is all-pervasive… Criminalisation of politics continues uncheck-ed…there is a high degree of volatility in society on account of unfulfilled expectations and poor delivery.”

The year this appraisal came was 2008, a year that was capping a decade of high growth. Yet there was, as the commission noted, “volatility in society.”

The scenario prevails. Commissions are constituted but administrative reforms hang fire. A slim volume, Administrative Reforms for Better Governance, written by N.C. Saxena, a distinguished administrator from the IAS cadre with varied experience and armed with an Oxford doctorate, stokes the fire.

The book argues that alongside revamp of social policies, reforms are necessary at all levels of public administration to make the state apparatus deliver.

Bureaucracy is the main problem the book grapples with — its lack of professionalism, transparency and accountability. “Rather than trying to improve the delivery system, most civil servants are compromising with the rot and accepting a diminished role for themselves by becoming agents of exploitation…”

The analysis in the book is searing and the criticism of the Indian civil servant quite scathing. In a section on “Personnel Issues”, the author says: “Appointment and transfer are two areas…a game of musical chairs through transfer can always bring in huge rentals to corrupt officials and politicians. As tenures shorten both efficiency and accountability suffer.

In Uttar Pradesh, the average tenure of an IAS officer in the last five years is as short as six months. In the IPS it is even shorter, leading to the wisecrack that ‘if we are posted for weeks (haftas) all we can do is to collect our weekly bribes (haftas)… Frequent transfer and limited tenures are playing havoc with public organisations.” Civil servants in our country hanker after prime postings. This Saxena duly underlines. Behind this hankering are perks — vehicles, domestic helps etc.

The Singapore example is cited, where the salary package for government servants is plain cash, doing away with perks — no subsidised housing, no government vehicles. The practice should be followed in India too, the author suggests, where even retired babus are re-employed in sinecures.

The raft of recommendations the author offers for reforms of India’s public administration include:
Repeal of Official Secrets Act, to be replaced with a less restrictive law; property and tax returns of all senior officials to be available for scrutiny to the public
Improved monitoring mechanism so as to make authentic feedback available to planners
All ministries and departments to be required to publish in their annual reports the action taken on CAG’s findings in the last two years Social audits to assess the experience of the public whom service providers are intended to serve A citizens’ charter for each department/office that deals with the public on their entitlement to timely delivery of public services and their standard clearly defined Amendment of All India Service Rules to check the flourishing transfer industry in every state
Retirement of 25 to 50 per cent of officers at the age of 52-55.

The last mentioned is a case for cutting the deadwood, advocating which further the author says, in most states 70 per cent of the government employees are unrelated to public service — drivers, peon, clerks. Surplus staff should be identified and redeployed in key public services like education, healthcare, police and judiciary. Saxena thinks out of the box, too. Clerks and educated Class IV staff should be incentivised to become teachers and constables.

Some of the recommendations come across as difficult to implement, as babus have a reputation for sabotaging any moves that will chasten them. One such is immediate retirement of officials whose records are tainted and prosecution of those against whom there is evidence of corruption.
Will we see such a day anytime soon?
Two years of public outrage and street agitation against corruption have not taken us any nearer that day.




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