Engage with the bureaucracy, diagnose the problems, if there are any, and come up with smart solutions, instead.
Do you cut off the head for curing a headache? No, you don’t. You try to diagnose the cause and prescribe a medicine. If the headache is caused by a malignancy, you carry out a radiotherapy and surgery, but assuredly, you do not cut off the head.
How many economists have ever predicted an economy correctly, or for that matter, even analysed the existing state of an economy correctly? Shall we abolish the subject of economics from the curricula for this reason?
This prescription was brought before India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru after the Independence. The euphoria was at its peak in the immediate aftermath of Independence. The charge was very grave. The India Civil Service (ICS) was accused of having collaborated with the British for keeping the country subjugated. Home minister Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel would have none of it. For him, independent All-India Services were very important for national integration and continuity. He supported the ICS because they had only done their duty in a professional manner according to the remit they had. He was sure that since they had served the British professionally and faithfully, they would serve the Independent India even more competently. You could not fault him for that.
I am bemused by the periodical calls for abolishing the Indian Administrative Service (IAS). I only assume that this is used in a generic manner, and includes other All-India Services as well. My counter is simple. Is there any organisation, public or private, that does not have a bureaucracy? The answer is a no-brainer. So the answer is not in abolishing the IAS, but diagnosing the problems, if there are any, and coming up with smart solutions.
It is said with some justification that IAS (in its wider sense) is one service to which the government recruits thoroughbreds, only to exert all its sinews in turning them into ‘donkeys’ for the next 30-35 years of their service. Every few years, a new committee is set up that comes up with one more prescription for greater accountability for the services. How is it that it results in even further slide?
Let me put you through a scenario. I give you a simple task with some conditions. You have to write an application to the government demanding protection of your rights. Here are the conditions. You have to write a perfect application. Any grammatical mistakes or spelling errors would attract punishment. Thirteen people would stand around you looking at what you are writing. They can interject, correct, ask questions, scold, smirk, make faces, or laugh at you for any mistakes you commit, or if they think that you committed. If you baulk at this intimidating scenario, and do nothing, do not complete the application, or keep referring it to one of the 13 policemen, no notice would be taken of the delay. What is important is that the application should be perfect whenever it is completed. If by some miracle, or due to sheer ability, you were able to complete the application and submit it, an enquiry would be conducted to find out whether there was any wrongdoing in the process of completing the application. In case any of the 13 watchdogs ask you to write a particular word and you think that you know better, you could be removed from the task of writing the application and somebody else could be brought in. This, in short, is how the society expects officers to function.
The conventional wisdom is that ‘it is easier to do a job right than to explain why you did not’; but in the case of the Indian bureaucracy, and more particularly the IAS, this wisdom is turned upside down. It is more like – ‘it is easier not to do a job than to explain why you managed to do it at all’. Let those who criticise the bureaucracy and more particularly the IAS, perform this magic trick even once and I will concede their point. IAS officers are supposed to perform the magic trick all the time.
Am I sounding cynical? Assuredly not. I am presently looking after vigilance enquiries. My experience is simple. Over 90 per cent of enquiries pertain to technical mistakes of procedures without much reference to the substantial issue. No wonder, I end up exonerating over 90 per cent of the delinquents.
However, the time taken between initiation of an enquiry and final exoneration is anything between five to 10 years. Can you imagine the effect this has on the morale of officials? That is why everyone plays safe. No wonder that the people who dare to deliver expect to be rewarded for the sheer risk of performing even the routine jobs — under the table, of course, because there is no institutional mechanism to reward a job performed by taking risk.
It is safer to work as a facilitator than to work as an independent official. The vested interests have worked the system so very well. In my experience, it is impossible for an officer, especially in the lower rungs, to work honestly. As soon as one refuses to be part of the ‘system’, he will face enquiries. Nobody better than me to tell you that, because I am doing precisely that, enquiries against officials.
Do you know how many watchdogs an IAS officer has to deal with? Let me give you a rough lowdown: Immediate superior, minister, finance department, chief minister/prime minister, assembly/parliament committees, Right to Information (RTI) Act, media, courts, vigilance/anti-corruption, departmental enquiry, internal audit, comptroller and auditor general, Lok Ayukt, Human Rights Commission, SC/ST commission, public and public representatives.
Pardon me, if I have forgotten a few. I challenge my esteemed friends who demand abolition of the IAS to work in this environment. An IAS officer is selected for being the most intelligent and diligent in the relevant cohort in relation to others. The society has to introspect and answer the question as to what it has done to let this creme de la creme function independently. Does the society have the courage to simply do an outcome-based rating? As long as the country is obsessed with processes, do not waste the resources of the country in selecting thoroughbreds. Instead of racing them in race courses, we make them go up mule tracks and then blame them for poor performance. A shoddy argument, if ever there was one.
The second argument is regarding the IAS being given greater importance than the other services. In a country like India which other service brings the experience of the IAS to the table? Did you see the mess in goods and services tax (GST) implementation? If the IAS officers of the states had been given the responsibility of devising the implementation of GST instead of Central Board of Excise and Customs officials, who had never dealt with small traders, most of the pain would not have come to pass.
That said, it is not my case that reforms are not required. Having done the diagnosis, it is now time to prescribe the medicine. Here it goes. After 16 years, conduct another exam to screen officers for a combined superior service, and end the present sham of empanelment to Central Staffing Scheme. Allow All-India Services and central services to compete for an Indian judicial service, as it used to be in the British times. This was one good British practice that was allowed to lapse.
Amend the Prevention of Corruption Act, 1968 with immediate effect; particularly the Section 13(1)(d)(2) that allows prosecution for the nebulous concept of benefiting another person. Extend the same protection to the members of higher bureaucracy that is available to the members of the higher judiciary. After all, the principle is the same.
Rationalise the placement system. The arbitrariness in placements is the biggest source of corruption and browbeating of bureaucracy into willing accomplices. Allow lateral movement into private sector after 16 years in service. Give a lien of four-five years, after which they either separate permanently or come back with rich experience. Reduce process accountability to an acceptable minimum. Encourage risk-taking. Heighten outcome accountability. I would urge those who cavil all the time to find a meaningful modus vivendi to engage with the bureaucracy. After all, it is a bad workman that blames his tools.