How political interference, corruption and outdated procedures have crippled India's bureaucracy

Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke of India soon becoming a $5 trillion economy. This will remain a pipe dream unless he undertakes a fundamental reform of the bureaucracy.

 |  4-minute read |   20-09-2018
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In April 2008, I thought I had run out of words to describe the abysmal state of the Indian bureaucracy when I wrote an eighth letter on the subject in 19 years. A decade and a ninth cover story later, things are where they were.

In fact, a time-travelling civil servant from the British Raj a century ago would feel at home in a government office near the end of the second decade of 21st century India — armies of peons, musty offices and the slow, enervating pace of decision-making where the march of a nation's progress is measured one file at a time.

The failure to transform the Indian civil service from a colonial rent-seeking institution of the Raj era into one focused on development, poverty alleviation and transformation is one of the biggest hurdles on India's road to progress.

The Indian bureaucracy is an anachronism. A bullock cart of statism in an age where even automobiles are poised to go driverless. Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi's comment about just 15 paise of every government rupee reaching the common man was also an observation on the multiple layers of bureaucracy sponging off funds. Today, with advances in digitisation, the Aadhaar scheme claims to have eliminated over two million ghost beneficiaries. But the system supposed to translate the government's slogans and promises into action still runs on paper.

I frequently hear ministers proudly say how they clear so many files in a day as evidence of how hard-working they are. In fact, this highlights how stuck they are in the old licence raj mindset. The job of a minister is to decide policy and strategy. They should be seeing how files can be reduced and government control minimised. Sadly, the attitude of the bureaucracy is still one of control and not of facilitation. It is process-driven and not result-oriented, and mistakes movement for action.

India, with 51 ministries, has among the highest number of ministries in the world, not counting the 53 departments and 83 commissions, each clinging to an obsession with paper and inordinate delays in decision-making which in turn has bred the culture of greasing the bureaucratic wheel.

Besides the corruption in the bureaucracy, it is the paralysis of indecision which causes the most damage. Hopefully, with the amendment to the Prevention of Corruption Act whereby no bureaucrat can be prosecuted without the government's permission, there will be no excuse for inaction. But it could also further strengthen the unholy nexus between politicians and the babus.

ite-babu-cover-oct1-_092018033040.jpgIndia Today cover story, Battling Babudom, for October 1, 2018.

These problems directly impact the quality of governance. Think of the billions the government would add to the economy if it speeded up decision-making, removed regulatory hurdles and made it genuinely easy to do business in India; if it turned the bureaucracy from a power hoarder into a process enabler.

A 2017 World Bank study on governance, which assessed the quality of a country's civil service, its independence from political pressure and the quality of policy formulation and implementation, ranked India in the 45th percentile globally. That this figure marked a nearly 10 percentage point decline over the past two decades tells its own story.

The answer obviously is massive reform. Over the years, several committees have suggested various measures for overhauling the bureaucracy, from setting up institutes of governance to train specialists to inducting a rigorously trained lower bureaucracy selected through a merit-based recruitment system. Nothing has been implemented.

Our cover story, put together by Editor (Research) Ajit Kumar Jha, examines the state of India's bureaucracy in the light of some recent changes. These include a 360-degree empanelment cadre review process, an emphasis on merit rather than seniority, the Prevention of Corruption (Amendment) Act, 2018, and the lateral entry of a small number of specialists into the top rungs of bureaucracy.

These measures, however, amount to mere tweaks, like putting rubber tyres on a bullock cart when what's required is a change in vehicle. In June this year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke of India soon becoming a $5 trillion economy. This will remain a pipe dream unless the prime minister undertakes a fundamental reform of the bureaucracy. So far, he has only expanded the role of the government. What he needs to do is implement his 2014 slogan of Maximum Governance, Minimum Government. The country waits.

(India Today Editor-in-Chief's note for cover story, Battling Babudom; for October 1, 2018)

Also read: Modi government is in office, but not in power


Aroon Purie Aroon Purie @aroonpurie

The writer is chairman and editor-in-chief of the India Today Group.

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