At the meeting of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ambitious multi-purpose and multi-modal platform for proactive governance and timely implementation (PRAGATI) on Wednesday, a stern and definite warning was communicated to those creating impediments in the roll out of the government’s scheme.
Short of reading the riot act to those attending the meeting, secretaries to government of India and chief secretaries connected through video conferencing, Modi took up 26 complaints registered against officials of the central customs and excise. Though the nature of the complaints was not deliberated upon, it seems that most of them pertained to conduct of customs and excise officials at the airport and sea-ports.
A top official of the Customs tried a meek defence of his department “there are close circuit cameras in all these places”. But his position became untenable when not only the PM but his senior aides contradicted him by saying, “CCTV is not an answer to the problem. There are reports that officials of customs deliberately take people away from the camera to strike deals”. In the course of the discussion, Modi seemed to have conveyed his displeasure over the free rein that such officers enjoy even as complaints pile up against them.
“Yes we will take care of this and remove such officials,” was all that top most officials of the customs and excise could say to persistent queries. It was also agreed upon in the meeting to put up CCTVs in all areas in ports and airports and instruct officials to do business within the glare of the CCTVs not beyond them.
Apparently what began as dressing down of the central customs and excise department got extended to other government departments where Modi directed all secretaries of the government of India and chief secretaries of the states to devise a way to get rid of “bad apples” in the structure of governance. In unambiguous terms, the Prime Minister is learnt to have asked all secretaries to weed out those against whom public grievances have been piling up.
Those who attended the meeting admitted that though the meeting was a sequel to the PRAGATI series, the underlying message did indicate the government’s patience was wearing thin on the recalcitrant bureaucracy. In its internal assessment, the government has noted the tardy pace of implementation of its various social welfare schemes.
What appears to be particularly galling for the Modi regime is the impression gaining ground in the people’s perception that the government is not different from the Manmohan Singh government when it comes to dealing with public grievances. At the level of the ministry, there have been cases of bureaucrats merrily indulging themselves in pushing files without taking decisions.
Apparently the reason for reluctance on the part of top officials to take decisions is often attributed to them getting embroiled later in corruption cases. Sources in the government however point out that a section of lazy bureaucracy has been deliberately creating a smokescreen of “persecution” to justify its conduct. In their view, since the discretion of officials is seriously curtailed to minimise the scope of corruption, it caused deep resentment among a section of people. “There have been very few cases of officials being penalised for discharging their official duties,” sources point out.
In a series of PRAGATI meetings, Modi has emphaised that he would ensure that no official would be persecuted for doing duty for public good. There are enough straws in the wind to suggest that in public perception, the government’s implementation of its scheme has been falling far short of expectations. Hence the tough-talking in Wednesday’s meeting could be seen as precursor to initiating correctives to goad the bureaucracy into action. None other than Prime Minister Modi is acutely conscious of the fact that time is gradually slipping away.