Babudom barricade: John Kerry's criticism of Indian bureaucracy is spot on

The Indian Civil Services, particularly the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) has been in the news recently, inviting uncharitable reactions on social media, ever since US Secretary of State John Kerry told a group of students during his visit last week to IIT Delhi, that, “India's economy will only be able to maintain its impressive growth if its bureaucracy ceases to be an expert in setting up roadblocks".

In fact, talks on the IAS have become sharper with the Indian branch of a leading American think-tank, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, releasing simultaneously an article titled, “The Indian Administrative Service Meets Big Data”.

Kerry seems to have a point when he says, “Even though we are witnessing impressive gains in India's economic growth, there is still a real question as to whether we are doing so quickly enough." All told, India ranked 130 of 189 on the World Bank’s “ease of doing business indicators” in 2016, (improving by just 8 ranks from 138 in 2015). In fact, India is nearer in the rankings to Pakistan (138) than to China, its principal competitor in Asia, which is ranked 84th.

 Babudom barricade: John Kerrys criticism of Indian bureaucracy is spot on

US Secretary of State John F. Kerry speaks during an interactive programme at IIT Delhi. PTI

Incidentally, a 2012 report had termed the Indian bureaucracy among the worst in Asia. The report by Hong Kong-based “Political and Economic Risk Consultancy” had ranked bureaucracies across Asia on a scale from one to 10, with 10 being the worst possible score. India had scored 9.21. India fared worse than Vietnam (rated at 8.54), Indonesia (8.37), the Philippines (7.57) and China (7.11).

On the other hand, Singapore remained the best with a rating of 2.25, followed by Hong Kong (3.53), Thailand (5.25) Taiwan (5.57), Japan (5.77), South Korea (5.87) and Malaysia (5.89). Identifying India’s bureaucracy as responsible for many complaints businessmen had about India, like lack of infrastructure and corruption, the report said that “Indian bureaucrats were rarely held accountable for wrong decisions.”

When one talks of the Indian bureaucracy, the IAS that comes to the picture since it is India’s elite civil service cadre and occupies what is called the nerve centre of the Indian state. The Carnegie study said that, “The IAS of today is hampered by several concomitant issues: a decline in the quality of recruits, political interference, perverse incentives for career advancement, a lack of specialised expertise, and a perception of widespread corruption.”

In my considered opinion, what ails our civil service can be broadly categorised into two: what is the working environment of the civil servants, particularly the IAS; and what type of civil servants a developing India needs (generalists or specialists). This analysis focuses on the first aspect; the second aspect will be dealt with on another occasion.

Unlike other civil services, an IAS officer (like the one in Indian Police Service and Indian Forest Service) has two masters – the state to which he or she is attached and the Centre, which appoints him or her and controls the subsequent course of career advancement. Though on paper, their job is secure, in practice the most important aspect of his or her career happens to be the way he or she handles the political interference.

If you are a pliant bureaucrat, the political masters of the day will reward you. But if you are a law-abiding and honest bureaucrat, go by the content and spirit of the rules and do not compromise them for the benefits of the political masters, you will in all probability be punished.

And when it comes to punishment, the commonly observed practice is to transfer (if one cannot be suspended immediately) the bureaucrat and deny or delay a promotion due. And since there is no provision of having a minimum tenure in a position, frequent suspensions and transfers have a very demoralising effect on civil servants.

In this regards, it is instructive to note the observations of Lakshmi Iyer and Anandi Mani. In a “Working Paper” in 2012 for the Harvard Business School, titled 'Traveling Agents: Political Change and Bureaucratic Turnover in India', the two authors have developed a framework to empirically examine how politicians with electoral pressures control bureaucrats with career concerns as well as the consequences for bureaucrats’ career investments. According to them, politicians use frequent reassignments (transfers) across posts of varying importance to control bureaucrats.

Secondly, Lakshmi and Anandi find that the average rate of bureaucratic transfers increases significantly, by 10 percent over the baseline of 53 percent, when there is a new chief minister (CM). Most of these transfers take place in the first four months after a new CM takes over. Further, a CM, who comes to power along with a new party in power, is twice as likely to transfer bureaucrats than a CM who comes to power without a change in the party in power.

The majority of such transfers are what the authors call ‘lateral’ transfers, i.e. not accompanied by promotion. Thus, these transfers are not for a reward for past performance or routine promotions that merely coincide with a new CM coming into the office.

On the other hand, bureaucrats with a higher ability invest more in developing expertise; they undergo longer durations of training over the course of their entire career. These officers are also significantly more likely to be recommended for senior positions in the central government (‘empanelled’). But there is another way of obtaining important positions – by being ‘loyal’ to specific politicians.

Lakshmi and Anandi say that the officers are more likely to be appointed to important positions when they belong to the same caste as the CM’s party base. Disturbingly, the average importance of the posts held by an officer over the course of his or her career does not vary significantly with his ability – the officers with high ability are no more likely to be assigned to important posts than other (say, loyal) officers, the authors say.

It may be noted here that under the prevailing system, a greater weightage is given to subjective factors than objective ones in an officer’s performance appraisal, from which promotions and postings flow. The system assigns 60 percent weightage to personal attributes and functional competency (a subjective assessment by the seniors and political boss) and just 40 percent to work output (an objective assessment).

This has created a situation where 90 percent of bureaucrats are rated ‘outstanding’ (scoring 9 on 10) without even having a face-to-face meeting with the appraiser. That this system needs a change was emphasised by none other than the former cabinet secretary (head of the civil service) Ajit Seth.

In fact, under him, the Cabinet Secretariat had drafted an alternate appraisal process. Drawn up after examining similar systems in Australia, Malta, New Zealand, and Singapore, it mirrored the norm in the corporate sector and gives greater importance to results and performance: 80 percent weightage to results and just 20 percent to personal qualities and functional skills.

A former DOPT (Department of Personnel and Training) secretary, PK Mishra, has advocated for a radical system that ensures lower compensation to incompetent bureaucrats.

“In Brazil, 60 percent of a government servant’s pay depends on competency and only 40 percent is fixed. The concept is that if you do not measure up to a performance standard, you are paid less. Unless we accept these modern concepts wholeheartedly, the image of Indian civil services is unlikely to improve,” PK Mishra said.

But the question is: who will evaluate the competence? Unless there is a set of objective criteria, the evaluation will be ultimately made by the political masters (ministers), and the subjective elements will remain, as always.

Incidentally, according to media reports, under the Modi-government, the DOPT is systematically reviewing the performance of central officers who have either completed thirty years of service or reached fifty years of age. Those officers who receive negative reviews are to lose their jobs after a three-month notice period. It is said that at the end of 2015, 13 (thirteen) such officers were made to retire compulsorily.

Coming back to the politician-bureaucrat nexus, in many a case bureaucrats themselves are responsible for their exploitation, if a serving Secretary to the Government of India is to be believed. And that is because, for every officer who refuses to sign a file due to political pressure, there are 10 others willing to do that job, according to him. And this is particularly so when the ruling party believes in the concept of a “committed bureaucracy.”

The concept of “committed Bureaucracy” can be traced back to the days of the late Indira Gandhi, who thought that the bureaucrats were often stumbling blocks on her road of economic management and growth. In an interview, she had expressed dissatisfaction with the performance of bureaucracy. She, in fact, expressed doubts “about the relevance of the basic assumptions underlying the Indian bureaucracy – like that of political neutrality, anonymity, impartiality etc.” She even alleged that “the bureaucrats lacked in commitment.”

This, in turn, has led to a situation in which the favourite bureaucrats of a regime are punished by the succeeding regime. And vice versa.  This is a phenomenon that is seen both at the Centre and in States. As Professor C P Bhambhri argues rightly, “politicians in India are not wedded to norms of legality, sanctity of procedures and rules” and “administration has been pressurised to comply with the demands of the politicians by bending the rules and flouting procedures”.

As pointed out already, the bureaucrats are also responsible for this state of affairs. Indian bureaucracy lacks internal cohesion. There are many who will go any extent to appease their political masters of the day, for their present and future selfish considerations. They are never neutral. They are obsessed with reemployment after retirement and various other lucrative assignments, such as governors and ambassadors.

In fact, many of them join political parties and contest elections. Importantly, many a time one has even witnessed wives and close relatives of serving officials contesting elections. Can such officers be expected to be honest and neutral, the prime requisites in a true bureaucracy?

In other words, a committed bureaucrat, as the maxim goes, is chopping a branch he or she is sitting on.

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Updated Date: Sep 06, 2016 17:07:40 IST