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Reforming Indian Civil Services to Suit the Needs of the 21st Century Globalized World

Guest Opinion

Bureaucracy is considered to be the backbone of any country’s administration. India is not an exception wherein bureaucracy is considered to be the steel frame of administration, though with a big old rusty dent. Milton Friedman had famously said, “In a bureaucratic system, useless work drives out useful work.” Indian bureaucracy is an age-old heritage that India has inherited from its colonial masters after independence. Though the political leadership wanted to do away with the elite hierarchical administrative system meant to suit the needs of the British colonialists, the founding fathers decided to adopt it since there wasn’t any alternative administrative system in place, and forming a new one would have been a cumbersome task. The article examines the application of the NPM model on the current Indian bureaucracy briefly and delves into the deep yet interesting interface between the political executive and the civil servants.

An Evaluation of the Indian Bureaucracy: the Dented Steel Frame of India

Around 39% of the people surveyed by Transparency International in 2020 under the Global Corruption Barometer Survey said that they had paid a bribe in the past year while 89 % of them believed that government corruption does exist and is a big deal. The Politicians-businessmen-bureaucrat nexus in India is one of the primary reasons for the above problem. Though India has been ranked 63rd out of 190 countries in terms of ease of doing business, the problem persists. The cumbersome and lethargic administrative machinery is not only one of the reasons behind people trying to resort to an expensive but quicker way of getting their work done but it also hinders the investment flow in the country.

Promotions in the services are still decided by the level of seniority and not by performance and efficiency. Advancement in career should be performance-based giving an edge to a competitive environment encouraging efficiency and initiatives among young officers. The current system of the performance appraisal for the Indian civil servants has been quite ineffective in tackling the problem and everyone gets their promotion when the time is due.

However, the recent initiative of a 360-degree performance appraisal is a welcoming step in that direction, though not foolproof. The system is ‘illegal, non-transparent and arbitrary’ by the Parliamentary Committee. The system also faced its first legal challenge in 2017 when a senior officer who was denied the appointment to the position of a Secretary to the Union Government challenged his negative appraisal. He was denied the position in the second round of appraisal, as well; however, he successfully managed to get hold of the cabinet of the Himachal Pradesh government – being ruled by the same party as in Centre – after withdrawing the legal challenge against the system. Surprisingly, having been named in multiple cases of corruption, the officer wasn’t eligible for the appointment at the Union level but was found perfectly good enough to be the Cabinet Secretary of a state government. This loophole emphasizes the need for the call for terminating the service after failing the second round of appraisal. Such periodic testing of performance should be done at the junior level officers as well.

In 2018, an Indian Prime Minister, for the very first time, interacted with the front-line bureaucracy famous for their lack of accountability, corruption, and inefficiency. Several factors contribute to the problem. While interactions as such would help in boosting the morale of the workforce but resolving the problem needs a carefully crafted vision and action plan, and political will for more than just filling the coffers with votes during elections. Bureaucracy loves discretion and authoritative control but never suffers the consequences of the worse decisions. There is no insecurity, no system of checks, and no performance-specific criteria for promotions. Stalling instead of solving problems with diligence is a landmark of Indian bureaucracy.

There is little space for discretion at the lowest rungs of hierarchy wherein the officials are just supposed to follow the orders from the above’. Even the decisions concerning the most local of all the problems in an area are taken by the higher authorities through orders and circulars and executed as unquestioningly directed by the local officials. Funds aren’t dispersed on time which causes the delay of action or forces the officials to spend from their own pockets and wait for the reimbursement. This doesn’t only cause the quality of work done to be poor because of a strenuous budget and lack of funds but also encourages corruption since the value spent and the funds reimbursed aren’t necessarily the same. This makes the local bureaucracy a passive recipient of orders, professionalism of which is judged by the level of adherence to the order. This kills innovation, limits capability, and results in a total wastage of the contextual knowledge of the local officials. The culture of ‘rule compliance’ often diminishes the difference between the means and the ends to be achieved by transforming the means itself into an end, the ultimate goal being – compliance of rules.

The all-secure jobs of the permanent executives and the nexus between them and their political counterparts are concerning for the general public who view the bureaucratic elite as a highly ‘insulated’ lot of the public service completely in contrast to what they need to be – providers of service and security to the people. 89 % of the people participating in a research survey felt that the service has an extremely flawed and inverted system of rewarding wherein the corrupt and morally skewed bureaucrats get promoted while the honest and upright ones get transferred as punishment. The senior-level posts, which require a sophisticated understanding of the respective domain and specialization of subject-matter, are generally occupied by the officers from the Indian Administrative Service which comprises generalists. The two Administrative Reform Commissions have suggested recommendations quite useful to tackle this problem, for example, holding competitive exams for the senior posts open to all the other all India services, lateral entry of experts on a contract basis, and assessing their efficiency in reasonable intervals.

Indian bureaucratic system is one of the least transparent in the world. Though the Right to Information Act might have done some benefit, the problem of ‘transparency not being a structural part of the system’ persists. Transparency should not just be an end – an additional liability to be – achieved but an integral part of the system as one of the primary means for delivering the end goal of public service. Many researchers have found that a specific focus on ensuring transparency has resulted in an additional burden of tons of paperwork delaying and faltering the implementation part. Digitalization of services and a robust grievance redressal mechanism are the two most important things to ensure transparency in the contemporary world. The realm of appointments, transfers, and promotions is something that needs a significant dose of transparency. Digitalization should be accompanied by a simultaneous effort to digitally educate the masses; otherwise, it would be left redundant in a country where around 90% of the population is digitally illiterate.

Indian Bureaucracy and the New Public Management

Hierarchy of authority, division of labor, sticking to the absolute rule of law, the procedure becoming the end itself resulting in inefficiency, corruption, and red-tapism are some of the Weberian features characteristic of the Indian bureaucracy. India is adopting some features of NPM in a phased and careful manner while taking into consideration the local environment and problems native to the land. Public-Private Community Partnership, e-governance, lateral entry of specialized experts in civil services on a contract basis, measures focusing on transparency and accountability, citizens’ charter, etc.

Political Executive: Civil Servant Interface

The relationship between the political executives and permanent executives is complex and one which has evolved over the years and was bred by the political masters of the newly independent India. The only regret of the first Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, was not being able to reform the bureaucracy which was a colonial legacy in its entirety. Framed in a way to further the interests of the colonial government and unquestionably enforce law and order, the Indian Civil Services ensured to have a life doing governmental work as insulated from the general mass as possible. Bureaucracy is not neutral as largely perceived. Its taming depends on the political executives – the Prime Minister and their cabinet – and the party system. A majoritarian government wields considerable power over the services while a coalition government; busy ensuring its survival, rarely finds time to alter the administrative machinery – for better or worse. The socialist model followed by the political leaders of the newly independent India helped to convert the existing elite bureaucratic system into a patron-client arrangement with the public, conferring immense power into the hands of the officials and diminishing the actual goal of public service.

The era of ‘committed bureaucracy’ under the Prime Ministership of Indira Gandhi, infamously remembered as the ‘License-Permit-quota’ raj not only destroyed the already stunted economy but also rusted the administrative machinery with corruption and red-tapism. Rajiv Gandhi’s stark remarks against bureaucracy and attempts to decentralize administration were short-lived given his assassination in 1991. The government led by PV Narasimha Rao saw a sharp cut in the size of the bureaucracy amidst the reforms to liberalize the economy and limited and phased withdrawal of the government to give space to private actors. While UPA-I saw many administrative reforms including the landmark act of Right to Information, UPA-II was mired in corruption. The reforms of post-2014 are of special interest to scholars, academicians, politicians, and civil servants alike. Two of the most important periods in the history of the Indian bureaucracy since independence are – the ones under Ms. Indira Gandhi and Shri Narendra Modi.

Indira Gandhi’s Committed Bureaucracy

The period was of considerable importance which left a near-permanent stint on the Indian bureaucracy during the 1970s. The idea of committed bureaucracy entailed the hundred percent devotion and loyalty to the government, its policies and programs, and even its ideology. The need for a committed bureaucracy was felt when the INC had suffered a loss in the 1967 elections and it was believed to be caused due to the failure of the bureaucracy to deliver party policies and programs. It formed the foundation of the ‘politicization of bureaucracy’ which had cemented its ground by the 1990s. This birthed a culture of political loyalty among the civil servants and established a system of rewards wherein those who worked according to the whims and fancies of their political masters got rewarded while those who decided to choose a rather professional and honest path were transferred either frequently or to considerably less important departments. This led to the development of a strong unholy nexus between the bureaucrats and the politicians which exist to date with the entry of an additional player – businessmen. This was one of the primary reasons for plummeted economic growth, widespread poverty, and complete failure of the governance model.

Babu, Neta, and Baniya have haunted Indian economic growth for too long a period.