Someone had recently posted an article from 2012, which said that India has the most corrupt bureaucracy. There was universal approval of the verdict rendered by the author. The evidence did not matter since the conclusion aligned with popular perception.
This piece is not intended to be an epitaph for the bureaucracy. God knows, they are guilty of many omissions—policy directions that did not change with the times and poor implementation of well-enunciated policies due to bribery or nepotism. One can attribute many failures, indeed, abysmal ones, to the bureaucracy. At any rate, no one can wish them away. They are a necessary evil, to be borne with fortitude and patience because no country has found a way to function without them.
No one can also wish away how this country functions. And the crowning glory is that it has stayed the course as a democracy, relatively speaking. Yes, India’s heart beats, robust and healthy. The defamed and maligned bureaucracy has kept this going. The status quo is an important dimension of governance as much as it is the canvass for change.
It is only on a solid foundation can change be built. Revolutions do abandon status quo, with the illusion of total change and then lapse into regression. The net result of a successful revolution: only a ruling regime change through force. To quote Mark Twain, “The past isn't always over. Sometimes, it isn't even past”. A good bureaucracy maintains its links with the past and adapts for the present.
The year 1947 is very firmly etched in our history. The human cost of the partition was huge and has been well-documented. However, the management of such tragedies of dislocations needs to be recalled. The treasury was in disarray and the task of physically securing the map of the country looked enormously daunting. The invasion of Kashmir did not help matters, allied with other points of crisis. Through these turbulences, the country navigated its growth path, sometimes slowly and sometimes at a pace. Hundreds and thousands of men and women answered the call of duty, anonymously with their instinctive skills, but by and large with integrity.
The scarcity of resources has been a persistent handicap in building the potential of the country’s economy. There have been competing demands for allocation of money. Our infrastructure needed much more than what has been possible. So did education and health, and subsidies to cushion the costs of inputs for farmers. Coupled with a rising population, the choice was always demand management as the supply side came up short.
Demands by their intrinsic logic can never be fairly managed. And then to cap it all, the integrity of our public expenditure kept dropping so that we always received a lesser dividend for each rupee. Yes, oversight was an issue and so was a hindrance to enforce accountability. These can be said to be a part of the fail list.
This very bureaucracy is thus now the object of much derision. Politicians are quick to blame these officials when things go wrong. People at large in any case hold a fixed image of a slothful and indolent officialdom whose wheels have to be “oiled” before a favourable decision is obtained. In a sense, this outcome is the consequence of rule by exception rather than a rule of the law, something that is a prominent scar on our governance system.
Constant pressure to manoeuvre state policy from public interest to sectional interest is bound to damage the fairness and impartiality with which the civil service must function. Even the maintenance of law and order, an essential pre-condition of a livable country, is determined by this conflict between public interest and sectional interest. A selective basis can only make for ethnic and communal conflicts and lack of respect for the keepers of the law. The majesty of the law has been repeatedly tarnished.
There is now a surge in the desire for good governance. There are many elements that are needed for “good” governance. But a one-line whip, “implement the law without exception” would have to be the starting point. Sure, the instruments of governance are rusted.
They need an overhaul, but existing administrative structures need to be reorganised too. State capitals cannot meet the needs of the villages and districts. The district has to be reconstituted with full empowerment for investment and implementation. In fact, each district must have the power of the state capital.
Politics by its very nature has to go for the smart and the spectacular. It is so embedded in the tenures through elections. Their worry is re-election and for this to happen, law and equity have to be the predominant approach to public interest. The bureaucracy works well only with the law as their guide. The people have to feel that their lot is better. Figures of incremental achievement are meaningless to provide that feeling. Let the laws rule.
(The writer is a former Director, India Habitat Centre. Views expressed are strictly personal.)