According to a survey of 12 Asian economies done by the Hong Kong-based Political and Economic Risk Consultancy last year, India’s “suffocating bureaucracy” was ranked the least efficient, and working with the country’s civil servants was described as a “slow and painful” process. “They are a power centre in their own right at both the national and state levels, and are extremely resistant to reform that affects them or the way they go about their duties,” the report said.
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The poor shape of India’s bureaucracy has also resulted in indifferent progress on the Millennium Development Goals. High growth notwithstanding, India seems to have failed on two fronts. First, social indicators on health, nutrition, hygiene and quality of education are either stagnant or moving very slowly. And second, a large number of marginalized and disadvantaged people have either not gained from development or, in many cases, have actually been harmed by the process. Weak governance, manifesting itself in poor service delivery, uncaring leadership, and uncoordinated and wasteful public expenditure, are the key factors impinging on development and social indicators.
It is a matter of concern that India’s pace of improving social indicators seems to be much slower than countries poorer than India, such as Bangladesh, Vietnam, Myanmar and Bhutan (see chart).
It is not the size of allocations on pro-poor services alone that matters. The government of India transferred almost Rs4 trillion in 2008-09 to the states. If even half of it were to be sent to the 60 million poor families (at 28% as the cut-off line for poverty, 300 million poor would be equivalent to roughly 60 million households) directly by money order, they would receive at least Rs80 a day! It proves that public expenditure needs to be effectively translated into public goods and services that reach the poor for it to have an impact on poverty and social outcomes.
There is a growing belief widely shared among the political and bureaucratic elite in government that the state is an arena where public office is to be used for private ends. Immediate political pressures for distribution of patronage are so intense that there is no time or inclination for the ministers and bureaucrats to do conceptual thinking, to design good programmes, weed out those that are not functioning well, and monitor the programmes with a view to improving the effectiveness of delivery. At the same time, elections require funds that have to come through the looting of the government treasury.
Winston Churchill on the eve of India’s independence had said: “Power will go to the hands of rascals, rogues and freebooters. All Indian leaders will be of low calibre and men of straw. They will have sweet tongues and silly hearts. They will fight among themselves for power and India will be lost in political squabbles.” What appeared as a scandalous outburst then may be called an understatement now!
Although many civil servants hold the view that it is the nature of politics that largely determines the nature of the civil service and the ends to which it would be put and, therefore, civil service reforms cannot succeed in isolation, causation is also in the other direction. Non-performing administration leaves little choice to the politicians but to resort to populist rhetoric and sectarian strategies.
Although there has been a growing realization among some chief ministers on the need to improve governance, only a few have been able to translate this into concrete action. This would necessarily involve keeping legislative assembly members and ministers under check, which is difficult when the state is under a coalition regime or the ruling party is constrained by a thin margin in the assembly, or is divided into factions. In many other states, even chief ministers seem to be averse to professionalizing administration.
Following are some of the ways governance can be improved:
Focus on outcomes
At present, officials at all levels spend a great deal of time in collecting and submitting information, but this is not used for taking corrective and remedial action or for analysis, but only for forwarding it to a higher level, or for answering Parliament/assembly questions. Equally, state governments do not discourage reporting of inflated figures from the districts, which again renders monitoring ineffective. As data is often not verified or collected through independent sources, no action is taken against officers indulging in bogus reporting. The practice is so widely prevalent in all the states that the overall percentage of malnourished children of 0-3 years, according to the data reaching the government from the field, is 8% (with only 1% children severely malnourished), against 46% (with 17% children severely malnourished) reported by an independent National Family Health Survey (NFHS-3) sponsored by the government. The field officials are thus able to escape from any sense of accountability for reducing malnutrition.
The situation can easily be corrected by asking the state governments to show greater transparency in district and central records by putting them on a website, and by frequent field inspections by an independent team of experts, nutritionists and grass roots workers. The Centre should also pull up the states for not recognizing almost 90% of the severely malnourished children.
Very little of the government transfer of roughly Rs4 trillion (this amount does not include subsidies such as on food, kerosene and fertilizers) annually to the states is linked with performance and good delivery. The concept of good governance needs to be translated into a quantifiable annual index on the basis of certain agreed indicators, and Central transfers should be linked to such an index (it is informally learnt that the 13th Finance Commission has recommended giving additional funds to states that do well on certain indicators such as infant mortality rate, forest cover and so on).
Departments such as the police and rural development, which have closer dealings with the people, should be assessed annually by an independent team consisting of professionals such as journalists, retired judges, academicians, activists, non-governmental organizations and even retired government servants. They should look at the departments’ policies and performance, and suggest constructive steps for their improvement. At present, the system of inspections is elaborate, but often precludes the possibility of a “fresh look” as they are totally governmental and rigid. The system should be made more open so that the civil service can gain from the expertise of outsiders in the mode of donor agency evaluations of projects. It is heartening to note that the government has already started doing so for some of its flagship programmes such as in education and health. Petitions under the Right to Information Act have also empowered citizens, but its use is still dominated by civil servants on personnel issues of appointments and promotions.
Appointments and transfers are two well-known areas where the evolution of firm criteria can be easily circumvented in the name of administrative efficacy. Even if the fiscal climate does not allow a large number of new appointments, a game of musical chairs through transfers can always bring in huge rentals to corrupt officials and politicians. As tenures shrink, both efficiency and accountability suffer. In Uttar Pradesh, the average tenure of an Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer in the last five years is said to have been as low as six months.
Several reforms are needed here. The powers of transferring all class II officers should be with the head of the department and not with the government. At least for higher ranks of the civil services, for example chief secretary and director general of police, postings may be made contractual for a fixed period of at least two years (as is being done in the government for secretaries in the ministries of home, defence and finance), and officers should be monetarily compensated if removed before the period of the contract expires without their consent or explanation.
A stability index should be calculated for important posts such as secretaries, deputy commissioners and district superintendents of police. An average of at least two years for each group should be fixed, so that even though the government would be free to transfer an officer before two years without calling for an explanation, the average must be maintained at above two years. (The government has accepted this suggestion, and has made changes in the IAS rules. However, the choice of posts for which this would be applicable has been left to the states. Predictably, no state has declared any post under the new rules.) This would mean that for every officer with a short tenure, someone else must have a sufficiently long tenure to maintain the average.
A good civil service is necessary, but not sufficient for good governance; a bad civil service is sufficient, but not necessary for bad governance. Thus, a dilapidated civil service has been a key factor in Africa’s economic decline. Conversely, a strong civil service is one of several reasons why in several East Asian economies, especially Japan, Singapore and South Korea, authoritarianism has coexisted with excellent economic performance. It can be argued that the link between authoritarianism and economic decline, so evident in Africa, has been inoperative in these Asian countries largely because of their strong civil service. Greater responsiveness and openness can legitimately be demanded of public administrations in many East Asian countries. Clearly, civil service systems in most East Asian countries cannot be considered a problem; they are, rather, an important part of the solution to these countries’ other problems.
Governance reforms are intractable under a “kleptocracy” that exploits national wealth for its own benefit and is, by definition, uninterested in transparency and accountability. A pliable and unskilled civil service is actually desirable from its point of view—public employees dependent on the regime’s discretionary largesse are forced to become corrupt, cannot quit their jobs, and reluctantly become the regime’s accomplices. Providing financial assistance from the government to such states without linking it with performance and reforms would be a waste of resources. In all other cases, reform is manageable, albeit difficult complex and slow. Therefore, considering that the states would need external pressure on them to improve outcomes, certain control by the government of India over IAS and policy domain in the social sector is necessary, till such time that the states show signs of improvement in governance.
Graphic by Jayachandran / Mint
N.C. Saxena is a commissioner with the Supreme Court in the right to food case. Comment at email@example.com