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In an attempt to curb bureaucratic corruption at the apex of India’s administrative structure, the Narendra Modi-led Union government has ‘forcibly retired’ many senior bureaucrats after coming back to power. While this may be helpful in reducing grand corruption and could have some domino effect on the lower tier staff, direct interventions aimed at the local bureaucracy are required for curbing petty corruption that bedevil the citizen-state relationship.

A survey conducted by Lokniti-CSDS (Centre for the Study of Developing Societies) in twenty states over two years (2017-2018) and involving 40,772 respondents to study state and society between elections found that an overwhelming majority of respondents found it difficult to get work done at government offices without bribes or connections. Further, trust in government officials in the country seems to be low and people prefer going to political representatives for getting their work done.

To make it easier for citizens to access welfare programmes and government services, the Union government would have to work with states for removing bureaucratic hurdles and reforming the local bureaucracy. And the task won’t be easy, the survey results suggest.

In the survey, respondents were asked whether getting work done in government offices required connections/networks and bribes. Only around one-fourth (28%) of the respondents believed that work could be done without connections or paying bribes. On the other hand, more than four out of ten (43%) said that bribes were important and around one-fourth (24%) thought that prior connections or networks were required to get work done.

There is no difference between urban and rural India on this matter as respondents from both areas reported that connections and bribes were very common. This indicates that while the extent of corruption/scale may vary based on the stakes involved, its incidence is almost ubiquitous in the public sector.

The prevailing socio-economic divides also shape citizen-state transactions. Six-out of ten respondents (60%) agreed that government officials are likely to treat rich people better. Even the upper classes seem to be conscious of an undue advantage as a similar proportion among them felt that officials favour the rich. Public opinion on caste bias seems to be more divided as an almost equal proportion of respondents either said that officials favour upper castes (40%) or treat them similarly to Dalits (41%).

The perception about certain sections enjoying a better experience at government offices can be attributed to a combination of factors including but not limited to discrimination, quality of applications/paper work, differences in reasons for approaching the government etc.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that citizens tend to hold relatively low trust in the civil service. In the State of Democracy in South Asia (SDSA) survey 2013 conducted by CSDS among a national representative sample, respondents were asked about trust in various public institutions, and on multiple levels of government and officials.

The results showed that only about half of the respondents (53%) said that they had great deal or quite a lot of trust in the civil service. Trust in most other institutions was much higher.

In fact, in the 2017-18 survey most citizens reported that don’t even think of approaching government officials if they have difficulty in getting any important work done. Only around one-tenth respondents in both urban (12%) and rural areas (8%) said they would first think of approaching a government official.

Most respondents said they would approach their local councillor or ‘sarpanch’ (village head). Others said they would approach elders outside their family. The low figure for government officials is presumably also because people anticipate difficulties in government offices if they fail to get work done in the first attempt.

The centre and most states have been taking steps to make the local bureaucracy and front line staff more accountable, efficient and responsive to the citizens. These include reducing vacancies, outsourcing some tasks to private firms, and opening up grievance cells in government departments. Further, many states have introduced technology-based interventions to reduce bureaucratic discretion and make processes transparent and quicker. For instance, portals that allow citizens to directly apply for public services and schemes eliminate the need to visit a government office although many services still require physical presence across states.

The scaling-up and successes of these interventions is likely to determine the extent to which Prime Minister Narendra Modi would be able to fulfill his promise of ‘ease of living’.

Sanjay Kumar is a professor and currently director of CSDS, and Pranav Gupta is a PhD student at the University of California, Berkeley, US.

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