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Business News/ News / India/  The plan to reform India’s babudom

The plan to reform India’s babudom

The government wants to parachute private sector experts into India’s bureaucracy. Is the idea workable?

Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his interaction with secretaries to the government this month.

NEW DELHI :In the early 1980s, a young Indian Police Service (IPS) officer apparently approached a fellow fresh recruit at the National Police Academy in Hyderabad with a peculiar complaint. “I am unable to sleep at night," he said. When asked what was bothering him, the cryptic reply was: “The price of petroleum is at (a) peak."

The high fuel prices meant the country faced the worrying prospect of high inflation, which kept him awake. A few months later, when oil prices had thankfully stabilized, sleep was still evading the officer. Now, he was gravely concerned about population growth. Sensing that humour was the best way to respond, the second officer advised: “By spending sleepless nights, you would only add to the population problem."

That story, from former education and coal secretary Anil Swarup’s book Not Just A Civil Servant, is evocative of the passion that many young civil servants bring to their job—a fact that would have made India’s first home minister, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, who designed and defended the “services" in its early years, rather proud.

But the feel-good stories still can’t hide the fact that Indian bureaucracy has weaknesses. Efforts to tweak the system are as old as India, starting with the 1947 Secretariat Reorganization Committee. The problems are fairly well-known: most Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officers are generalists; they spend less than 16 months, on average, in any post; and studies show only 24% of postings are viewed as “merit-based" by bureaucrats themselves.

On 10 July, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government unveiled the early blueprint of its own attempt to reform what Patel famously described as “the steel frame of India". The plan: recruit 40 new officers at the level of deputy secretary and director. The appointments, termed “lateral entry", seek to engage external specialists with domain knowledge rather than leaving policymaking and rollout to IAS officers. The move followed recommendations made by the federal think-tank NITI Aayog and the Sectoral Group of Secretaries on Governance which advised the government in February 2017 to induct experts in middle and senior management level. The latest push is a logical follow-up to the plan to induct nine joint secretaries in different ministries from the private sector—a position which usually opens up to regular civil servants after 18 to 20 years in service.

HT image

While the nine lateral entrants, all set to join government soon, constitute a miniscule number—as on January, there were 5,205 IAS officers serving across India—the latest attempt to reform the bureaucracy has raised more questions than answers. Will this be scaled up in the future? Will there be a pushback from within the system? Is there a conflict of interest when experts from the private sector are picked up for a role in public administration, overseeing domains in which their erstwhile firms have a stake? Will lateral entries bypass the reservations for socially disadvantaged groups?

Most retired and serving IAS officers Mint spoke with are surprisingly open to the idea of new lateral entrants, but expressed reservations about a process that they see as “piecemeal" without any “stated policy" framework.

The plan

In keeping with the principle of reform, perform and transform, the government has taken several measures to reform bureaucracy," the centre informed the Lok Sabha on 10 July when asked about its plans to overhaul the bureaucracy. It added that “removing dead wood from bureaucracy" (compulsory retirement) is among the reforms. Between 2014 and 2019, the government forcibly retired 312 group-A and group-B officers under the 56(j) provision in the central civil services rules. It has also instituted a 360-degree review process which, in the words of a serving officer “is only transparent to the top babus, but opaque for the one being reviewed."

In its reply to Parliament, the government contended that “prominent persons have been appointed earlier on a lateral entry basis to man specific assignments from time to time". The list it gave out is impressive: economist and former prime minister Manmohan Singh, former planning commission chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia, and economists Vijay Kelkar and Bimal Jalan. “No adverse effect on the morale of the civil servants has resulted from lateral recruitments," it said.

But there are enough doubts about the lasting impact that the latest move may leave on the civil services. “There is deliberate and wanton misallocation of existing talent. From my long career, I can give you hundreds of examples of people whose capability is sector X but who are posted in sector Y," a senior bureaucrat said on condition of anonymity. “This typical style of functioning emerges from the fear that domain experts may not listen to those who want to set the agenda."

The three-year action agenda released by NITI Aayog in August 2017 said “policymaking is a specialized activity" and “lateral entry will have the beneficial side effect of bringing competition to the established career bureaucracy". However, it also cautioned that the current practice of rapid rotation of civil servants across ministries is inimical to specialization and hence needs to be replaced by longer postings. The external talent is being seen as the silver bullet for some marquee initiatives—from specific items like the sale of Air India to broader sectors like public healthcare, agriculture insurance, data protection and trade negotiations which need unique skills.

“My belief is that when we get lateral entrants, they have to be top-class... as has been done by the government while hiring nine joint secretaries through Union Public Service Commission (UPSC), which was a transparent and competitive process of selection." said Amitabh Kant, chief executive officer (CEO) of NITI Aayog. He, however, cautions that they will require “a lot of handholding, assistance and support to be embedded in the system". The moot question: will a fixed tenure of five years (three years, with a two-year extension) be enough to show results?

“Ministries should (first) find out where they need specialists and inform the government, which should have a policy in place, preferably approved by the cabinet," said Siraj Hussain a former secretary to the union government who retired in 2016. “The policy document has to be clear on the terms of appointment, from salary, duration and specialization to whether they will be allowed to work for the private sector (immediately) after leaving the government," he added.

The current list of lateral entrants at the joint secretary level includes former consultant at KPMG Amber Dubey who will be inducted into the ministry of civil aviation and CEO of Panama Renewable Energy Dinesh Jagdale who is will join the ministry of new and renewable energy.

The process

The basics were missing when the Department of Personnel and Training put out the advertisement for lateral entrants in June last year seeking “talented and motivated Indian nationals willing to contribute towards nation building". The advertisement only mentioned generic areas of expertise—such as agriculture, civil aviation, environment, etc.—without specifying what specialization the ministries were looking for. The minimum required qualification was graduate, which led to a flood of 6,000 applications for 10 positions. The recruitment process was handed over to the UPSC in December, a move which grants the process some “legitimacy", said Manish Sabharwal of Teamlease, one of India’s largest hiring firms.

“There is definitely a need to induct new talent in fields such as data protection where historically the capabilities of (the) government are low," said a senior secretary to the government. “But before hiring new talent, the centre should state what the actual problem is: why are existing vacancies not getting filled? Why are IAS officers from state governments not willing to come to the centre?"

A retired bureaucrat who did not wish to be named saidthe current government has had a mixed track record with specialists. The list of those who have moved out of top positions includes Raghuram Rajan and Urjit Patel, with the latter resigning as governor of the Reserve Bank of India. Eyebrows were also raised when chief economic advisor Arvind Subramanian and NITI Aayog vice chairman Arvind Panagariya chose to exit without seeking extensions.

According to a young IAS officer posted in West Bengal, the lateral entry scheme may turn out to be a ploy to introduce a committed bureaucracy which is aligned with the ideology of the ruling government. “With a maximum tenure of five years, the new joint secretaries are likely to work the way politicians want them to. It is often blamed that we are generalists but frequent transfers do not allow us to specialize. I can’t go on a study leave since the chief minister will not let me... the IAS has become like a glorified provincial service."

The pushback

The most strident early pushback, however, is coming from some retired bureaucrats. Amitabh Pande, a former Secretary to the government, claims lateral entry is a “perverse idea" and constitutionally questionable. “It is a classic case of solutions chasing a problem," said, a former IAS officer. Despite obvious problems, the services are a protective ring around the Constitution and good officers can resist any degree of political pressure, he adds.

But what with India being a land of infinite complexities, there are unlikely allies who are backing the initiative. “The government has enormous powers... there will be no public support for civil servants wanting a closed shop," said Montek Singh Ahluwalia. “I am in favour of lateral entry... (some) conflict of interest is always there, but let us not exaggerate (it) to rule out bringing in good people."

Meanwhile, the initial batch of nine lateral entrants are still awaiting their first day inside a government office in Lutyens’ Delhi. “We are yet to take charge, the background checks are on... and we have been strictly instructed to keep our mouth shut," said one lateral entrant. At least when it comes to answering questions, the initiation into Delhi’s corridors of power seems to be complete. “You can keep asking me questions and I can keep replying to you like Capt. Abhinandan (the Indian pilot who won hearts by politely refusing to cooperate with his Pakistani captors): I am not authorized to speak to you."

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Sayantan Bera

Sayantan is a National Writer with the Long Story team at Mint, covering food and nutrition, agriculture, and rural economy. His reportage is based on granular ground reports, tying it with broader macroeconomic realities, with a sharp focus on people and livelihoods. Beyond rural issues, Sayantan has written deep dives on topics spanning healthcare, gender, education, and science.
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