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Prime Minister Narendra Modi. (Mint.)
Prime Minister Narendra Modi. (Mint.)

Like it or not, but babudom is poised for a makeover

The current moment is the right time to begin the reform process in bureaucracy

Last week, the Union government rolled out what most of us believe to be the long overdue reform of the Indian bureaucracy. Dubbed “Mission Karmayogi" (and knowing this government’s penchant for names, inclusion of the word “mission" must be deliberate), it aims to “transform" capacity-building in the bureaucracy through institutional and process reforms.

Yes, it has all the trappings of officialese. Yet, I would hazard, it is more than just the usual headline grabbing announcement. There is a plan. It has been in the making for months and was tested as a pilot in developing the capacity of medical workers to battle the covid-19 pandemic.

As a result, this time the government has shed the normal practice of making an announcement and then scrambling to plan the implementation.

On the face of it, the idea is to kill red tape. But that would be very simplistic.

Instead the idea is to develop domain knowledge besides administrative capacity in the bureaucracy; the plan is to begin right at the recruitment level and then invest in building more capacity through the rest of their career.

Simultaneously the new system will try and match the job to a bureaucrat’s competence; formalizing the process to find the right person for the right job. Simple but rarely implemented; forget the government, the story is the same even in the private sector.

The underlying reasoning is easy to comprehend. As the Indian economy grows, it will get more complex to govern; the governance capacities will have to be enhanced proportionately.

The present constellation of circumstances improve the chances of such a makeover actually being implemented.

To its credit, this government has already been tinkering with the architecture of the bureaucracy, presumably testing waters. Most impressive was how it ended the hegemony of the Indian Administrative Service (IAS), the apex bureaucratic cadre, with respect to appointments at the level of joint secretary (JS)—functionally, it is probably the most important post in the government.

Instead, appointments to posts have been drawn from other cadres like the Indian Revenue Service, Indian Accounts and Audit Service and the Indian Economic Service. It is estimated that now one in two JS level officers are drawn from cadres other than the IAS.

Similarly, the Union government has also encouraged lateral induction of personnel from the private sector—similar to the practice followed in the US—seeding the idea of a revolving door.

At the same time, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) has in its last six years worked with the bureaucracy; making them part of the solution and not the problem—as opposed to how many of us see it looking inside from the outside.

And this despite the bureaucracy dropping the ball at key moments; one unforgivable one being their failure to red flag the flawed assumption about black money (that it is largely held in cash) and the loopholes for laundering which together scuppered the ambitious plan to demonetize high-value currency notes.

Given this working relationship, the bureaucracy is unlikely to be openly hostile.

The challenge will be in untangling the bureaucratic knots in the governance of the Indian Railways, making the reform of the rest of the bureaucracy appear like low-hanging fruit. Bibek Debroy, chairman of the Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Council, had famously described it as an alphabet soup of services—made up of technical and non-technical cadres. Something that will work at cross purposes and inhibit radical change.

While this may be the case, it is also a fact that bureaucratic sloth is only one side of the coin. Equally culpable is the political interference—most manifest in transfers; ask Ashok Khemka, the IAS officer from Haryana, who has been transferred 52 times so far in his career.

Clearly, the reform process is not going to be easy. But there is no gain saying that this is as good a moment to start.

In conclusion, I would like to share with the readers a quote attributed to John Maynard Keynes, the economist, which captures the magnitude of the challenge: “The difficulty lies, not in the new ideas, but in escaping from the old ones."

Anil Padmanabhan is managing editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics.

Comments are welcome at anil.p@livemint.com

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