Prime Minister Narendra Modi wants to catapult India’s economy past the $5 trillion mark by 2024-25. This would require reforms in all spheres of policy. Unfortunately, one important aspect that hasn’t got enough attention is an overhaul of our bureaucracy that is increasingly being seen as more of a dampener than facilitator of growth. Red tape has tied up many a past administration in knots, and Modi seems determined not to let this happen to his. At the end of a meeting to review the progress of a government scheme, the Prime Minister recently gave bureaucrats an earful, saying that they had spoiled his first five-year term in office, but he would not let them spoil the second. That he felt the need to make such a scathing observation on the Indian Administrative Services (IAS) speaks poorly of an institution that was said to be the “steel frame" of governance in our early years of independence. It appears to have caught rust, as acknowledged even by those within. In an oped for Financial Times titled “Modi must position India as a haven for investment", Duvvuri Subbarao, who was the top bureaucrat in the finance ministry before being appointed governor of the Reserve Bank of India in 2008, referred to the persistence of “the stereotype of an indifferent, corrupt, venal bureaucracy" while calling for a new narrative to attract investors.
The problem may have partly to do with the rigid structure of our administrative services. Much power is concentrated in the hands of the top few. Surprisingly, there are just about 5,100 IAS officers for a country of over 1.3 billion people. Expansion has been tardy while the challenges have grown complex. As generalists, these men and women often have to deal with matters beyond their field of expertise. While the lateral recruitment of domain experts from elsewhere has the government’s approval, appointments have been few and internal resistance to the idea high. But what the IAS system needs most acutely right now is not status quoism, but a new openness to change, perhaps even a shift in attitude from risk aversion to action orientation.
Government employment in general tends to instil a kind of complacency that no private sector executive, who must perform or depart, would dare slip into. Inefficiency is inherent in an organization focused on processes more than outcomes. The IAS is also afflicted by a sub-optimal incentive structure, one that makes inaction safer than action. Safety keeps an officer’s pay cheques and perks coming, after all, while making a file move could mean facing an inquiry or worse, should things work out badly. In recent years, retrospective probes of bureaucratic decisions are said to have sent chills down many a spine. Senior officers, some retired, have been indicted and even jailed for decisions taken years ago. With few upside gains in sight, the motivation to deliver what’s expected gets harder to muster. The onus of addressing any such fear is on the government. Bureaucrats will have to be assured that legitimate work will not attract punishment. The rewards of exemplary service, which usually take the form of sought-after postings, may also need a rethink. Officers should get extra compensation by well-defined metrics, not arbitrary bestowals. The Prime Minister has signalled IAS reforms. It’s time to get on with them.