The incoming government’s administrative reforms agenda was articulated in the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) manifesto that states “to transform India into a developed nation, we need to work with the guiding principle of ‘minimum government and maximum governance’ and we will bring reform in the civil services and implement it in a manner to achieve" this.
This comes against the backdrop of the previous National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government making effective use of the bureaucracy to push its economic reforms agenda as it focused on cooperative federalism.
“To ensure better implementation of policies and coordination, we will merge similar and complementary departments into sectoral ministries. This will allow policymakers to frame holistic and comprehensive policies on the one hand and ensure smooth implementation on the other," the manifesto said.
Talk of a separate ministry for medical devices and pharmaceuticals has also gained traction. At present, significant decisions ranging from pricing to regulations of drugs and devices are taken by the ministry of chemicals and fertilizers.
The incoming government has had experience with merging departments and ministries. The latest case in point being implementing the decision to merge the Central Statistical Office and National Sample Survey Office under the ministry of statistics and programme implementation into a single entity, the National Statistical Office. The previous government had also merged the ministry of overseas Indian affairs with the ministry of external affairs.
The mergers didn’t end at the ministry’s level. Synergies were also explored in state-owned companies for achieving efficiency and cost competitiveness. Finance minister Arun Jaitley had proposed, in the Union Budget 2017-18, an integrated “oil major". State-run Oil and Natural Gas Corp., which accounts for 73% of India’s oil and gas output, acquired the government’s stake in Hindustan Petroleum Corp. Ltd for ₹36,915 crore last year. Power Finance Corp. Ltd also purchased a controlling stake in state-run peer REC Ltd to create an $80-billion lending giant by assets.
“We see opportunities to strengthen our central public sector companies through consolidation, mergers and acquisitions. By these methods, they can be integrated across the value chain of an industry," Jaitley had then said.
The NDA government has evolved its engagement matrix for the bureaucracy. From culling of non-performers to implementing think tank Niti Aayog’s recommendation for lateral entry of specialists in policy making, the government’s leitmotif on the bureaucratic landscape has become pronounced.
In what is being termed as the final frontier of reforming the Indian bureaucracy, the Union Public Service Commission in April announced the results of nine lateral hires on contract at the level of joint secretary in various departments and ministries. These positions have been the remit of the officers from All India Services such as the Indian Administrative Service (IAS).
“This is unprecedented. We thought it was more of a weather balloon but we were proved wrong. I would expect more such appointments," said a retired IAS officer who served as a secretary in the Indian government requesting anonymity.
The move was in sync with the second Administrative Reforms Commission’s recommendations and marked a breach in the hegemony of the IAS. It comes against the backdrop of the Modi government consistently resetting the rules of engagement specifically with reference to the IAS, which Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel famously called the “steel frame" of India’s government apparatus. According to a howindialives report, the average duration of IAS posting in the last five years has improved to 464 days.
In 2014, the centre had mooted the idea of allowing lateral entry from academia and the private sector at the joint-secretary level. Initially, 10 such lateral entries were to be selected and had drawn criticism from serving and retired members of the Indian bureaucracy. The recruitments have been done to infuse domain expertise in key government departments and bring in specialized talent in various government departments, contributing to better governance. Simplicity and ease may be the mantra from now.
“We will set up a committee for easing citizens’ interactions with government (CECIG) to work with experts in reforming citizen’s interface with the government across domains such as taxes, business compliance, rules and regulations for greater simplicity and ease. To empower citizens and ensure time-bound delivery of public services, we will explore every avenue to implement the right to service," the manifesto said.
The previous NDA government adopted a public outreach strategy and has been a votary of Twitter for e-governance. Various ministries and departments such as the railways, external affairs, and commerce and telecom have been using the service provided by the San Francisco-based firm to address the plethora of citizen complaints in real time.
The working style of the Indian premier has been radical and reformist. As soon as the NDA government assumed office in 2014, in a first, the Prime Minister met 77 top secretaries without their ministers present in June. Also, 16 groups were created by clubbing related ministries to expedite decisions and reduce the bureaucratic red-tape.
The new government will continue with the marquee Rashtriya Gram Swaraj Abhiyan for capacity building of Panchayati Raj Institutions and ensuring delivery at the grassroots.
Under the initiative, the central government sent bureaucrats to more than 45,000 villages to not only ensure 100% saturation of seven social welfare schemes, such as Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana and Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana, but to also showcase alternative livelihood models to women and farmers.
Now, it has set its sights on police and judicial reforms.