Oped

Wooden bureaucracy

  • Now people have begun to distinguish between rhetoric and real performance, bureaucracy has to be more accountable
- MAHENDRA P LAMA
The bureaucracy should be the sole, honest custodian of national interests, but in India, it is the simple Indian folk who have always protected the country even in the most difficult of times. So why should these people be ignored in the governance process

Apr 11, 2018-The term ‘development’ is generic. The sweeping idea and uniform operationalisation of development encompasses geographies to communities, classes to castes, genders to cultures and the environment to the polity. Development has so many different connotations for so many layers and varieties of individuals, communities, geographies and institutions. From drinking water to rocket technology, open space defecation to the digital world, death from hunger to McDonalds, Goitre and multi-drug resistance TB to CT Scans, gulli danda to ball tampering in cricket, jhalmuriwalas to Citi Banks, bullock carts to bullet trains, and money lending Mahajans to GST—all are indicators and symbols of development.

The many definitions of development

For a farmer in a remote Nagaland village, development could entail the mitigation of a famine like situation through the flowering of bamboo, whereas for another farmer in Maharashtra, development could entail something that could prevent him from debt trap and suicide. For a school teacher, development could mean access to text books, midday meals, proper toilets and a roof over their heads, whereas for a businessman, development could mean easy access to inter-city flights, the internet and social media. Communities in the flood plains of the Koshi River in Nepal and India push for the construction of safe shelter-habitats in the name of development. And for industrialists in Jharkhand and Madhya Pradesh, the term development means access to easy and low cost use of natural and mineral resources. While the poorest of the poor take pains to search for safety zones to avoid hunger deaths and the alienated and deprived crave affirmative action, the bureaucrats in the Ministry of Finance and Reserve Bank of India struggle to achieve a one percent increase in the growth rate of Gross Domestic Products. All of these instances are examples of development.

Two key actors in the entire development drama have been the political parties-led institutions and bureaucratic organisations. The former defines development, makes policies and provide funds while the latter designs the delivery mechanisms required to reach cities, villages and communities. This is the mode of operation that has been followed by the national and state governments since the days of British-India. Yet why is it that despite well-established systems, basic development slogans such as ‘roti, kapada, bijli, sadak, pani-makan’ remain the most critical agenda among all national, regional and local political parties. Why are the common people still voting in the hope of getting some basic development relief?

In rural areas, people are still dependent on springs, rivulets and lakes for drinking water. Organised supplies of drinking water such as pipes have never reached them. In the tea estates of Darjeeling, the people draw their drinking water from the natural springs despite the fact that the tea plantations as a highly profitable industry were initiated in 1850s by the British companies. But the spring waters are now drying up. People are worshipping the family god Khepasung and appealing to their ancestral spirits for help, imploring them to resuscitate the spring. How are the state and the bureaucracy helping in this scenario?

Development has not yet reached the Chilaonedhura village of the Pankhabari Tea Estate. The government agencies still harp on about ‘physical inaccessibility’, ‘lack of infrastructure’ and ‘poor resources’ to explain this lack of development. For at least three generations, all those within Chilaonedhura village believed the reasons that the government gave for their inability to bring development to the area. But today, multinational companies including “Coca Cola”, “Head and Shoulders shampoo” and Pepsi’s “Uncle Chips” have reached the village. So what has deterred the governmental agencies with everything at their command? Sadly, in the name of liberalisation and reforms, government agents are withdrawing their development interventions without even reaching the vast majority.

Stymied progress

Given the country’s contrasting geographic, socio-cultural and eco-demographic features, the system of governance that was inherited from the British colonial regime will never be effective. The colonial regime had only one goal in mind—to rule the country by blocking basic development. Crushing popular aspirations was one way to protract their regime. This bureaucratic inheritance is today the weakest link in the development process. Bureaucracy is the core instrument of delivery, yet in India, it has been the most serious stumbling block.  This has systematically alienated the people. Prime minister Modi’s far reaching and people-centric “Swach Bharat Yojana” is the latest victim of bureaucratic indifference and lethargy. This project could have changed the face and orientation of the country. A project like this could have been effectively and innovatively implemented by schools and colleges, community organisations, the civil society and the private sector.

The Tenth Five Year Plan document of India mentioned that “In almost all States, people perceive bureaucracy as wooden, disinterested in public welfare, and corrupt. The issue of reform in governance has acquired critical dimensions, more so in the poorer states…Weak governance, manifesting itself in poor service delivery, excessive regulation, …is seen as one of the key factors impinging on growth and development.  There has also been less than adequate decentralisation of the functions of Government…”.

The monopoly of bureaucracy in three areas: public information control, accountability in professional commitment and capability, and implementation of plans and programmes of the government has made this institution top heavy, insensitive and lethargic. This deprives the people of awareness and knowledge, causes insensitivity, red-tapism and lethargy, and promotes corruption and unaccountability.

From the 1950s till the 1970s, bureaucratic weaknesses were largely offset by their sheer commitment to the nation’s good. Most of them remained dedicated to people’s problems and aspirations. Things have changed drastically. A majority of the new generation of bureaucrats have questionable commitments, a poor grasp on reality and an ever decreasing capability.  Bureaucrats themselves complain about their counterparts for injecting policy paralysis.  Most of them are firm believers in the ‘status quo’ or the ‘wait and watch’ policy. Once they start with this reactive game of stagnancy, they find every new idea radical and reactionary. They develop resistance, become immune to criticism, turn from institutions to individuals and alienate people further. The most debilitating impact is on institutional memories which have sharply eroded.

The bureaucracy should be the sole, honest custodian of national interests, but in India, it is the simple Indian folk who have always protected the country even in the most difficult of times. So why should these people be ignored in the governance process?

Scores of pervasive and ground-breaking Supreme Court interventions and powerful provisions of public interest litigations and access to information through constitutional amendments like Right to Information are some of the measures adopted to encourage people’s participation. People are becoming empowered by freely available and accessible information. Civil societies are now alert and proactive. The situation of either perform or perish is fast emerging. People are using performance barometers and distinguishing between rhetoric and real performance.

Reorienting and rebuilding the capacities of the civil servants and the entire bureaucracy are a prerequisite to any governance reforms. The process should start within the system. The second generation reforms should entail pruning the bureaucracy to identify those who are inefficient and to bring in professionals required for the running of the state. The aim should be to train and create layers of administrative and governance leaders at various levels of the bureaucratic hierarchy so that they become more innovative, responsive and accountable.

Lama teaches in Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi and has served many National Committees in India including the Prime Minister’s Task Force on Hill and Mountain Development

Published: 11-04-2018 07:58

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