Trim that FLAB

The bureaucrat is a generalist and gets to head departments that should be managed by specialists

Published: Monday 15 November 1999

"In framing a government to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this; you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself''.

-- James Madison in Federalist

civil service is a misnomer, for what it does can neither be described as 'civil' nor as 'service'. It is not civil because it governs (rather than administers) on the assumption that if you don't fall in line, you will be jailed, harassed, beaten up or hanged. Coercion and the implied threat of violence are the fundamental premises on which the civil service works -- ideas that are innately uncivil. And what India's civil service does can by no stretch of imagination be described as service, because what it does is rule over the people. And the ethos and attitudes of the ruling classes are entirely different from those of the serving masses; the former is based on power and arrogance, the latter on piety and humility.

The ethos that guides the Indian bureaucracy is against the spirit of the age which demands openness, transparency, public participation. On the other hand, bureaucracy works in secrecy and discourages transparency and public participation in decision-making. Secrecy breeds corruption. Excessive government and lack of public participation destroys democracy, thwarts private initiative and smothers development. Any one who tries to have a close look at the working of Indian officialdom would be appalled to find that the bureacracy is an obstructionist instrument, an instrument that consciously and effectively smothers initiative.With economic liberalisation, many of us have begun to delude ourselves with the comforting idea that the quota-permit-licence raj is over. Even though its death has been announced officially, the men who used to run this vast empire of ineptitude and corruption are still alive and kicking, and they would never allow democracy to flourish and free enterprise to thrive. The result: India would continue to be among the economically weaker nations, figuring in the lower half of the list of countries prepared by organisations like the World Bank in their economic reckoning. All this despite the country's great wealth of natural resources and extraordinary reservoir of technical humanpower.

Blame the babu for this state of affairs. He/she would like to have a say in every thing. The generalist that he/she is, he/she thinks specialist are fools. George Fernandes, whatever his shortcomings, did the country a great service by showing these men their place and marching them up the Siachen glacier. Sitting in their comfortable offices in New Delhi, they seemed to know (as usual) the conditions faced by soldiers at the freezing heights better than the soldiers did. Armed with extrasensory perception, these know-alls have readymade answers for everything and to hell with specialists. The Indian bureaucracy would not easily relinquish its powers, powers that are often not sanctioned by the constitution or the law, but stem from some old pre-democratic usage. The babu is an anachronism today, a disincentive for growth and prosperity. The country has to see to it that officialdom is gradually disarmed, its area of operations and anachronisms like the Official Secrets Act either scrapped or shorn of their imperialist underpinnings. Less government is always better government, but the babu would not listen.

To understand why our civil service is impervious to the spirit of the age, one has to go back to its origins during the British Raj, when it was an instrument of repression and exploitation of the toiling masses, used to serve the interest of the empire. The Indian Civil Service or ics (the forerunner of the Indian Administrative Service and other central services) was not serving the Indian people; it was only serving the empire whose interests did not coincide with those of the 'natives' at all. Modelled as it is on the ics , service to the people is not at all the idea of the civil service today; it sees itself as 'government service', and government, though notionally 'of the people, by the people, for the people', is in fact the binary opposite to the people. It must be clearly understood here that, as of now, in most developing countries, the State has an adversarial relationship with the people.

The bureaucracy, being the most powerful instrument of the state, is most adversarial vis--vis the people. The old attitudes of superiority over and arrogance for the 'natives', inherited from the ics , are still operational. The 'natives' can more easily access a minister or member of Parliament ( mp) than a bureaucrat or even a smalltime clerk in a government office. The most vicious and corrupt politician is more accessible than a fairly reasonable bureaucrat, because a politician is from the people and has to look up to them, while a bureaucrat is not from them and is not obliged to look up to them. That is the difference.

Coming to Madison's 'difficulty', God knows the Indian people have done their best to enable their government to control them. However, the people are in a fix to find a way for the government - and its most important instrument, the bureaucracy - 'to oblige it to control itself'.

The problem is that of attitude. As the present civil service is an inheritor of the ethos and methodology of the ics , it cannot be expected to control itself; its raison d'tre lies in controlling the 'natives'. Several people have com-mented on the unviability of the project of running a democratic administration with the mindset inherited from diehard imperialists.

As the people's confidence in the State (which St Thomas Aquinas described as the perfect society) keeps eroding, the political class is consistently stigmatised as the villian of the piece - corrupt and inept. Popular resentment somehow deflects attention from the viciousness and ineptitude of the power cabal (the civil service) that runs the show for the poli-ticos. And by now the cabal has become so deft at manipulating things that it never allows public resentment to focus on it. An example: a couple of years ago when the politician-bureaucrat-criminal nexus made life a hell for every Indian, a popular demand for investigating the nexus forced the government to order a probe. Again, the bureaucrats running the show wriggled out of it by simply dropping the 'bureaucrat' from the scope of the enquiry. Finally, the usual whipping boys - the politician and his crony, the gangster - shared the opprobrium as the bureaucrat looked at the charade with glee. The political class turned out to be the greatest sucker because it failed to outmanoeuver the bureaucracy, which legally and constitutionally is subordinate to its political masters.

The bureacracy has to remember that such victories can only gain it some more time. A day will come when the society would insist on accountability. It has also to remember that the demise of the Soviet Union was largely a result of the waste and inertia created by its gigantic bureaucracy, a bureaucracy that was good for nothing except fudging figures of production and devising ever-newer ways of corruption.

So far, the bureaucracy has been passing the buck on to its political masters. For every case of dereliction of duty, a government official would say "we are hamstrung by political interference." With that simple explanation a government official would exonerate himself/herself without any qualms. Now, the people know that the bureaucracy has developed a vested interest in political interference. It suits the babu as it comfortably hides his/her own ineptitude and corruption.

There are some people like Amartya Sen who think we don't need less government but more. But even from this reckoning, babu dom is found lacking in performance. Jean Derez and Amartya Sen write the following in their India: Economic Development and Social Opportunity. Many of the traditional government interventions in India have tended to take a market-excluding form; for example, regulations and controls that stifle economic initiative in certain areas, the prohibition of trade that shuts out economic options in particular fields and so on. At the same time, some types of supportive - as opposed to negative and restrictive - government activities (such as a comprehensive policy of basic education for all, an adequately widespread programme of health care ,and so on) have been systematically neglected.''

That shows the Indian State has been guilty on two counts; it has been stifling economic activity with its elaborate web of rules, regulations and restrictions (the quota-permit-licence syndrome) and not working in areas it should have, like in expanding basic education and health care. By now, this unproductive pattern of sins of omission and commission has become ingrained in the way bureaucracy works. Nobody is benefitted from this except the burgeoning babu dom. Many people feel that even if the massive officialdom is reduced by half the country would not suffer. On the contrary, it would save a lot of revenue and people would breathe easier because they would not be hassled by intrusive government officials in everything they do. In fact the last Central government employees pay commission had recommended a 30 per cent reduction in the number of employees over the next ten years. Again, the proposal was shot down by officials saying that the proposal needed further study, a commonly used ruse for shelving proposals.

Meanwhile, secretary-level officials who used to get around Rs 18,500 per month had their salaries hiked to a staggering Rs 26,000 in basic monthly salary alone. The hike put an extra burden of Rs 11,250 crore annually on the exchequer. That meant 0.04 per cent of the country's population (that is the ratio of cenral government employees to the country's population) had cornered for itself a hefty sum of Rs 11,250 crore in salary increases alone while the remaining 99.96 per cent of the population had to do with only Rs 1,500 crore (a whole year's budget allocation) for women's welfare, social seccurity, nutrition, medical education, training and public health. The bnhs study revealed that the preferred habitat of the bird is dry, short grasslands where the vegetation is less than one meter high. Light grazing by livestock and wild herbivores actually improves their habitat. But over-grazing, which is rampant in India, has a severe impact on its breeding because the egg is frequently destroyed by grazing animals.

The greatest beneficiary of grassland protection is the blackbuck ( Antilope cervicapra ), which is another true inhabitant of short grassy plains. Moreover, blackbucks have a tremendous potential to increase in number. But their tendency to destroy crops makes them unpopular among farmers.

An important feature of a bustard core area is that it can be a seed bank. Owing to severe overgrazing throughout the year, many grasses used for fodder have disappeared or remain in the form of roots or stolons. When an India Today correspondent asked economist Suresh Tendulkar whether a poor country like India could afford to maintain such a costly bureacracy, he said 'no'.

The point to be noted here is that much of the officaldom has outlived its utility. It could well be the dinosaur of the next century. It has to begin to make itself useful and justify the huge public expense that is made on it before it reaches the point the Soviet bureaucracy did in the first part of this decade.

The author is a senior journalist

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