Bureaucracy: Work in progress

 It is undeniable that under the Congress dispensation of Manmohan Singh, the Indian bureaucracy, once proudly called the ‘steel frame’ of the British Raj, was viewed as slothful and indolent. Passing the buck and shying away from decision-making were the characteristics by which it was identified. Its productivity was abysmal and its credibility low.

While it is too early to gloat over Narendra Modi’s strong stewardship of the government today, early signs point to a work-led, no-nonsense approach by the new prime minister, who is an inveterate workaholic.

Taking decisions has never been the strong point of independent India’s bureaucracy, but never was it worse than in the aftermath of  Indira Gandhi’s Emergency rule, when the babus thought it expedient to push files because many of those who took bold decisions during that time, were hauled up by the Shah Commission, appointed to look into the excesses of the Emergency. Those who passed the buck typically were generally safer.

The Manmohan decade was the second instance when decision-making was at a particularly low ebb, as exposes upon exposes broke on the scene, which exemplified misgovernance. While the politicians generally got away, it was the bureaucrats who had to take the brunt.

That then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was a weakling who evaded responsibility and did not stand by his officers was clear in numerous cases, most glaringly in the case of then Coal Secretary P C Parakh, who was hauled up by the CBI even though he swore that he had kept the prime minister (who was then doubling as the coal minister) duly informed of every decision in regard to the controversial coal block allocations. The effect of this on the morale of the bureaucracy was devastating.

It is indeed significant that India’s bureaucracy has been ranked the worst among 12 Asian countries for almost two decades, according to a survey of about 1,200 investors across the region by Hong Kong-based Political & Economic Risk Consultancy Ltd. Civil servants take too long to make decisions and the government has been reluctant to make any changes, the group said, in a report last year.

It is small wonder then that in the last decade, foreign investors started shying away from investing in India, exasperated as they were with bureaucratic red tape, corruption and delays.

The bureaucrats got used to a culture of sloth and were cocooned in complacency until realisation dawned upon them that Prime Minister Narendra Modi was no Manmohan Singh and in contrast to his predecessor, he believed in a tough work culture.

Today, there is a concerted effort to rekindle work ethic among the bureaucrats.

Life for government servants in Delhi has become distinctly harder under the Narendra Modi government— they’re expected to clock in on time, stay late when needed and even give up holidays, besides cutting out the little pleasures in life such as lunches at Delhi Gymkhana and Delhi Golf Club.

Employees at a defence ministry office in Delhi were recently asked to sign a notice pledging that they would be in by 9 am or face disciplinary action.

The Delhi Golf Club has about 200 bureaucrats as members. Many had taken to playing a round of golf before they sauntered into their offices in a shockingly leisurely fashion, as if work was only incidental. It was only when rumours began to fly thick and fast that a list of officers who played golf regularly had been ordered to be compiled by the Modi government that many of them got the jitters and got back to work.

Gone was the golfing equipment that the bureaucrats proudly displayed in their offices. Education Minister Smriti Irani recently pulled up a bureaucrat at an office meeting when she saw him fiddling with his cell phone while discussions were going on. Bureaucrats who dismissed Modi’s election slogan, ‘minimum government, maximum governance’, as just another example of empty rhetoric are finding to their shock that he means business and that they can no longer afford to take liberties with work. Be it clocking in on time or not whiling away time consuming endless cups of tea and coffee, they are now exposed to a new culture that they find irksome.

One clever thing that Modi did on assuming office was that he assured the bureaucracy of protection against malicious prosecution for bona fide decisions, saying secretaries to the government could approach him or mail him directly with inputs and ideas on any issue for deciding matters quickly.

To the 73 secretaries who attended the interaction with the atypical prime minister, this was music to their ears. Many of them complained at the meeting that the erosion of the role of PMO and Cabinet committee on appointments had rendered bureaucrats vulnerable to ministerial whims, and had narrowed the room for professional inputs.

The message was also directed at Modi’s ministers: that they could not treat their portfolios as their personal fiefdoms and the bureaucrats as their vassals. By encouraging the bureaucrats to approach him directly, the PM has sought to open a direct line of communication with them.

An edict to officers demanded ‘hygiene and cleanliness.’ Offices must be ‘cleared and spruced up’; each department should scrap 10 archaic rules; and forms should be no longer than one page were some of the directives issued.

All this has led to greater work efficiency and better productivity, which seemed completely out of the bureaucracy’s reach less than a month ago. The challenge for Modi is to sustain these reforms. So long as he keeps up with his hands on approach, there is a good chance that his reforms will hold.

While the direction is positive, there is a danger that Modi may start behaving like an autocrat with a coterie around him calling the shots on his behalf. That could prove his undoing and he must guard against it.

Hawk Eye

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