In India’s Politics-Civil Services Nexus, It’s the Poor Who Lose
Book Excerpt | ‘Over the years, slowly but surely, the role of the bureaucracy has been seriously compromised.’
For many years after Independence, India’s civil services were regarded as exemplary among developing nations. Under India’s system of public administration, there was supposed to be a clear division of roles between the permanent civil service and the political leadership. The bureaucracy was subordinate to the elected politicians, who were chosen by the Prime Minister at the Centre (and by the Chief Ministers in the states) to head different ministries and departments.
Doing the Politicians' Bidding
The government’s priorities and its work programme were set by the elected politicians, and the bureaucracy was supposed to ensure that this programme was implemented according to the laws in force and in line with approved administrative procedures. While implementing the programmes set by the Cabinet and the ministers, bureaucrats were expected to act without fear or favour and ensure that the benefits of the programmes flowed to the people regardless of their political affiliations. While the elected politicians were free to overrule the advice rendered by civil servants, the advisory functions of the bureaucracy were expected to be performed without regard to their impact on the private interests of politicians and the party in power.
Over the years, slowly but surely, the role of the bureaucracy has unfortunately been seriously compromised. Thus, the National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution, in 2002, in addition to highlighting the declining role of Parliament, as mentioned earlier, also pointed out the following:
“Arbitrary and questionable methods of appointments, promotions and transfers of officers by political superiors also led to corrosion of the moral basis of its independence. It has strengthened the temptation in services to collusive practices with politicians to avoid the inconvenience of transfers and for officers to gain advantages by ingratiating themselves to political masters. They would do the politicians’ biddings rather than adhere to rules. Lest the situation becomes more vicious, it is necessary that a better arrangement be conceived under the Constitution.”
The above is an excerpt from former Reserve Bank of India (RBI) Governor Bimal Jalan’s latest work, 'India Reckoning: Politics, Economy, Governance and Beyond'. The book, published by Bloomsbury, offers a blueprint for the government to launch reforms to reduce corruption and administrative bottlenecks. Across nine chapters, Jalan discusses a range of political and economic issues that will help India realise its full potential. Continued excerpt:
Frequent Transfers, Remunerative Postings, And Corruption
The deleterious effects of frequent transfers on the morale and effectiveness of top civil servants have been substantial. The costs to the country in terms of the loss of quality of administration have also been significant. The administration has become increasingly weak and arbitrary since there is no time available to a newly appointed civil servant to acquire even the minimum knowledge necessary for an effective discharge of functions. Incompetence at the top leads to acts of passive resistance and delays by subordinates. Corruption becomes unavoidable, both to avoid transfers and to secure remunerative postings by corrupt officials.
The common experience of most citizens who have to deal with a government agency for any purpose, large and small, is that of insuperable problems and delays. There is also a large diversion of funds from the intended purposes to bureaucrats, politicians, and middlemen at various levels of the administrative hierarchy. A host of recommendations for improving the system has been made by numerous high-powered committees. However, the general view among experts and experienced civil servants now seems to be that the reform of the system is not feasible. This is not because the country does not know what to do but because of the political resistance to the reform of the civil service.
Thus, a former Cabinet Secretary has written in his memoirs:
“Politics having become the most lucrative business in the country, with few checks and controls, there is a compulsion for the minister or political leader to attempt to coerce civil servants to collude with him for mutual benefit.… The service rules and procedures have been progressively adapted to facilitate this process.”
Poor Are the Most Dependent on Govt Services
Again, as is the case with respect to the effects of corruption, the worst sufferers of the politicization of administration are the poor, because of their dependence on public services and government programmes for various facilities, such as subsidized food and health services. Unfortunately, the poor also face the maximum degree of indifference and harassment from government staff in securing access to what they are entitled to. The indifference of the administrative system towards the poor in providing them with their legitimate entitlements is the principal reason for the increasing disparities between urban and rural areas as well as the widening in income levels of different classes of citizens.
The poor and unemployed are more dependent on the government than other sections of the people, particularly those who are employed in the organized sector and/or have access to services provided by other non-governmental sources.
Control Over the Public Sector – Another Way to Reap Benefits
In addition to control over the services provided by the government, another fertile area for reaping political benefits is the control over public sector enterprises. Many crucial sectors of the economy are dominated by public enterprises, for example, the railways, airports, public transport, oil, steel, coal, and banking and insurance.
For nearly four decades after Independence, many of these sectors were also characterized by widespread controls and shortages. The powers of issuing licences and allocating distribution channels for goods and services to beneficiaries (for instance, petrol pumps) were vested with and enjoyed by political authorities in charge of different ministries. Over the last four decades, most of the controls over the economy have been removed, and shortages of various kinds have also largely disappeared because of the abolition of import quotas, reduction in monopolies, and entry of new producers.
Who, Really, Can be Held Responsible?
Nevertheless, given the large role of public enterprises in the economy, the control of such enterprises still confers substantial powers to ministers-in-charge in dispensing political patronage to the suppliers and buyers of various kinds of goods and services.
Large contracts for new projects also require ministerial approval after all other technical and procedural formalities have been completed. Ministries have the final say on all policy matters, for example, pricing policy or financial policy, including the issue of additional shares to the public.
The greatest impact of political control and lack of autonomy on the management of public enterprises has been on their profitability and return on capital employed. Managers of public enterprises have virtually no flexibility in respect of operational or policy issues concerning their companies, such as shifting of branches, choice of delivery outlets, changing of the product mix, pricing of products, redeployment of staff, raising fresh capital, and corporate planning. While opportunities foregone and inefficient use of resources often impose heavy costs on public enterprises (and on the government in those cases where direct subsidies are provided to such enterprises in the budget), the social returns and benefits to the public are generally meagre.
The state of rural infrastructure and public services (such as health and sanitation) continues to be appalling by any standard. As multiple government agencies and ministries at different levels at the Centre and the states are involved in programming and implementation, no one can be held directly responsible for diversions or other corrupt practices.
(This is an exclusive excerpt from Bimal Jalan's book India Reckoning: Politics, Economy, Governance and Beyond published by Bloomsbury. Blurbs, paragraph breaksand subheadings have been introduced by The Quint for the ease of readers.)
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