Can Indian Bureaucracy Be Fully Reformed? Who’ll Bring In Change?

Veteran IAS officer Jawhar Sircar explains the problems plaguing the Services and what can be done. 

Updated
Opinion
6 min read
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Some 46 years ago, I left a blue chip company to join the Indian Administrative Service (IAS), and while many of my colleagues there retired with tens of crores of rupees — some in hundreds as well — my savings and investments at the end of almost 42 years are too embarrassingly small to mention. Be that as it may, the experience that I picked up is worth millions, as is the feeling, however misplaced, that one has ‘served the nation’ — despite the odds.

The India of today is, however, dramatically different from what it was four decades ago, and it feels good to think that we have contributed to many of the changes.

A large number of people do not, however, subscribe to any upbeat feelings, and many sincerely believe that the bureaucracy as a whole has certainly not moved with the times.

A big section fumes with uncontrollable rage at the ‘slothy’, ‘negative’ and ‘corrupt’ behemoth and they are within their rights to demand drastic reforms — without any loss of time. Numerous are the international reports that castigate Indian officialdom as the ‘most insurmountable impediment’ to any change.

Who Is Going To Introduce Reforms?

But reform what? The entire system? Or the IAS? Well, the central bureaucracy has some 33 lakhs employees, where the IAS numbers less than 500 — which comes to just 0.015 percent. All states put together employ 2 crores and IAS officers count around 5000, which is too tiny to count. Yes, they do occupy many senior posts, and these stark figures are only to clarify to those who equate the whole bureaucracy with the IAS.

Similarly, the top central services constitute too tiny a number in the ocean of officialdom. Who will bring in the change?

Let’s face it: if the most overactive prime minister in Indian history could make nothing more than a few scratches on the surface of the huge bureaucracy in almost seven years, God alone knows who can turn it around?

And accusing the IAS, the IPS or the central services for the ills of the entire system that they largely inherited may give vent to built-up steam, but is, frankly, like blaming the driver for whatever is wrong with the car. There is, of course, a counterpoint — that this driver is also a qualified mechanic and, several who reach the top do play a considerable role in automobile engineering or crafting the system. One cannot, thus, evade total responsibility.

Why Don’t Officers Revolt Against the Political Classes?

It is a different matter altogether that the political class has taken over all major policymaking responsibilities. Even after so many committees and commissions, senior-most officers have not succeeded in convincing their rulers to de-weed the system or introduce structural changes. But why don’t the officers revolt? They do — not revolt, but some surely differ, at least till recently.

The terrible fate of dissenting officers is well-known. Also fresh is the sight of the disproportionate amount of goodies heaped on the agreeable.

The ‘beheading’ of several top secretaries at the top strata in the central government in recent memory makes most want to be as ‘proper’ as possible. A few, of course, fantasise of the good times that were showered on those who destroyed constitutional bodies to grovel.

Many of our generation who took to ‘reforms’ at our level and insisted on digital correspondence more than a decade ago, enthused practically no one.

As Culture Secretary, one was gently advised that the quick decisions one took over email did not really count unless they were “reduced to writing” in bulky files and “duly authenticated”, that is, signed. Many babus were also concerned at the “lack of secrecy” over mails, until I explained that the Indian State could surely not be threatened by an exchange of emails on where to hold the next folk dance festival.

How the System Simply Refuses to Change Its Habits

The nay-sayers were bullied into submission, but in the next posting (as head of the public broadcaster), one has on record a note from an officer of the rank of Director General refusing to go digital, on the ground that the Rules did not provide for this banal option — at least not then. Officials were obviously more accustomed to waiting for long periods for bulky files with familiar bureaucratic notes from Section Officers to climb several layers up, over many days, with those above this wise man just adding their signatures on it. These files took (and still take) equally long periods to travel down, past so many autograph-adding strata.

This is a small example of how the system simply refuses to change habits — but if the order came from someone all-powerful, officials would sing choruses and change somewhat. They would, of course, snicker at this ‘folly’ during their tiffin breaks.

One often wonders what on earth happens to those bright, highly-qualified thousand-odd young men and women who emerge successful each year in the civil services examination — out of the 11 lakhs who apply and 5.5 lakhs who actually appear at the test.

This small number (it went down to 750 recently) represents one the toughest tests in the world, and the profiles of many are, indeed, what any multinational corporation would lap up for many, many times the salary that the Indian nation offers.

These few undergo a fairly long, rigorous multi-faceted training that has largely adapted with the times. It converts a heterogeneous mass from impossibly diverse backgrounds and disciplines into a more determined ‘mission team’ — but this is the story of only the higher services.

What the Upper Bureaucracy Has ‘Failed’ to Achieve

We overlook the fact that the large three-fourths or more of the pyramid below this level — the cutting edge of the clerk, the constable and village official — remains pretty much the same as it was ages ago. True, some sort of a training is sought to be meted out, often too late in the day, but the denizens of these really powerful layers pick up survivors’ guidelines and tricks of the trade from wizened seniors.

The upper bureaucracy simply cannot deny that it has hardly succeeded in instilling its sense of mission into these levels — that really interface with our citizenry the most.

And, it must, therefore, share the blame for this largely incorrigible lot. It is not as if this army of babus and sipahis is all that bad — it has, as we all know, the good, the bad and the ugly. The last two remain imbedded in public imagination. Some clerks or constables revel in showing off their power (which is disproportionate to their rank and pay); some create problems as they are obsessed with rules and their rigid interpretation, while a sizeable number uses whatever is available to extort whatever is possible from people.

So dependant is the upper strata of the bureaucracy on this ‘army’ that it can hardly reform or punish it.

Even the stubborn few who are fired by zeal ultimately concede to the persuasion of the middle layers that deals with them, day and night. And when the corrupt section of the upper strata makes hay while the sun shines, it naturally works hand in glove with those whose depredations are proverbial.

Why Punishment Is A Time-Consuming & Complicated Activity

When one hears of very young IAS officers hell bent on making money from day one, one hangs one’s head in shame. Every time a crisis happens or a scandal breaks out, there is a witch-hunt that can hardly succeed in ferreting rats out of holes, but it ends up by further tightening rules or procedures. This actually facilitates the corrupt to extort even more.

The procedure to punish is so, so complicated and time-consuming, that one thinks twice before initiating action.

One is still suffering in courts many years after retirement (and paying from one’s pension) to defend for bona fide actions taken against despicable officers years ago. Naturally, the wiser decide not to take action. Dealing with corruption and stronger punitive action are crying for attention, but who will bell the cat?

(Disclaimer: This piece was originally published on the author’s personal blog and an edited version has been republished on The Quint with the author’s permission. The original article can be accessed here.)

(Jawhar Sircar is a retired IAS officer. Among other positions, he has been CEO of Prasar Bharati, and Culture Secretary, GOI. He tweets at @jawharsircar. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses, nor is responsible for them.)

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