A bureaucracy that governs,not reigns

Its poor performance contributes to India’s governance problem. Political interference is a partial explanation.

Published: October 16, 2013 1:22 am

Its poor performance contributes to India’s governance problem. Political interference is a partial explanation.

The last few months have seen widespread criticism of the Indian state for poor governance. Most commentators place the endemic problems of corruption,slow growth,riots,lack of decision-making,etc at the door of the political class. They may be correct in much of what they have said,but in their rush to castigate politicians,they have overlooked the role the bureaucratic machinery plays in misgoverning India.

The Indian bureaucracy,once regarded as the “steel frame” that supported the British Empire in South Asia,seems to have become rusty. It is no surprise that the Hong Kong-based Political and Economic Risk Consultancy rated it as one of the “worst” bureaucracies in Asia for bottlenecking key policies,widespread red tapism in everyday affairs,massive corruption,being uninnovative and insensitive,and harbouring generalist officers who lack expertise.

In our view,the oft-cited conclusion that the average IAS or IPS officer can hardly say “no” to a ministerial fiat,and political interference in the administrative structure by way of promotions or transfers,is,at best,a partial explanation of why the bureaucracy is perceived negatively. Bureaucracies around the world are generally slow-moving,rigid and self-perpetuating. It should come as no surprise that the Indian bureaucracy is similar. But two structural features mark it out as worse.

First,the elite bureaucracy hasn’t yet squared with the idea of devolution of power. They tend to seek to manage everything or have a role in every policy. This has overburdened the bureaucracy,but not stopped it from accumulating more power. It is hard to find major legislations by the Centre or states where the bureaucracy has not made a role for itself. These bureaucrats,with the best of intentions,seek to make laws they can implement or oversee. But this leads to no one task being done well.

Our observation is that these “good intentions” cannot be implemented because of the tasks the bureaucracy has accumulated for itself,while limiting who can join the club. The lack of governance at the local level,where citizens interact with the administration on an everyday basis,is acute. For instance,district-level officers in most parts of the world are entrusted with multiple tasks.

However,a district collector (DC) in India seems to operate on a completely different scale. A DC is the principal agency of government in matters of general administration in the district. As an administrator,the DC is responsible for postings,transfers and leaves of subordinate officers,supervision of civil suits in which states are a party,and interaction with members of the public. In a magisterial role,the DC is responsible for the maintenance of law and order,supervision of the subordinate magistracy,inspection of police stations and jails,and cases under the preventive section of the Criminal Procedure Code. The DC also grants recommendations,licences and permits.

As a collector,the DC is responsible for supervising the collection of nearly all government dues and revenue,granting government loans and their recovery,the supervision of the treasury and all matters relating to land records and acquisition. As a development officer,the DC is responsible for all relief measures during natural calamities or riots,implementation of anti-poverty programmes,the rationing system and civil supplies in the district,the management of all developmental work in the district,the coordination of all Central and state-sponsored welfare schemes,overseeing MPLADS and MLALADS,and acting as ex-officio chairman of various district-level agencies.

The operational guidelines of two new acts — the food security and land acquisition acts — suggest that the DC will be the point person in administering the logistical details of these programmes as well. The DC also has to deal with all residuary matters such as collections under the small savings schemes,contributions to public loans,etc. No one can do all these tasks well. We are not suggesting that the DC operates alone. There are lower-level bureaucrats such as sub-divisional officers (SDO),too. However,the bureaucratic machinery is not big enough to undertake all these tasks.

The size and scale of operations at the district level make bureaucratic control even more difficult. Districts in India are often bigger in area than Luxembourg and Lebanon,and have a greater and more diverse population than countries like Mongolia and Qatar. According to Census 2011,446 of 640 districts have a population greater than 10 lakh. Likewise,70 districts have an area of more than 10,000 sq km,and another 160 districts have an area of more than 5,000 sq km.

The Central and state governments have only a fifth as many public servants as the US relative to population. Data compiled from multiple sources suggest that India has about 1,623 government servants for every 1,00,000 residents. In contrast,the US has 7,681. The Central government,with 3.1 million employees,thus has 257 serving every 1,00,000 people,against the US federal government’s 840. This figure dips further if the 1,394,418 people working for the Indian Railways,accounting for 44.81 per cent of the entire Central government workforce,are removed. Then there are only about 125 Central employees serving every 1,00,000 people. To make matters worse,in a written reply in April 2010,Minister of State for Personnel V. Narayanasamy informed Parliament that approximately 30 per cent of posts,against the total authorised strength of 6,154 IAS and 3,475 IPS,are vacant. Though reliable estimates are unavailable,we expect this crisis to be more acute in cadres of provincial civil services.

Another major failing of the Indian bureaucracy is that many citizens report that the state not only fails them but also often ridicules and intimidates them. In January 2009,Lokniti-CSDS contacted more than 17,000 respondents as part of a “State of the Nation” survey (SONS) and asked about their experiences in meeting politicians and bureaucrats. Figure 1 shows that,on average,citizens felt bureaucrats (BDOs,tehsildars,DCs and SPs) were more inattentive and rude in comparison to elected representatives (sarpanchs,councilors and MLAs).

Thus,while the Indian bureaucracy does a stupendous job in performing techno-managerial tasks,such as holding elections or creating a virtual city for millions at the kumbh mela,it turns a blind eye to the plight of the poor. The poor have no control over the performance of schoolteachers,are openly intimidated in police stations,face rampant neglect at health centres,and are turned away from ration shops. As Edward Luce wrote in a recent book on the rise of modern India: “to the poor,the state is both an enemy and a friend. It tantalises them with a ladder that promises to lift them out of poverty,but it habitually kicks them in the teeth when they turn to it for help. It inspires both fear and promise”.

In the same survey (SONS 2009),respondents were asked who they would approach if they faced difficulty in getting important work done. Figure 2 shows that around two-thirds of respondents would approach a local politician,and less than one in every six respondents said they would approach a government officer. India’s bureaucratic machinery should govern and not reign. Else,citizens will continue to rely on political middlemen who,in turn,are hollowing out the state at the local level. For sure,India needs a larger administrative apparatus and perhaps districts of more manageable sizes to realise all that the state wants to do for the people.

The writers are with the Travers Department of Political Science,University of California,Berkeley,US.

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