Time for administrative reforms

The arrival card I filled on the flight back to the Motherland had a mysterious new question.

Written by Tavleen Singh | Published: February 8, 2009 1:17 am

The arrival card I filled on the flight back to the Motherland had a mysterious new question. Does your passport carry an ECR stamp? ECR? ECR? Mystified,I turned the form over to examine the list of abbreviations helpfully listed at the bottom of the page. PIO,OCI,NRI. No reference to ECR. But at the top of the page,‘Incredible India’ and ‘Welcome to India’ were written in big letters over a long list of rules and regulations in very small print and very convoluted English. Clearly,the work of clerks and the clerkly minded.

Most civilised countries no longer require their own citizens to fill arrival cards either when they are traveling abroad or coming home. Technology has changed the rules of arrival so because I invested in the Iris programme at Heathrow Airport some years ago,it is easier for me to enter London than Mumbai. No forms,no officials. I simply stare into the Iris machine which lets me through if it recognises my eyes. I was mulling over this at Mumbai’s chaotic,disgraceful new airport when I found myself faced with the next hurdle to entering ‘Incredible India’. The immigration officer spent five minutes reading every page of my passport. When I asked him why he needed to do this he looked at me as if I were mad to ask. This is routine. This is how we work. We like spending huge amounts of time on minor procedural details because more than 95 per cent of those in charge of governance in India are clerks. And,clerks like little clerical details.

Having spent long years in government,Dr. Manmohan Singh knows this well so when he became Prime Minister,the first thing he promised was administrative reforms. It remains the most important thing that he never did. Why? Did the clerks fight back? Was he overwhelmed by the enormity of the task? Whatever the reason,we cannot afford to continue as we are if we want to win against the Islamists and if we want India to become a prosperous,modern country.

Never since India became an independent nation 60 years ago has national security been more under threat. The enemy may only be a bunch of religious fanatics but they are highly motivated and,as we saw in Mumbai,highly trained. To fight them we need to strengthen our defenses. Our soldiers and policemen need better weapons and they need better training. This will not happen if we carry on in our usual fashion. Allow me an example here. After escaping through immigration into the noise and chaos of Mumbai city,I drove to the Gateway of India to catch a boat across the water to a house on the coast where I was to spend the weekend. As I walked to the private boat that was taking me,an old man in a blue uniform pounced on me,waving a metal detector. He was the watchman,he said,and I could not get past without being metal detected. Will you have time to metal detect the next boatload of terrorists who come to Mumbai,I asked facetiously and he gave me a puzzled look.

Until we realise that clerks cannot be put in charge of national security,this is the kind of security we will get. The measures that have been taken to fortify Mumbai’s defences since the November attacks may as well not have been taken. They are a complete waste of taxpayers’ money. There is much to be done. We need to double our defence budget if we are to take on Pakistan’s Islamic warriors but we will be pouring good money after bad if we do not first demand sensible,effective procedures.

If you are thinking I must be mad to start banging on about administrative reform when a general election looms ever closer,then in my defence,I say that if we do not start talking about it now it will never happen. There will always be some good reason why it cannot happen because shaking off decades of sloth and stupidity will not be easy.

For things to change we need the sort of citizens pressure we saw in Mumbai after the attacks. I have been sent since then all sorts of suggestions on winning the war against the jihadis but nobody has mentioned administrative reform. As long as Indian governance remains tied up in archaic rules and regulations,we will continue to see taxpayers’ money being poured down the drain. These are rules from an earlier,sleepier time. If the Sonia-Manmohan government in its dying weeks abolishes the rule that requires Indian citizens to fill in arrival and departure forms,they would have made a beginning.

For all the latest Opinion News, download Indian Express App

    Live Cricket Scores & Results