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Rules, rules! A republic chained by rules

Governance: From kaargozaari to kaam On behalf of the Government, I assure you that this subject which you have chosen — of files etc....

Governance: From kaargozaari to kaam

On behalf of the Government, I assure you that this subject which you have chosen — of files etc. — is under active consideration of the Government also. Indeed, several files deal exclusively with it. The Committee of Secretaries headed by the Cabinet Secretary himself is actively seized of the matter. After intensive deliberations, they have concluded that, while the problem is a deep-seated one, a nihilistic or fatalistic view should not be taken. As the problem is real, a realistic view has to be taken.

Furthermore, after comprehensive deliberations that covered all aspects of the matter, the Committee of Secretaries has established clearly that piecemeal solutions will work no longer, that instead the matter has to be tackled from a holistic point of view.

Accordingly, the Committee of Secretaries has already set up a sub-committee to tabulate, review and assess the recommendations on processes and procedures of government that have been made over the years by all committees and commissions since the Administrative Reforms Commission of 1966. The resolve of the Government to solve this long-standing question once and for all will be evident from the fact that the deadline that had been prescribed for this sub-committee to submit its interim report has been extended for the second time just last week.

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The Government also takes a serious view of this necessity that crops up with regular periodicity to extend deadlines. Accordingly, two sub-groups have been constituted: one to devise measures to make deadlines more effective; and the second to recommend ways and means to affix responsibility for cost and time over-runs in the work of committees and sub-committees… These two sub-groups will commence work as soon as their terms of reference are finalised by the Department of Personnel, the Department of Law and the Department of Administrative Reform. Secretaries of the three departments have been instructed to take up this task on a high-priority basis. Given the Government’s commitment to complete transparency, citizens can rest assured that no time will be allowed to be lost and a formal statement will be made to the public at large as soon as a final view has been taken in the matter.

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Everyone in Government is reminded everyday that administration is entangled in, that it entangles others in, red tape. It does so in many ways, for a variety of reasons:

1 Ministries function as silos: from another silo a question arrives, in a file; the file travels down to lower and lower forms of life; it comes to rest at the desk of the long-suffering officer somewhere near the bottom; he looks up files on this or similar questions, and prepares a draft response; the file now begins its journey up the ladder in this particular silo — at each step the preceding noting is summarised, sometimes a marginal addition of substance is made; eventually it reaches the top; the imprimatur of the appropriately high authority having been affixed, the file is sent to the silo from which the question emanated.

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2 A consequence of even this first bit of the sequence should be noted: while it will notionally be deliberated upon as it travels up the silo, often what has been drafted by the official low down in the silo survives intact; that official is one who is liable to have the narrowest perspective, he is liable to feel most constrained by precedent, he is liable to be the most ‘‘literalist’’.

3 Every decision has to be referred to half-a-dozen other silos: Thus, having returned from one silo, the file now begins its journey to a third silo… The question would have been processed for months — I can at short notice cite half-a-dozen examples from my own very short experience; various officials would have pored over it; inter-ministerial meetings would have taken place; the draft would have been circulated among different ‘‘stake-holders’’ — a much favoured expression these days; and yet, when the file comes up to you, the best of officers would have recorded, ‘‘May be sent to Law Ministry for vetting.’’

4 As a consequence, a case gets to be ‘‘processed’’ for periods that are incomprehensible to those outside government:

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The residence of a high functionary of Government is a splendid property. A tree fell on it nine years ago. The place remains unoccupied to this day. As it is situated right next to the building of an important office, every person visiting that important office sees it — vacant, locked up, a ‘‘bhoot-bangla’’. For nine years, officials have been exercising their minds on how and what repairs have to be carried out. A typical debate that has ranged in the files: some rule says that the residence of a functionary of that standing should be 760 sq. metres or less; the plan made by the architect turned out to be 780 sq. metres; sorting that wiggle out took four months. Nine years. And in the meantime, Government pays Rs 6.5 lakh as rent every month for the alternative accommodation.

Everyone knows how swiftly things move in the telecom sector, how fierce competition is in it. Yet, it takes 8 to 19 months for the BSNL to process a tender. Equipment that is now reaching the Northeast originates from a tender floated two years ago. The equipment is woefully inadequate — for demand has exploded meanwhile; and also relatively obsolete — for technology has continued to advance by the day.

The two principal inputs in aluminum are bauxite and power: the decision to set up a captive power plant in BALCO took seven years. Not the setting up of the plant, just the decision to set up the plant took seven years.

5 This aeonic timescale has got so ingrained that the one who cuts through the tape and does the task at normal pace, is at once denounced, questions are raised, motives attributed — in Parliament, through plants in the press. ‘‘Why this unseemly haste?’’ runs the insinuation:

Disinvestment transactions take two to three years to complete, yet every time a transaction is completed, every time a debate in Parliament occurs, the cry goes up, ‘‘Why this unseemly haste?’’

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Exactly the same thing has started happening as I have tried to get BSNL to speed up its procurement procedures.

6 The core competence of many a civil servant, and the reason he is so indispensable is that he knows the successive turns of this maze, he knows the signposts along it, and the wayside inns.

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7 The system is such that it swiftly entangles in the same faded tape despite every effort to reform it. The fate of the Administrative Reforms Commission, the fate of the innumerable committees that were set up to reform the industrial and import-export licensing systems, the fate of the committees that have been set up in 23 ministries to affix responsibility for time and cost over-runs in major projects… each testifies to the quicksand-like ability of this system to swallow and digest every effort at speeding it up. Even when persons are caught red-handed, the case is quietly buried along the maze.

When I was given charge of the Communications Ministry, I heard horrendous accounts of corruption in some of the PSUs under the Ministry, and about what had been happening in regard to tenders, to releasing payments for work that had been completed. Officials and I held intensive meetings with the suppliers of equipment. A procurement manual was drawn up. It was put on the Net. But I also knew that manuals cannot stop the resourceful. Therefore, I met the Director of the CBI, and encouraged him to put whomever he thought fit under surveillance.

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Since then half-a-dozen officials of BSNL have been caught — with enormous, with, from the perspective of a mere author like me waiting for royalties, unthinkable amounts in cash in their houses: cash ranging from 40 lakhs to one-and-a-half crore has been recovered from each official’s house. Months have passed. Formal letters have been sent to CBI from the Ministry. What is the problem, we have inquired. Cash has been recovered. The man is not able to explain it. Why is the case not filed? All to no avail. Will someone engineer an ‘‘out-of-court settlement’’, I am left to wonder. Will a case be filed, and then die in court — the natural death of extreme old age?

To be continued

Based on the writer’s address at the India Today Conclave

The writer is Union Minister for Disinvestment, Communications and Information Technology

First published on: 18-03-2004 at 00:00 IST
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