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Three ministries and a conference

The PMO has declared the reform of bureaucracy as a major priority. I humbly offer evidence for it to consider; evidence gathered while I wa...

Written by Ravinder Kaur |
May 10, 2005

The PMO has declared the reform of bureaucracy as a major priority. I humbly offer evidence for it to consider; evidence gathered while I was organising an international (South Asia) conference of sociologists.

Our bureaucracy is nowhere near an efficient Weberian ideal, an organisation embodying a set of rules, working on certain principles, irrespective of the identities of the individuals manning it or those needing its munificence. Does the complexity of Indian reality defy rational-bureaucratic structures or is it the case that Weber and Durkheim, two great late nineteenth century sociologists, were simply wrong in assuming that complex societies could be governed efficiently by a smart division of labour and rational legal principles?

Due to the BJP’s revival of moribund rules for getting permissions for holding international conferences and the Arjun Singh ministry having decided to pursue destructive rather than constructive tasks, we had to apply for bureaucratic clearance. This was doubly necessitated because scholars from Pakistan were invitees.

From a helpful website of the Home Ministry, we figured it was the appropriate clearing home. On calling up the concerned department, we were told that our application had to come via a ‘‘nodal’’ ministry. We thought the node would be the Ministry of Human Resource Development. On contacting them we were told that HRD had nothing to do with sociology. We were told to go to the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment. Sociology — social work — social justice: To the bureaucrat that seemed a logical progression.

As we were running out of time, and paranoid about our Pakistani invitees not making it, we decided to move things at higher levels. A corridor meeting with the Secretary, Social Justice and Empowerment sent us to the joint secretary (JS). The JS reiterated that unless the topic of our conference had to do with the marginalised, she would not be able to help us. But being a helpful sort, she sent us off to a JS in the HRD ministry, pleading with him to help out these bumbling academics. The gentleman was very helpful, especially since the senior professor accompanying us discovered an old acquaintanceship from having taught in the IAS academy.

We heaved a sigh of relief. But on ringing up the Home Ministry to check about our HRD clearance, we were told that an additional clearance was required from the Ministry of External Affairs. This clearance would then be forwarded from MEA to Home, and then Home would issue the clearance, and then either Home or MEA would forward the notice to the consulates abroad for clearing the scholars. No less than three ministries were involved in clearing an innocuous academic conference. We talked to yet more helpful people at the MEA who informed us that after this, for each country there was a separate desk which would vet the scholars. Now the task looked impossible. We had only a few days left, a weekend and a holiday in between.

Meanwhile, we sent messages to the Bangladeshis and the Sri Lankans and the lone Bhutanese to come to Delhi on tourist visas (the Nepalis had already been waylaid by their own emergency). The same, however, could not be done for the Pakistanis. So we set out to pursue permission for our Pakistani scholars. This landed us in the office of a section officer in the Home Ministry, whose duty it was to send the clearance to the mission in Islamabad. We sat in his office for hours while directions were given to fax the letter. The gentleman was a paan-chewing type from Faizabad, with faces of his favourite movie actresses scrolling on the idle computer screen.

Having made sure the faxes had been sent, we decided to repair homewards. Little did we realise that even if we succeeded, one Pakistani scholar would not be able to make it because he had two passports and our government would only stamp the visa in his Indian passport and not in his British passport, the one he had sent to Islamabad from his hometown Karachi. Two other participants fell through because of the bureaucracy in Pakistan. But thanks to a senior Pakistani scholar, two Pakistanis made it and made it through his personal contacts in the Indian High Commission in Islamabad! So much for vetting of ‘‘dangerous foreigners’’ by bureaucracies!

The lessons we learnt were two. First, that mere academics can never be ahead of the labyrinthine workings of the Indian bureaucracy. Second, that without the ‘‘personal’’ in the bureaucratic (whether it was the joint secretaries one knew incidentally or the section officer one cultivated assiduously), one was doomed to failure. Having spent hours of precious work time on ‘‘permission chasing’’, we were chagrined to learn from an acquaintance at the World Bank, that he had simply sent a letter of information about his impending conference to the MEA. He never heard from them and went ahead and held his conference, Pakistanis and all, only to receive the permission weeks after the conference was over!

My suggestion: If you do want us to get clearances for conferences with foreign participants, please have a single window clearance. It will save on time, money and personnel. Better still, chuck these clearances. Now isn’t that what reform is all about?

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