Saturday, Jan 28, 2023

When the best becomes the enemy of the good

Governance 1. The governmental structure is a coral reef — it grows by spontaneous, often by accidental accretions, not by design. Two ...


1. The governmental structure is a coral reef — it grows by spontaneous, often by accidental accretions, not by design. Two factors have reinforced this feature:

Everytime something untoward happens — a lapse that becomes public, some inordinate time or cost over-run — another body is set up, another layer/ another stopover/ another loop is added to the procedure.

Fractured electorates have resulted in fractured Legislatures, and that has required a larger and larger number of ministries. Responsibilities and jurisdictions have got ever more fragmented. As a result, for every decision one has necessarily to consult an ever-growing number of functionaries. Each of them thus acquires a quasi-veto over every matter.

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2.The system is hierarchal. The higher the post one occupies, the more one’s opinion will prevail. But the altitude of the post depends on the number of years one has put in as a civil servant. But the larger the number of years, the more thoroughly rounded-off, broken-in so to say, one is certain to be.

3.By now the norms have themselves transmogrified. As I said, many an officer thinks that he has actually done work, that he has done what is required of him when he has sent the file to the next desk. Procedural routine has drained the ability to think — I am not talking of individual officers, but of the system as a whole.

4.Equally important, events have shown officers that no harm will come to them because of delay, because some project that had been assigned to him did not get completed in time etc. But that great trouble can come hurtling down on him should he try to cut through the system — motives will be pasted, inquiries may be launched. Why not just stick within the maze, and, in that too, why not tread the well-worn ruts?


5.Of course, often the impulse to seek the opinion of others springs from a genuine search for the best alternative. And, even in my limited experience, sometimes the initial proposal is indeed improved upon as it moves through the maze. But more often, the best becomes an enemy of the good. Had the second-best been done earlier, the ‘‘interest’’ that would have accrued on the matter would have far exceeded what has been gained from the improvement.

6.Often that business of ‘‘asking the Law Ministry for an opinion’’, of getting things decided in or endorsed by committees are appliances of protection. ‘‘Collective responsibility’’ in fact means that, search as you will, you will not be able to hold anyone responsible.

7.When circumstances have awakened the system to the necessity of a function, a department has been created to handle it. Environment? Okay, a Ministry. One result, as we noticed, is that now one has to get the approval of yet another ministry — which means, not one granite bloc, but four or five distinct and separate layers of officers in that organisation. But there is another inevitable consequence. When you set up a specialised organisation — say, a Ministry for Environment — that particular value is its sole concern. As far as the Ministry of Environment is concerned, the one thing that matters is the environmental impact of a project. We thus get a number of objectives, each of which is an over-riding one, a ‘‘matter of principle’’ for some limb of government or the other. Delays, meetings to ‘‘thrash out the issue’’, negotiations — I almost typed, ‘‘Indo-Pak negotiations’’ — become the order of the day.


8.Of course, the fact that this system must be reformed too has been recognised as an important goal. And so we have the Department of Administrative Reform. As a Department has been set up for the purpose, what should be a part of the work of every Ministry has become the exclusive responsibility of that one Department. The proposals of this Department now have to make their way through the maze like any other proposal from any other Department.

9.The system does not hear enough from those who suffer on account of it. It is said that when an organisation becomes larger than a hundred or two, it stops talking to and listening to the rest of the world. Its members busy themselves talking to each other. The government is not just a hundred or two hundred strong! The BSNL alone has three-and-a-half lakh employees. Moreover, those who approach the governmental system come as applicants, often as supplicants. They are naturally loath to pick up cudgels against it. They just want to get their little thing done. Often, when a falsehood appears in some newspaper against someone, his reaction is to let the matter pass. For, offended, the newspaper is liable to inflict much greater trouble. So, the paper does not hear much about what it has done. The one who gets entangled in the webs of officialdom is in the same position. First, his remonstration is almost certain to be referred to the same officers for redressal. Only the exceptional man will own up to a mistake. The chair of authority, as well as anonymity, as well as the fact that the internal working of the system is going to remain invisible to the outside world — all ensure that the poor sod who has been dealt with heartlessly will just have to lump it. But should, by some quirk, the officer who did wrong suffer on account of what he did in that case, he can make others in the system get at the complainant in myriad ways. Prudence ensures silence from the victims. The result is inevitable: as few confront the system, it hears even less than its sheer size would have led it to hear.

10.That the system has become vast as an ocean itself defeats the effort to change it. To transform this vast ocean the effort would have to be:


Across the board

Simultaneous on every front


But circumstances militate against each of these four imperatives. Ministers are ill-equipped. Secretaries etc. know the intricacies much better — but, as we noted, they are so thoroughly domesticated by the system that they do not have the passion which alone would sustain effort for long enough to affect real change. Knowledge and aptitude apart, there is the simple matter of time. The effort has to be sustained, we said. But the average tenure of a minister is but a few years — if that — in a ministry. And that of a Secretary is perhaps even shorter. I remember a quick survey that N C Saxena had done when he was Secretary of the Planning Commission: the average tenure of Secretaries of the Central Government turned out to be just 11 months. In the states, of course, the tenure is fleeting — in UP etc. a survey had shown the tenure of a Collector to be eight months, that of the head of the police in the district to be four to six months. With but a toothpick of jurisdiction and authority in the hands of each, and that too for such fleeting intervals, how can one ensure massive, across the board, simultaneous, sustained effort?

Things to do

The first lesson thus is for those who are outside the system: keep up the pressure. As citizens whose cases languish. As consumers who do not get the quality of service that they have been promised, that is their right to expect. As investors. When as an investor, for instance, you choose one State rather than another, broadcast why you have chosen the former and shunned the latter. Associations of industry should, and the media should collect and publish data about the time that cases take — in different States, in different departments — as well as the successes that have been wrested by individual officers. Rank the States, rank the departments. If only each of us would devote at least a fifth of the energy that we devote to getting our own case through the maze, if we were to devote just a fifth of that energy to straightening out the maze which slows all of us down, we would materialise the change we want.


The next lesson is to look around. True, there are delays. True, the system swallows attempts to improve it.

Yet, islands have survived. ISRO, to take one instance.

Yet, the very same system is able to tackle emergencies so well — the earthquake in Gujarat, to take another instance.


Yet the same system is able to shepherd without incident three crore pilgrims as they converge at a single place during the Kumbh.

Yet, the Maharashtra Government was able to construct the Bombay-Pune Highway in record time.


Yet, the National Highways Authority has been executing the Quadrilateral project with exemplary dispatch.

Yet, the Delhi Metro is being built with consummate efficiency.

The thing to do, therefore, is to document the factors that have enabled the same system to perform so well in these organisations and circumstances. One of the things we will see is how so much turned on just an individual or two — Dr Satish Dhawan in ISRO, Mr Sreedharan in the Konkan Railway yesterday and the Delhi Metro today — and on the trust that was reposed in them by the authorities. Thereby we will learn to value competence and integrity so much more than we do.

We will also glimpse the operational rules they adopted that cut through the maze. R C Sinha, who steered the Bombay-Pune Highway, had crafted an entirely novel set of rules for tenders. The contractor had to sign a bond that, if any disagreement or dispute arose, he would abide by Sinha’s decision. Each stage of every segment of the work had stringent deadlines. Stiff penalty was collected for every day of delay. Handsome reward was given and conspicuous recognition was bestowed for every day saved. The Government machinery was also made to assist in ways unusual: the day that the contractor was scheduled to begin work, water, power, a structure for storage were all ready for him at the site. Payments were made every week, without fail…

Similarly, I remember Dr A P J Abdul Kalam recounting his days at ISRO, and the many operational rules he recalled. ‘‘Everything should be done in mission-mode,’’ he counselled me, adding the impossible, ‘‘Preferably under 35.’’ A specific, clear task, he said. A small, compact team to execute it. The team completes that task, and disperses. Individuals from it and from other teams to be reformed into a new team for the next task… ‘‘We used to meet every Monday,’’ he recalled. Not for a fixed agenda, but together to get over problems that had come up. Not for any pre-fixed period, but for as long as the problems required. ‘‘We had a rule: if you feel you have to write to someone about something, don’t write — ring him up; if you feel you have to ring up someone for some matter, don’t ring him up — go to him, and sort the matter out there and then…’’ Not rocket-science. Instead the science that made rockets go up!

Document the rules that have been followed in such organisations.

Broadcast them.

Whenever even a small island of responsibility is placed under your charge, introduce such practices.

Stand by the officer who works to such rules.

Among the rules of thumb that I have found to be of help are the following six:

The smaller the Ministry, the better it runs. This has been one of the reasons that the Disinvestment Ministry has been able to execute a number of pioneering projects, and on each of them every officer has been able to do innovative as well as detailed work.

The Ministry should run, specially in a crisis, as an open seminar — lines of jurisdiction must have no significance, every officer should be given the confidence that his view is valued whether the particular task is his responsibility or not.

The team must at all times be receptive to, indeed it must be in the habit of soliciting information from outside the governmental system — as well as ideas.

It should do its best to follow ISRO-type rules in dealing with officers in other ministries.

The team must have all the powers that are required for bringing that task to a conclusion — if that infernal ghost, the ‘‘Rules of Business’’, vests those powers in the Minister, he must devote himself to every detail of the task and in effect be a working member of the team.

Those in Government who want to change things should not chase individual cases — no one can solve the problems of the number of individuals who are bound to be buffeted by the workings of a ministry or department. Instead, he should devote the limited energy he has, and the even more limited time he is going to have at the post, to altering the system — by wielding the axe that I shall just mention — by which their needs are to be met. I am fortified in this conclusion by the fate that has attended every ‘‘open darbar’’ that has been commenced in the last ten years.

I am sure that persons with more extensive experience of working in government will be able to add many other rules to the list. But my general conviction is different. Going by the way the system swallows efforts to reform it, do not attempt to reform the operation. Wherever possible, just hack away the function. That is one of the rules of thumb that guided me in dealing with the licensing system in telecom. The licenses were service-specific, they were user-specific, they were technology-specific, they were area-specific, they were vintage-specific. One approach would have been to go ironing one wrinkle out after another, to go on ‘‘rationalising the system’’ as they say. I had little doubt that while we may remove some complication today, as some problem develops, the loop will be introduced again. So, I worked to, as nearly as possible, abolish the requirement altogether. The Group of Ministers fully introduced the proposal. The Cabinet approved it. We now have one Universal Access License, and you get it for the asking — you pay the entry fee, get the authorisation, and provide any service to any customer using any technology anywhere in the country. The same thing has been done in altering the regime for Mergers and Acquisitions. Once the function itself is more or less abolished, and what remains is made quasi-automatic, non-discretionary, that the system remains as it was matters little — it is as if some shadow play were to continue in slow-motion in some faraway building.

This is the real route to reform — continue to transfer functions and power from the State structure to society. And accelerate the process that is already afoot — of transforming the nature of the Indian State. In the ’50s the effort was to fashion it into the principal engine of growth. In the succeeding three decades, it became the Great Monitor — authorising, banning, channelling, supervising every step of every activity. Today it is being refashioned into an entity whose job it is to enable others to do what they can best. An enabling State. The recognition is also creeping in that the true function of the State is to serve citizens. The numerous initiatives in eGovernance — eSewa of Andhra, the Bhoomi project of Karnataka, the facilitation counters at the Collectorate in Pune, the way the DGFT has computerised the filing of Export-Import forms — all these bear testimony to the change that is being brought about.

This is the real way out of the maze. Not ‘‘reforming’’ some particular procedure, but redefining the nature of the State itself.


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

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

PART I- Rules, rules! A republic chained by rules

PART II- The intricate art of indecision

First published on: 20-03-2004 at 00:00 IST
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