An atmosphere of suspicion demoralises civil servants. We need deeper reform.
There has been much discussion recently on administrative paralysis and fear among civil servants. The performance of the administration should be viewed in the context of several factors. First,there is always a general decline in both performance and decision-making when an election,whose outcome is not entirely clear,approaches. Second,the economy is not healthy not just in India,but globally. Third,the quest for an acceptable fiscal deficit has led to sharp cuts in plan outlay. Last year,the cut in plan expenditure was estimated at more than Rs 90,000 crore,while non-plan expenditure increased by 6 per cent. Such sharp cuts in the Central plan outlay necessarily result in delayed and inadequate payments,which lead to the perception that the administration is paralysed. This year,the plan outlay is likely to be reduced even further to make room for the increase in non-plan expenditure and to keep the fiscal deficit on target. Fourth,as the elections draw closer,pressure groups allege administrative inaction in an attempt to manoeuvre the government into taking decisions that benefit them.
Having said that,regulatory and investigative overreach can also seriously damage the rubric of governance. If civil servants begin to believe that,even years after retiring,they can be criminally prosecuted for a mistake made in good faith or for a bona fide decision taken on the basis of the data that was available then,there will be serious repercussions on the morale of serving officers and their willingness to commit themselves. To a great extent,good governance depends on committed civil servants,and their ability to take risks when necessary. Indeed,all ministers and senior officers look for subordinates with a fire in their belly. If this fire is extinguished by the regulators and investigating agencies then a decline in the quality of administration is inevitable.
This is not to say that acts of corruption must go unpunished. They must be dealt with quickly and seriously. The present system of disciplinary proceedings is time consuming,and often leads nowhere. The system requires a radical change so that penal action quickly follows a venal act. At the same time,action against all and sundry,without adequate evidence,would create serious instability. Its not enough if the case is dropped later on or fails to pass muster with the judiciary. The damage to an officers reputation is done the day his house is raided or his name appears in an unfavourable context in the media. An honest officer would be deeply traumatised even if,at the end of the day,he comes out spotless. I strongly believe that the vast majority of civil servants are honest.
The problem will be exacerbated if officers acting in good faith feel let down by their superiors. Instances in which decision-making authorities,including ministers,have attempted to fix the blame on their juniors for their own mistakes,deliberate or unintentional,are painful and unfortunate. Officers will work far better if they can trust their ministers and their superiors in the administrative hierarchy. There have been occasions in the past when senior ministers,such as Lal Bahadur Shastri,have resigned,even though the lapse that occurred could in no way have been attributed to them. Today,unfortunately,the trust that characterised relations between different levels of the administrative hierarchy is being eroded.
While it is important to deal with corruption effectively,we must not throw the baby out with the bath water. Every time the issue of corruption surfaces,peoples immediate reaction is to recommend the creation of a new body which will supposedly root out the rot. Thus,we have created the Central Vigilance Commission,state vigilance commissions,lokayuktas,the Central Bureau of Investigation etc. If a single institution could eliminate corruption,many countries in the world would be totally free of it. The truth is that corruption is globally pervasive.
The real answer to corruption as well as other administrative inadequacies lies in the systemic reform of administration. The mechanisms,procedures,laws,rules and regulations which underpin the administrative system have remained virtually untouched over the years. The British,from whom we inherited a large part of this system,have changed with the times. So have many other countries.
Very often,unfavourable comparisons between the efficiency of the private and government sectors are drawn. We lose sight of the fact that the private sector has a clear goal to maximise profit against which performance becomes easy to measure. The government sector has a number of disparate goals,often unclear and subject to sudden changes,depending on the government of the day. We tend to think we can solve the problems of administration by importing professional manpower from the private sector. The problem is not with the personnel but with the systems. We need to change the systems and fast. In a country with a population the size of ours,facing problems of growth,inequality and poverty,the decentralisation of administration should be the name of the game. In spite of recognising the advantages of decentralisation,we are in the midst of a struggle between centripetal and centrifugal worldviews.
Bringing about a change in administration is a full-time activity. There are many ministries and organisations involved in the task of economic reform. Administrative reform is treated as a peripheral activity,tagged on to the duties of already overburdened functionaries like the cabinet secretary or the chief secretary in a state. I have been cabinet secretary for four years and the amount of time I could spare for key issues relating to administrative reform was minimal. We need a strong,independent authority with the necessary power to enforce changes in systems. Only then can we take the governance of this country to the next level. Economic reform will never be complete without administrative reform.
The writer is a former cabinet secretary