Reforming India’s bureaucracy is a “mission impossible”, similar to the punishment meted out by Zeus to Sisyphus, of endlessly rolling a boulder up a hill. While justifiably criticising the bureaucracy for many of its ills, we often forget that, like in every other profession, the bureaucracy has its share of the good, the bad and the ugly. To believe that any other profession is the epitome of goodness or competence, and thus can replace the bureaucracy misses the wood for the trees. India’s civil services have some of the best and brightest as also some of the worst, just like in any collection of people. And they are sitting atop a prickly, unionised, rules-obsessed, obdurate lower bureaucracy. However, the bureaucracy that took India through the last 75 years can’t be the one to take it through the next 75 — we need a proactive, imaginative, technology-savvy, enabling bureaucracy.
Today, we have a lot for which to thank the bureaucracy. This is often forgotten in the anger against it, some of which is indeed justified. But for the civil services, and the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) in particular, the country could not have been held together post-Independence, and much of the impressive nation-building across sectors happened because of their dedication and commitment. It is also forgotten that the bureaucracy, unlike the private sector, is a creature of the Constitution and is bound by multiple rules, laws, and procedures. Many of these are well past their expiry date and the Modi administration has done stellar work in doing away with over 1,500 of them.
As per estimates compiled by the Institute of Conflict Management, the government of India (GOI) has about 364 government servants for every 1,00,000 residents, with 45 per cent in the railways alone. About 60 per cent and 30 per cent are in Groups C and D, respectively, leaving a skeletal skilled staff of just about 7 per cent to man critical positions. Thus, the complaint that India’s bureaucracy is bloated is factually incorrect. In fact, we are grossly understaffed. That we need not be in many sectors is well-recognised — leave them to the markets — and politicians must get bureaucrats out of business, in more ways than one.
Further, faced with extensive judicial overreach (both justified and unjustified), reporting to an often rapacious, short-sighted political executive, and a media ever ready to play the role of judge, jury and executioner, the bureaucracy has in large part found comfort in glorious inaction and ensuring audit-proof file work. Faced with such incentives, roughly half the bureaucracy becomes “the Wall”. Twenty-five per cent is willing to do anything for the right bribe, with another 25 per cent focusing on ensuring outcomes in extremely difficult circumstances.
How to increase the officers’ willingness to take decisions? One possible solution is to legally prevent enforcement agencies from taking punitive action, like arrest for purely economic decisions without any direct evidence of kickbacks. Instead, a committee of experts with commercial experience constituted by the government should suggest whether it’s corruption or just a decision gone wrong.
Despite PM Modi’s ability to get things done, some parts of the bureaucracy have been obstinate, eschewing fast progress. For example, the progress of last-mile connectivity and electronics for BharatNet, the recapitalisation and reform of failing banks, the distribution and transmission sectors and the privatisation of space are moving, although slowly. Some of this is due to a bureaucracy obsessed with accountability to processes and not to results. When an outstanding IAS officer like Pradip Baijal is pulled out of his hospital bed to be produced before the courts after the CBI closed an outlandish case against him, even the best officers become timid and cautious, lest something returns to haunt them years after retirement.
Modi’s toughest challenge is to change an inactive bureaucracy to one that feels safe in taking genuine risks. Lateral entry needs to expand to up to 15 per cent of Joint/Additional and Secretary-level positions in GOI. Areas such as bad banks recapitalisation, new development credit institutions and perhaps a sovereign fund for India, privatisation of everything that the government shouldn’t be in, renewable energy, electric vehicles, climate change, global trade negotiations and information technology, to name a few, are where problem-solving professionals are needed.
Changes in recruitment procedures, like the interview group spending considerable time with the candidates and not deciding based on a half-hour interview, along with psychometric tests, will improve the incoming pool of civil servants. Most importantly, after 15 years of service, all officers must undergo a thorough evaluation to enable them to move further, and those who do not make it should be put out to pasture. Give them full salary till they hit retirement age.
Lastly, every modern bureaucracy in the world works on technology-enabled productivity and collaboration tools. India procures about $600 billion worth of goods and services annually — can’t all payments be done electronically? Why not automate India’s $90 billion utility bills market at a time when UPI transactions worth Rs 6 trillion happen every month? Can we not try to automate every major touchpoint between the government, citizens, and businesses?
India cannot hope to get to a $5-trillion economy without a modern, progressive, results-oriented bureaucracy, one which says “why not?” instead of “why?” when confronted with problems. Make no mistake, despite working in a difficult, complex ecosystem, about a third of civil servants are doing exceptional work, better than their peers in the corporate sector. The challenge remains to realign incentives institutionally, to move those who are honest yet don’t perform, send home those who steal/are non-performers and imbue more technology throughout the system.
This column first appeared in the print edition on October 15, 2021 under the title ‘A stronger and finer frame’. The writer is an IAS officer. Views are personal.