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India’s bureaucratic albatross

Every time I deal with Indian officials I become so depressed that I almost need therapy. As a reckless optimist and a proud Indian...

Written by Tavleen Singh |
February 21, 2010 2:33:03 am

Every time I deal with Indian officials I become so depressed that I almost need therapy. As a reckless optimist and a proud Indian,I keep hoping that I will one day go into a government office and notice the changes that are necessary if India is to drag herself out of poverty,illiteracy and corruption. Having just last week had dealings with officials in various government departments,I can only report the opposite. Our officials remain untouched by technology,modernity,national interest or higher ideals. So I endorse from the bottom of my heart a new report that concludes that our bureaucrats are the worst in Asia. The report is the result of a survey of 12 Asian economies done last year by the Political and Economic Risk Consultancy based in Hong Kong,and although bits of it have found their way into Indian newspapers,there has been not nearly as much fuss as there should have been about a report that shames India.

The report blames India’s ‘suffocating bureaucracy’ for us falling behind countries like Vietnam,Bangladesh,Bhutan and Myanmar in providing our people with minimal standards of healthcare,sanitation and education. Examine just the sad fact that 43 per cent of Indian children under the age of five are underweight compared with 20 per cent in Vietnam and 14 per cent in Bhutan and you understand what we are up against. It is not because of a shortage of funds that millions of Indians are forced to live in conditions of shameful poverty and degradation. The Government of India spent Rs 4 trillion on various poverty alleviation programmes last year. The report points out that if even half this money had been distributed among our estimated 60 million poor households,they would each get Rs 80 a day and so rise above the poverty line. Our own Planning Commission pointed this out more than a decade ago but because there has not been the smallest attempt to get our babu-log to work more efficiently,nothing has changed.

The result is that our bureaucrats and the army of petty officials that work under them have remained mired in systems that make the simplest procedure into a long and difficult thing. One of the offices I had to deal with last week was the Regional Passport Office in Delhi. It was hell. There were queues for coupons that allowed you to join queues to enter the building,that led you to other queues that led to a maze of windows behind which sat bored officials. There was no system. If I had not had the help of a guide,I think I may have queued for days,as others do,and taken months to get my ‘tatkaal’ (at once) passport. My English brother-in-law did not even need to go to the British High Commission to renew his. He filled his form online and in three days he had his new passport.

Indian government departments have computers today and access to the Internet,but they seem not to understand that this should put an end to filling endless forms. And,other useless procedures. If things are bad in Delhi,it is hard to even begin to describe how bad they are in the provinces. I have been into provincial government departments and provincial courts in which they are still using ancient typewriters. Then,there are the filthy working conditions that get filthier in our state capitals. Rotting garbage,stray animals,dusty furniture,wires hanging everywhere and mountains of waste paper. The general impression is of a country falling to pieces and not one that harbours dreams of becoming an economic superpower.

The reason why this column bangs on and on about the need for urgent administrative reforms is because without them we can do almost nothing else. It is not just civilian government departments that are mired in 18th-century systems,but even those that deal with national security. Bad governance is a pernicious,pervasive disease. If you want proof,all you need to do is spend five minutes observing procedures in your nearest police station. That is all the time you need to discover that it is not just the absence of modern weapons that handicap our police when they are dealing with Islamist terrorists. It is incompetence enforced by convoluted and confused procedures.

Having covered governance and politics for more than 20 years,it is my humble view that India could become an economic superpower with clean air and water,magnificent new cities and a healthy,literate population,if we could make our officials do their jobs properly. Dr Manmohan Singh knows this and has been talking about the importance of administrative reforms since the first press conference he gave after he became Prime Minister in 2004. Why does he do nothing about it?

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