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Accountability in Babus – a brave step towards reforming India

By Neera Kuckreja Sohoni

A recent decision of the Modi Government concerning the timing of performance review of civil servants seems to have struck yet another blow at India’s establishment. If it is in the public’s interest, the Centre now can prematurely retire its employees at any time even after they have attained the age of 50/55 years or completed 30 years of qualifying service. (These were the two milestones included in the pension rules that had a restrictive effect on performance review). The proposed change should facilitate greater accountability and improved performance in government servants. As the Economic Times (Sept 2, 2020) snidely notes, “The shield that made babus in India almost untouchable is gone”.

In colonial India and for some decades thereafter, the Indian Civil Service was hailed as India’s steel frame, and widely coveted for its covenanted status which meant the person once selected could not be fired. But as punishment a bureaucrat could always be transferred or simply allowed to ‘rot’ by being forced to remain in the shadows. The permanence of the civil service rapidly caused it to deteriorate from being “civil” to “uncivil”, making Babudom (rule by babus or officer-clerks) the bane of our lives.

Beginning in colonial and continuing through independent India, babus have commanded a near supreme assertive power in determining how an administrative matter progresses through various echelons of government, and whether it moves or gets stalled or aborted. Any administrative decision can be undercut by bureaucratic power of apathy and calculated delay, just as any citizen complaint can be aided to move up the ladder, or simply allowed to gather dust in the annals of government.

To move a matter forward, a person has to make life “comfortable” for the clerk or officer on whose desk one’s case file is likely to be deposited. The chaprasi or bearer who physically transports the file to the officer likewise has a going asking rate, as do the senior cadres above the desk officer. At all levels, some type of bribe – monetary or other, in cash or in kind – is in order. One creative mind (my sister) familiar with Speed Post as means of expediting mail delivery in India has chosen to refer to the above practice as “speed money”. Her suggestion further is to install in every office a Speed Box into which speed money can be deposited!

A study in 2012 by a Hong Kong-based consultancy rated Indian bureaucracy as the worst in Asia. (Graph courtesy WSJ)

Administrative reform is a red herring in any country, not in India alone. It is in the nature of power to perpetuate itself and bureaucracies are chronic sufferers of this ailment. Tenure guarantees both power-grab and arrogance, in turn encouraging delinquency on the one hand and unaccountability and corruption on the other. Abuse comes easy to the rulers. That power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely is not just an adage. It reflects the ability of the state to perpetuate itself. Just like monarchy, government service whether in Colonial, Post-colonial, Socialist or Democratic settings ends up vesting government servants virtually with the right to rule in perpetuity. They do this mostly by beating or diluting the litmus test of performance review.

The removal of an officer in every country’s bureaucracy therefore becomes a herculean task. The threat of lawsuits on grounds of unfair discriminatory firing keeps American bureaucrats safe. In India, lawsuits are less rampant but Indian bureaucrats derive their strength from the indomitable power of labor unions. You throw out one of theirs, and all go on strike bringing the governing machinery to a halt. In this context, for a government to seek reform is a daring act, which could also be suicidal. Unions control politics and can easily sway voters one way or another. What Prime Minister Narendra Modi repeatedly demonstrates is that he places progress and efficiency over lethargy and unaccountability.

The purpose of public administration is to serve the public and to be accountable for their conduct and efficient and honest discharge of their responsibilities. What they do and how well in their official capacity are the twin criteria to judge their performance. Accountability – only if combined with transparency – can effectively promote the desired professional conduct. Yet even where administrative conduct rules and oversight mechanisms exist, bureaucrats and bureaucracies everywhere know how to beat the system or fix it to work in their favor. Bad apples whether in the police or in healthcare or in the military and everywhere else have learnt how to protect their jobs and tenure in service. Even when things go wrong and the ones causing the wrong are known, consequences do not always follow. Internal procedures to process wrongdoing or accountability are manipulated such that offenders get off with mild reprimanding or suspension but few outright expulsions. Even when punishments do get awarded, they remain hidden from sunlight. The walls of the administrative vault are near impenetrable leaving secrets so deeply buried that no airing out is possible.

Politicization of public administration causes serious erosion in public trust. The growing impact of party politics on administrative decision making and execution which was always an eyesore has worsened, becoming a force of evil that seriously undermines democracy in India and America. The election of Donald Trump here and Modi there has been so traumatic that bureaucrats in both countries seem to have forgotten their oath of office to remain neutral and functional, not partisan and dysfunctional. Since Trump’s entirely unexpected ‘shock’ election, the bureaucracy here has risen up in defiance. The Trump-Russia collusion saga is a case in point of how a system can use one party and vested group to undermine another.

Worse, even after detection and proof of misconduct, the deep state helps its members to avoid punishment. Democracies are supposed to operate on the twin wheels of transparency (people’s right to know) and accountability (people’s right to remove a non-performing bureaucrat). But the omniscient power of the deep state and its operators is so strong that it can weather virtually any firing storm as we are clearly seeing in the genesis, conduct and never ending prosecution of the FISA case against the Trump campaign staffers and others.  As Caitlin Stein warns (PA Times, March 19, 2019), “Administrators and politicians have more methods of secrecy, and more secret content, than any other profession”, further noting that “Our current and past administrations not only house the failures of those in their circle, but hide those failures to the public.”

Weeding out corruption from public administration should be of utmost concern except it is unrealistic given the global current culture of massively corrupt polities. India predictably leads the pack.  A 2009 survey of the leading economies of Asia, according to Wikipedia, revealed Indian bureaucracy to be the least efficient among a dozen East Asian countries. Three years later, a study by a Hong Kong-based consultancy rated Indian bureaucracy as the worst in Asia with a 9.21 rating out of 10. Debroy and Bhandari in their book ‘Corruption in India’ estimated that Indian public officials were corruptly misappropriating as much as 5 per cent of the GDP amounting at that time to US$13 billion. Recognizing institutional quality to be a crucial driver of economic performance, they suggested that civil service reforms, geared to bring India at par with Asian countries’ administrative effectiveness, could add nearly a percentage point annually to India’s per capita GNP.

That in 2020, those dealing with India still continue to feel hamstrung by the painfully slow, inefficient and corrupt bureaucracy they encounter is deeply disturbing and depressing. If PM Modi is trying to clean up the mess and get the behemoth to move, the least one could do is to cheer him rather than attribute devious motives of trying to force the bureaucrats to fall in line and be in his camp.

thesatime | The Southasian times

Based in California, Ms. Sohoni is a freelance

Writer and published author.

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