align="left">The Union cabinet recently decided to appoint the Second Administrative Reforms Commission (SARC), and a group of ministers has been constituted to finalize the terms of reference. This is in keeping with the UPA government’s commitment, and the Prime Minister’s oft-repeated concern about revamping the delivery system.
There is no dearth of commissions and committees on the subject. At last count, twenty-seven such expert bodies have produced voluminous reports so far. Most of these reports are languishing in the archives, and it is reasonably certain that over the past three decades no serious reforms were put in place. Contrast this with the Committee on prevention of corruption (1964) headed by K. Santhanam. Within months of receiving the committee’s recommendation, the central and state vigilance commissions were created by executive orders. It is a different matter that these vigilance commissions were not adequately empowered, and that, only recently, the CVC’s role was strengthened by a law, following Supreme Court’s intervention. But the swift creation of vigilance commissions during Lal Bahadur Shastri’s tenure as Prime Minister was illustrative of the deep commitment to improving things and the sense of urgency.
Even today we are prone to blame the British, who left the country 58 years ago, for the ills plaguing our administration. If that doesn’t work, there is always Jawaharlal Nehru to lampoon, though his period at the helm saw establishment of sound democratic traditions and practices, creation of basic infrastructure and institutions, and reasonable success in modernization of India. We often tend to ignore the fact that the worst features of our governance became endemic in the post-Nehru era.
Professor Paul H Appleby wrote a report on a survey of public administration in India in 1953, and later another report on administration of the industrial and commercial enterprises of the government in 1956 – both at the instance of the Union government. Appleby reported: “I have come gradually to a general judgment that now would rate the government of India among the dozen or so most advanced governments of the world”. (emphasis in the original). As Krishna Tummala of Kansas State University notes, Appleby had two qualifiers. “First, his rating was prefaced by the adverb “now”. He was reflecting on his time. Second, he clarified that “advanced” did not mean “efficiency” or “effectiveness”; it simply meant an advanced democracy”. Sadly, we were complacent, and refused to rejuvenate our administration to suit our changing requirements. P.S. Appu, in a seminal essay on the decline of civil services, pointed out how in Bihar, funds drawn by district magistrates for flood relief under treasury rule 27 (TR27), without legislative sanction (which is the practice even now), were misused for trivial or improper purposes like buying a staff car as early as the 70’s. No wonder, the fodder scam was possible over an extended period of time, defrauding the exchequer of several hundred crore rupees without any effective safeguard.
Licence-permit raj involving huge bribes, harassment of entrepreneurs, and distortion of all competition to the detriment of the people and economic growth was institutionalized during the 60’s and 70’s. Robert Wade meticulously studied the other institutionalized phenomenon of transfers as a source of corruption in states, and described the vicious cycle of “dangerously stable equilibrium” almost 25 years ago. And yet, we have had periodic bombast, but no systematic effort to bring administration back on rails.
Contrast this with Britain. Until about 1868, there was phenomenal corruption and maladministration in the then global power. Between 1868 and 1892, Gladstone laid the foundations of modern Britain, and by the time he left the scene, Britain had a truly civilized, just and competent government. Even then, despite Britain’s global dominance, the British policy makers did not rest on their laurels. Both world wars witnessed infusion of fresh and varied talent into civil services, and government changed dramatically. Even after the Second World War, as British power has been irreversibly on the wane, three major revolutions shook the administration – the post-war Labour government’s accent on education and National Health Service; the Thatcher – Major years of radical reorganization of government and emphasis on outcomes, cost-effectiveness and citizen’s charters; and recently, New Labour’s focus on efficacy in delivery of public services.
Clearly, there is a compelling case for major restructuring of our government. The central question plaguing our administration is: For whom does it exist? A dispassionate and objective answer is, largely for itself. True, even now in times of emergency we are capable of rising to great heights. The way our administrative machinery sprung into action after the tsunami which devastated large areas of southeast and south Asia did us proud. This effective military-style response to catastrophic situations coupled with colossal tardiness and failure in dealing with ‘normal’ situations is one of the paradoxes of our administration.
Our civil service and administration in general has become a permanent priesthood – wooden, inflexible, self-perpetuating, inward looking, and wedded to its own values. I often remember an altercation I had with a Chief Secretary some fourteen years ago. As the Chief Executive of an apex cooperative bank (a position I had no business assuming in the first place!) I made valiant efforts to reward competence and integrity while ordering promotions, instead of the traditional emphasis on seniority. The Chief Secretary, upon receiving some complaints, admonished me for violating the sacred principle of seniority, and proudly cited the government practice of strictly honouring seniority. I had to point out to him that the state had the luxury of collecting taxes and paying for the public servants, whereas I had the obligation to serve the farmers who were my shareholders and masters, and generate surpluses and pay for the employees. That public servants, as everyone else in a functional society, should add value, promote public good, and fulfil human needs in the most cost-effective and sensible manner is a novel idea even in today’s India.
We all know the administrative challenges confronting our vast country struggling to emerge from ignorance and mass poverty, and poised to be a modern, prosperous nation playing its rightful role in the global arena. But if we are serious about our intent and sincere about our resolve, we need to reinvent government. Mere quick fixes will not do. It is time that parties of all hues and government address the problems of administration, and make the citizen the master and the employee the public servant. SARC has a precise and time-bound task ahead of it. And the government, whoever is in office, will have to do a lot, and quickly, to translate the many pious homilies about reforms and delivery into tangible and durable action.