Antiquated and ineffective

Published : Mar 28, 2003 00:00 IST

On why India's administrative system is in a state of dysfunction.

SOMETHING rather strange happened when the Government of Sikkim placed its Budget before the State Assembly a few days ago; the English version showed a deficit of Rs.24 lakhs and the Hindi version a surplus of Rs.2.5 crores. The Chief Minister and Finance Minister apologised most profusely and, as usual, promised an inquiry, which will, no doubt, find some wretched underling responsible for the mistake. An underling who may then be punished in a variety of ways. Amusing? Perhaps. The inevitable reaction among many will be - "Well, what can you expect from Sikkim, I mean the State's a joke anyway, the size of a tehsil elsewhere," and so on. But that won't do. It may be `just Sikkim' but let's not fool ourselves; it could have happened in any State. There are States like Bihar which have administrations that are far worse, and where no one would even raise a languid eyebrow at this sort of a blunder. And this is probably a printing mistake of some kind; there have been instances where deficits have been eliminated by simply showing a corresponding increase in revenue that year.

The plain fact is that it is time that we took a good look at the administrative system in use in various States, cosmetic changes and all. A look at the actual nature of the beast will make it clear that it functions on one basic principle - dependence. Not on hierarchies; those have been set up effectively to disguise what really keeps the system moving, which is dependence. Go to a senior officer with a problem which is within his gift to remedy and he will never do it. He may be all sympathy, but he will always say that he `will see that it is done' and send the paper to someone subordinate to him to `examine and put up', which is the bureaucratese for saying `tell me what to do'. He may eventually solve the problem, but not without getting at least two levels of subordinates to look at it. One could say that this is the sort of careful checks and balances that make the system as enduring as it is. One would be laughably wrong. It has nothing to do with checks and balances; it has to do with dependence. Each level depends on the advice given and the examination done by the level below, which, again is dependent on the one below. The initial examination starts somewhere very low down, either at the clerical level, or, in some of the more advanced (advanced!) offices, at the level of the desk officer - a functionary just above the clerical level, in many cases clerks promoted to those posts after many years of service. All of this stems from the fact that we have not really changed the administrative system since Macaulay's time. True, there have been commissions that have deliberated on the system and made a plethora of recommendations, but many of these have been either rejected or implemented in a manner which ensures that the essential nature does not change. And what is this essential nature? Simple - members of an elite service mans the senior posts and takes the final decisions or makes the final recommendations to the Minister, which, for the most part, Ministers cannot refuse. Or they are recommendations that are cleverly designed to ensure that they please the Minister and are thus accepted. (Nothing is written by the Minister, mind you - all he does is scrawl his signature below the reams of notes in the file.) Now the elite service - the Indian Administrative Service - consists, by and large, of bright men and women; they have passed a rigorous examination, at least a substantial number of them, and they have all been trained for two years before being entrusted with responsibilities. Many of them work very hard, and, in time, become fine officers who apply themselves to their work and give it their very best. No one is saying anything to the contrary. But the very nature of the work is such that it is impossible for any officer to get to know its true nature and all its ramifications during the time that he or she holds that particular post. Consider the kind of postings an officer may hold: District Magistrate for two years (if it is not Uttar Pradesh or Bihar); then a Joint Secretary in the State Secretariat in, say, the Department of Health or Education; then maybe Registrar of Cooperative Societies; then Secretary in the Department of Power and then a deputation to the Central government as Joint Secretary in the Ministry of Mines. Let us say he is in all these posts for two to two and a half years. Can he really begin to comprehend what the power system in the state is, what the management of a power system involves? It is not his fault; it is just that the subject is far too complicated. And to boot it he may not be an engineer at all but a graduate in history or some other subject.

So what will a reasonably bright officer do when he is made Power Secretary in his State? He will get down to reading up files and journals, as much as he can, and he will ask his subordinate staff to brief him, to tell him how everything works. That process will never stop; just when he thinks he knows it all, a new set of factors will be placed before him, and the briefing, that is, the explaining, will start all over again. He will always be dependent on his engineers and subordinates.

This is the process of dependence that keeps the systems going in every State, and in the Central government. True, some officers get a fair amount of knowledge about his work and some make fine Secretaries of Finance, Health, Power, Education and the other Ministries of the government. But what is not spoken about is that they have had a fine support system - clever, dedicated officers and specialists who have made them outstanding secretaries. They have been just as dependent as anyone else, with perhaps more imagination, and a more decisive, clear-headed attitude to their work. This is why the system will never change in essentials; the best of officers will make sure that it does not. If they really wanted to, could they not have done it in the past 50 years? But this system suits everyone, so why fiddle with it? The steam engine is at least pulling the train along, even if it is doing so slowly, and expending a lot of unnecessary energy in the process. Why bring in an electric locomotive? Who knows what that may lead to? The plain fact is that it is time that the administration became more specialised. One is not saying that the IAS must be disbanded; but it must be changed so that young recruits are given specialisations from the beginning and grow in their departments or ministries over the years, acquiring not only experience but knowledge that must necessarily take decades to build up. It is not just a matter of reading piles of files and manuals; one has to grow with problems and processes; only then can one become truly professional managers, who are able to take informed decisions.

A professional system of this sort would ensure that promotions are made not merely because an officer has put in a certain number of years, and is accounted to be good; they would be made because of the knowledge and expertise he has accumulated, which will mean that he can then truly lead from the front, and not be continuously fed with information and advice from below.

Can a person who is made Power Secretary run a power station? No, because he has not been recruited to do that; he has been appointed to manage the running of power stations, to manage the managers of the stations. That is where his skill must lie, but it has to be a skill that comes from knowledge. His officers must look up to him for guidance and decisions, which they know will be informed and wise.

Only then will the administrative system change and become more appropriate to the times.

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