Administrative reforms, once again

Published : Aug 27, 2004 00:00 IST

The civil services are in need of radical reforms and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is the best-qualified person to take up the task.

RECENTLY, the Committee on Civil Services Reforms, headed by P.C. Hota, former Chairman of the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC), made a number of recommendations to improve the functioning of the all-India services, and to curb the propensity that a distressingly large number of the members of these services show, to line their pockets by taking bribes and other dishonest means.

Technically, this report is still confidential, but, as usual, a good deal of what it contains has found its way to at least one major television news channel and a major newspaper - perhaps because one of the recommendations is that the Official Secrets Act be modified to cover only the minimum requirements of national security, public order and individual privacy. The Committee's report clearly does not fall into any of these categories.

Not having access to all that the Committee has said, it is difficult to judge just how comprehensive and practical these recommendations are, but its submission does make one wonder about what the government does with such reports. There was one some years ago by a committee, headed by Lt. General Surendra Nath, also a former Chairman of the UPSC; No one knows what has happened to it, or to other recommendations made by distinguished bodies such as the Fifth Pay Commission. It is as if these reports are simply swallowed up by the bureaucratic machine, and life goes on as usual.

One can understand the reluctance of the bureaucracy to accept recommendations that would curb its present manner of functioning, and alter the rather comfortable manner in which civil servants go about their day-to-day work. One can also appreciate that such reports generate a certain amount of indignation because, contrary to the picture that is sometimes painted of the services - the Indian Administrative Service and the Indian Police Service being the most prominent of these - all officers are not a set of dishonest, incompetent people; on the other hand, for the most part, they are people who do their work as best they can, are not dishonest, are fairly efficient, with some being a little more so than others. The reports by committees such as the Hota Committee would seem to assume that the officers in general are dishonest and inefficient, which they resent.

But this still does not explain why the recommendations of earlier committees have not been made public; if they are still "under examination", then the people need to know that, and also why it is taking so long to decide whether they will be acted on or not.

A GOOD deal of what the Hota Committee has said is not new. It has recommended that the minimum and maximum age at recruitment be what it was from 1948 to 1971, that is, 21 and 24 years for general candidates, in place of the present 21 and 30 years. In fact, it was not just 21 and 24 years; within that age span, a candidate could appear for the examination only three times. This was recommended by earlier groups of experts. What happened to that recommendation?

The mid-term appraisal of officers and the removal of those considered unfit to continue, either because of a lack of competence or because of dubious integrity, is, again, something that has been recommended in the past and in principle the government has always accepted its necessity. But what it has been diluted to is the "empanelment" of officers for the post of Director - that is, after 15 years - Joint Secretary - after 18 years - and so on. The "panels" are of officers who are considered suitable for elevation, and are supposed to be confidential. But every bureaucrat gets to know who is or is not on the panel, and those who are not then begin lobbying vigorously to get in, and are for the most part included when the panel is reviewed, as it invariably is, for a second or a third time.

Eventually, most officers of a particular year are "empanelled" for posts at various levels in the Central government; and those who are not, are elevated to posts of the same rank in their State cadres. In other words, all officers who complete the required number of years get to the next higher level, and to the next, as the years pass. This is what a "review" or "appraisal" amounts to. One is surprised that seasoned men such as P.C. Hota and the other civil servants on the committee have persisted with their recommendation for a mid-term appraisal.

IT is essential that the civil services be looked at carefully, and not merely to make changes in recruitment, training and other aspects that many have examined in the past; what needs to be considered is whether these services are needed at all in the 21st Century. If it is concluded that they are, then the form in which they need to be cast in order to be relevant and effective in the present age has to be determined.

I am not suggesting that yet another committee be set up in the manner that all committees are in the government. I am saying that civil service reform is far too vital a task to be considered by anyone other than the Prime Minister himself. He said as much in his address to the nation and it is now up to him to act on what he has said. The instruments he has to use to fulfil the objectives set out in the Common Minimum Programme must be effective; it is not only the quality of people, but the system itself that needs to be looked at and altered radically. This is an important enough task to warrant a good deal of the Prime Minister's time; he may appoint a group of people whom he trusts to work out a practical course of action, but he himself needs to monitor this very closely. No other way will do; the bureaucracy is too well-entrenched and comfortable in the way it works today, and will see to it that any other initiative from anyone else is consigned to a state of non-existence, similar to other such recommendations.

This is not an impossible task; Dr. Manmohan Singh brought about radical reforms to the way the government functioned when he was Finance Minister and did away with licensing and the plethora of approvals that tied up all development initiatives into knots. He did it because he had the unqualified backing of the Prime Minister at the time, without which he would not have been able to push the reforms through. Now that he is the Prime Minister, it is up to him to take the initiative and go ahead with radical reform of the civil services and the way in which they function as the present age requires.

He will be opposed all the way; and that opposition will come in various forms such as eager approval and then a timid pointing out of dreadful consequences that might follow, or solemn opposition on grounds ranging from principles to the practical nature of the changes.

But then, he knows what bureaucrats can do, by themselves and through other agencies - Ministers, party authorities and others. He will have to hold his ground, and hold it alone. He is the Prime Minister, and the buck stops with him. It is time he rolled up his sleeves and got down to it, knowing that if anyone can bring about the radical changes that are needed, it is he and no one else.

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