Empowering the bureaucracy is no solution. There is a far more urgent need to make the bureaucracy more professional and efficient. As of now, their tenures are short and they have very little domain knowledge, which is why they make very little contribution to policy-making. The basic problem with the Indian bureaucracy is that over the years it has become unresponsive, irresponsible and unprofessional. We have had no tradition of accountability either. The bureaucracy was unresponsive even in the past because there has never been a system of monitoring outcomes. The bureaucrats’ loyalty has been to following procedures and political whims. Their preoccupation has been with the immediate and not with the important.
Last year the then Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh allowed all ministers to choose secretaries for their departments. Earlier it was the PMO which controlled it but the PM felt that the ministers should have the freedom to have secretaries of their choice. But the result was that corrupt and inefficient ministers promptly opted for corrupt and inefficient secretaries. This was also partly the reason why Dr Singh was unable to protect honest officers from harassment. Monitoring clearly cannot be left to the ministers.
There is also an attitudinal problem. Most bureaucrats rarely evaluate social sector programmes. Reports are routinely fudged and there is collusion at different levels. If you go by government of India data, nobody in this country dies of starvation and very few die of malaria. There is very little malnutrition among children according to official reports. But when I visit Anganwadis and ask why levels of malnutrition were not reported, they tell me they are under instructions to play it down. Unstated objectives in our system, unfortunately, tend to become more important than stated objectives.
There are a large number of redundant posts in the super time scale. When I had joined civil services, they perhaps numbered around 25 per cent. But now there has been a three-fold increase to accommodate everyone in the higher ranks. This needs to be cut down. Bureaucrats also need to be evaluated for outcomes and results achieved and the monitoring should ideally be done by third parties.
The new government appears committed to giving more autonomy to the states. But let us not forget that some of them are rogue states, where both politicians and bureaucrats are only interested in making money. In none of the states is the tenure of the chief secretary fixed. In fact in Uttar Pradesh a survey had found that the average tenure of a bureaucrat is between four and six months. A simple clause added to the All India Services Act can fix the problem but it is yet to be done.
Chances of a committed bureaucracy growing around a strong leader will always be there. Strong chief ministers do tend to ignore the ministers because they know the latter are either incompetent or dishonest or both. To an extent this happened in both Gujarat and Bihar. But I am not sure if this can happen at the centre. After all, 70 per cent of the devolution of money are for the social sectors, where the projects are implemented by the states. It is actually the responsibility of the elected MPs and MLAs to hold the government and the bureaucracy to account. But unfortunately the legislatures are meeting less and less frequently, in some states for barely 20 days in a year, and hard, relevant questions are not being raised. In such a situation, the risk is for bureaucrats to develop loyalty to a particular party and leader.
In Singapore, for example, there has been politicisation of the bureaucracy and bureaucratisation of politics. Politics there is dominated by bureaucrats and for the last 30 years there has been a one-party rule. At this point, a similar development in India appears improbable. But nobody will complain, I believe, if the focus is on institution building and reforming the delivery mechanism and not to concentrate more power in the bureaucracy.
(As told to Uttam Sengupta)
N.C. Saxena is former Secretary, Planning Commission. This piece is a web-special that does not appear in print