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The Peacock And The Ostrich

The response to the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai demonstrated, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that we were way behind the curve. But what, since then?

The Peacock And The Ostrich
outlookindia.com
-0001-11-30T00:00:00+0553

Addressing the ritual gathering of chief ministers (CMs) at the Conference on Internal Security at Delhi, on August 17, 2009, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh declared, in reference to the "challenges posed by asymmetric warfare and terrorism", "We need to be ahead of the curve if we are to succeed…" 

If this is, indeed, the criterion, then we are failing, abysmally, comprehensively. Worse, the entire system of the Indian state appears increasingly to be designed to fail. Structural infirmities now riddle the system, undermining, not only the capacities for response, but the very capacities to generate necessary capacities.

It is useful to examine where precisely India is located ‘on the curve’. The response to the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai demonstrated, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that we were way behind the curve. But what, since then?

The Prime Minister enumerated a list of achievements since 26/11 in his speech at the CMs Conference, including the establishment of four regional hubs of the National Security Guard (NSG) in four metropolii, and the further creation of two NSG ‘regional centres’ "shortly". He also mentioned the creation of the National Investigative Agency (NIA), and sought cooperation to make it "a truly effective instrument in our fight against terrorism". The probable impact of these initiatives (or lack thereof) has been extensively discussed earlier, and cannot detain us here. Further, mention was made regarding the projected establishing of Quick Response Teams and Special Intervention Units at the state level – but, being state initiatives, there is no visible time limit on this process. A ‘well calibrated’ Coastal Security Scheme was ‘being put in place’ – but any review of available capacities would confirm that we are not an iota safer against terrorist attacks from the sea today, than we were on November 26, 2008. 

Home Minister (HM) P. Chidambaram’s speech at the same forum emphasized the gravity of the situation and, while listing some of the attainments of the post-26/11 period, nevertheless came to the sombre conclusion that:

When I look back on the last seven months, I find that our collective record has been a mixed one. Our best achievements have been in the reiteration of our determination to fight terror; in the sharing of intelligence; in the unanimous support for new laws and new instruments; and in acknowledging that police reforms have been neglected for too long. On the other hand, there are still critical deficiencies in budget allocations for the police, recruitment, training, procurement of equipment, introduction of technology, and personnel management. 

In other words, the ‘best achievements’ were largely in the sphere of the unquantifiable – ‘determination’, ‘unanimous support’ and ‘acknowledgements’ – whereas the cumulative and massive deficits of the system remained substantially where they were. There was some evidence that most State governments were still dragging their feet on what needed urgently to be done. Vacancies against sanctioned strength in the state police, which stood at 230,567 on January 1, 2008, "may have declined to about 150,000", but even this was "too large", the HM noted, articulating the modest objective that the States would work to wipe out this deficit by the end of March 2010. That sanctioned strengths stand at a fraction of what the country needed to confront existing and emerging challenges was not considered worthy of mention. The HM did, however, note that the strength of police stations, especially in rural and remote areas, ranged between 1+8 and 1+12. "This is totally inadequate. For a police station to be effective, its strength should be at least 1+40. State governments may augment the strength of police stations…" But how is this to be done by states that are failing, often dramatically, to meet the personnel requirements of police stations at presently sanctioned strengths?

It is not the intention here to parse the PM’s and HM’s speeches. What requires recognition is that, despite an increasing – though still largely partial – recognition of the rising urgency of the situation, responses have remained sluggish and fitful. In some states, there is evidence of a slow limp in a direction that may prove positive; but it is far outstripped by the hurtling pace of augmenting challenges. 

In a brief aside, interestingly, the Maharashtra government – which presided over the 26/11 debacle – had separately made the absurd claim that it had put ‘new guidelines’ in place, which "chart the course of action in the event of a nuclear, chemical or biological attack". A quick look at the response to the Swine Flu crisis in the state would not encourage any extraordinary confidence on this count. This is an increasing part of the problem. Administrators and politicians are picking up the set phrases of the terrorism discourse, but little of the understanding necessary for framing a strategic response.

Leaderships at both the national and state level continue to passionately advocate ‘out of the box solutions’ (usually code for "I have nothing in my head"), but assiduously ignore the overwhelming challenge of creating and maintaining minimum capacities and standards within existing institutions. The disturbing reality is that basic capacities, not just for policing or counter-terrorism, but, indeed, for governance, enterprise and social action, have been allowed to decline to such an extent that the most rudimentary tasks of nation-building, indeed, even of administrative maintenance, cannot be executed with a modicum of efficiency. 

Ironically, this has happened over decades of a public and media discourse about ‘bloated government’, ‘massive police force’, ‘gigantic expenditure on the bureaucracy’, the need to ‘downsize government’, and other politically correct slogans based on extraordinary ignorance of fact. A look at the most rudimentary statistics may help pull some heads out of the sand.

Deficits in capacities for Policing have been repeatedly emphasized in the past, and do not bear repetition. The Indian police-population ratio, at 125/100,000 in end 2007 (it is expected to have risen significantly thereafter, though nowhere approaching what is necessary) is a fraction of the strength that is needed. The crisis in the Police leadership is even more acute – with overall deficits in the Indian Police Service cadres alone standing at some 17 per cent, while officer cadres in the states are often worse off. Crucially, the states with the most urgent security predicaments are often the ones with the widest deficits. Orissa, for instance, "has a sanctioned strength of 207 officers in the top Indian Police Service (IPS) ranks, but only 97 officers in position." This is certainly a problem the centre could be expected to address. Against this deficit, however, Orissa was allocated just four IPS officers out of the new batch of recruits in 2009, "a number that will not even account for those who would reach superannuation in the current year." Sanctioned strengths in the Police leadership of most States are, again, no more than a fraction of actual requirements. 

But the police are not the only organization in crisis – every governmental institution in the country has been hollowed out by political incompetence and ignorance. A look at the ‘bloated bureaucracy’ is particularly instructive. 

The embedded principle in American democracy is that "the best government is the least government". Consequently, the state focuses as exclusively as possible on what are considered ‘core functions’ and minimizes engagement in welfare and in activities that can be taken over by the private sector. The administrative philosophy in India is the exact opposite, with the government’s fingers planted firmly in every possible pie. 

That is why the ratio of government employees to population in the two countries is the more astonishing: the US Federal government has a ratio of 889 employees per 100,000. India’s union government has just 295. Canada, which has a larger welfare component in governance as compared to the US, has a ratio of 1,408 Federal government employees per 100,000. 

The Railways – no doubt extraordinarily useful, but hardly within the sphere of ‘core functions’ of government – account for the largest proportion of Central government employees in India: 1,398,139 out of the total of 3,320,842 – all of 42.1 per cent. If Railway employees were to be excluded from the strength of Central government Employees, this would leave us with a ratio of just 171 Central government employees per 100,000. Needless to say, the Railways are not the only ‘non core’ establishment under the Central government. Significantly, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), including all Central Police organizations and Paramilitary Forces, accounts for just 834,090, less than 60 per cent of the strength of Central government employees in the Railways (all figures estimated as on March 1, 2009). 

Moving on to state and local government employees, we find that, in the US, these account for another 6,314 per 100,000; in sharp contrast, Uttar Pradesh has 352; Bihar, 472; Orissa, 1,007; Chhattisgarh, 1,067; Maharashtra, 1,223; Punjab, 1,383; Gujarat, 1,694. Worse, in India, the overwhelming proportion of government employees is in the lower cadres, class III and IV, as against the ‘thinking’ element of the state in higher echelons. Even in the latter category, qualitative profiles, including modern and administrative skills, training and technological competence are severely limited. 

Nagaland, however, boasts of figures that humble the US dedication to administrative efficiency: 16,085 State government employees per 100,000 population. There is, however, little evidence of ‘administrative efficiency’ – indeed, of administration – in Nagaland. Numbers alone are, obviously, not the entire problem. But they are certainly a major part of the problem. 

India, rightly, takes great pride in its Armed Forces, boasting of the ‘second largest Army in the world’. At about 1.4 million, the current strength of the armed forces appears large in absolute terms. The reality, however, is that this strength is utterly inadequate in terms of the country’s population, territory and strategic projections as an ‘emerging global power’. India’s ratio of Active Duty Uniformed Troops to population works out to about 1:866. China’s ratio is 1:591; UK – 1:295; Pakistan – 1:279; USA – 1:187. Again, the Indian Armed Forces’ technological and resource capabilities compare adversely to those of the modernized Western powers, and the Army is way overstretched in conventional defence and counter-insurgency deployments. Critically, there is an acute and mounting crisis in leadership cadres. The Army is short of 11,387 officers, against a current authorized strength of 46,615 (24.43 per cent deficit). The Navy is 1,512 officers short of its sanction of 8,797 (deficit: 17.2 per cent). The Air Force needs 1,400 officers to meet its sanction of 12,128 (deficit: 11.5 per cent). During the last five years, 4,300 officers of the Army, 1,177 officers of the Air Force and 1,096 officers of the Navy have chosen to seek premature retirement or have resigned from the service. Despite a significant dilution of standards over the years, the Armed Forces are finding it impossible to recruit sufficiently even to maintain currently sanctioned strengths among officers.

Given the magnitude of delays that mar the judicial process, it is not surprising to find that this institution is probably the worst off in terms of human assets. India has about 1.2 judges per 100,000 population. The Law Commission, in its 120th report, recommended a much-augmented ratio of 5 judges per 100,000 – a more than fourfold increase. But even this projected ratio would compare adversely with most countries that could be categorised as reasonably administered. Thus, USA has nearly 11 judges per 100,000 population; Sweden: 13; China: 17; and, at the top of the scale, Belgium: 23; Germany: 25; and Slovenia: 39!

The obvious ‘solution’, theoretically, would be to initiate massive recruitment to fill up these deficits. government revenues have grown tremendously over the past decades, and this seems feasible. But it is here that the system hits a wall. Forget the lack of political will, corruption, bureaucratic delays, interminable selection processes, the absence of training capacities; India has an abysmal nine percent higher education participation rate, lower than the average for Africa, at 10 percent. Most Western states have higher education participation rates ranging between 35 and 70 per cent, and many are still experiencing shortages of qualified manpower – hence India’s ‘outsourcing’ boom. 

One study in 2005 determined that India would experience a shortfall of nearly half a million qualified workers by 2010. S.S. Mehta of the Confederation of Indian Industries (CII) observes:

Only 234 million of India’s 411 million young people enter school at all… Less than 20 per cent reach high school, and less than 10 per cent enter college. Only 50 million of India’s 1.1 billion people – less than five per cent of the total population – have degrees past high school.

An overwhelming majority of technical and university graduates, moreover, come out of third rate institutions and are, in fact, unemployable – lacking even basic language and reasoning skills. A recent NASSCOM study noted that, even after retraining, only about 25 per cent of technical graduates and 10-15 per cent of general college graduates were "suitable for employment in the offshore IT and BPO industries".

The reality is, for all our boasting about the ‘youth bulge’, India simply does not have the manpower profile to fuel a modern nation – and it will take decades before suitable profiles can be generated to meet the demands of modern governance, commerce and society. An Aspen Institute Study notes that the Indian middle class rose from about 10 million in 1991 to about 100 million in 2005. The gain is tremendous; the absolute number seems large. Crucially, however, on this count, the middle class still accounts for under 10 per cent of the total population! 

The National Knowledge Commission has projected a requirement of 1,500 universities in India by 2015, as against just 350 universities today. Yet, when the Prime Minister announced the setting up of 20 new Indian Institutes of Technology, most experts felt that the teaching cadres required to man these new institutions could simply not be found without a radical dilution of standards. 

India is a nation overwhelmingly of the uneducated and unskilled, who have no productive utility in a modernizing-globalizing economy. These are Marx’s ‘useless people’, in a world of enveloping technological advancement. The situation promises only to get much worse. By 2020, India will add 330 million people – roughly two Pakistans – to its 2001 population of 1.04 billion. The largest proportion of this increase will be in the most backward States of the country, taking up their share in national population from 40 per cent to 50 per cent. 

Within the context of this tremendous and augmenting challenge, popular slogans of ‘good governance’, ‘people’s empowerment’, ‘civil society’, ‘decentralisation’, ‘accountability’, ‘depoliticisation’, ‘police and administrative reforms’ – are all such scandalous nonsense. Unless governments can secure the critical mass of qualified and efficient personnel to effectively meet the requirements of a modern administrative and security apparatus, the country’s problems can only worsen. There is, unfortunately, little evidence even of a modicum of attention being paid to this increasingly unmanageable problem. 

Successive governments in India have reduced systems to a level of intractable dysfunction that can only be breached if radical action to dramatically raise capacity generation is undertaken on a war footing. Unfortunately, mired in privilege and impunity, India’s politics and administration remain incapable of going beyond incrementalism and precedent. 

It is, perhaps, time the national bird was changed from the Peacock to the Indian Ostrich. The finest specimen of the latter genus can be found on Raisina Hill in New Delhi, but the species proliferates widely under the state’s protection in official sanctuaries across the country, where they may be found with their heads untiringly buried in the sand. 


Ajai Sahni is Editor, SAIR; Executive Director, Institute for Conflict Management. Courtesy the South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia Terrorism Portal

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