"The stifling steel frame", 'The Hindu', July 6, 2016

The delayed administrative reforms

Pulapre Balakrishnan


Even as the twenty-fifth anniversary of the economic reforms is being observed, two unrelated developments actions at the Centre and the states, respectively, draw attention to the functioning of machinery of government. Thus we have news from Delhi that, following the recommendation of the Seventh Pay Commission, cabinet have approved a 23 percent hike in the salary of central government employees. Then, from Kerala there is news that its government is considering constituting an administrative reforms commission to be headed by former chief minister V.S. Achuthanandan. The Kerala government has also shown itself to be concerned of the constitutional propriety of its plan in that it has sought advice on whether the proposal would run afoul of the principle of ‘office of profit’ as Mr. Achuthanandan is a sitting MLA. Both announcements have implications for us as citizens.

          I start with the news from Kerala. The said proposal for an administrative reforms commission has come from a left-wing government. This is significant, as the intellectuals linked to the communists have generally played down the will to power of the bureaucracy. They concentrate their energies on demonising the market. While it is absolutely essential following the triumphalism that has accompanied the collapse of the Former Soviet Union to query the  efficacy of the market mechanism, social analysis that ignores the role of the bureaucracy implies credulousness when it is not actually complicit. Perhaps the left intellectuals avoid the critical approach as they fear alienating the bureaucracy on whom their party must rely when it eventually comes to power. From the point of view of social critique, however, this is deficient, as the bureaucracy in India has shown itself to be quite capable of slowing down, when not actually subverting, the programmes of democratically elected governments. This it is able to do with impunity given its near exclusive control of the machinery of government. Attempted oversight has proved to be too distant to be effective. While India’s top bureaucracy is protected by statute its lower echelon achieves independence by closing ranks whenever the action of its members is challenged. The clogged courts are hardly a source of redressal for the citizen having to engage with the latter on a daily basis.  

          The proposal of the Kerala government is to be welcomed on two grounds. First, there is reason to believe that, despite the enthusiasm of academics for the Kerala Model, the public of the state do not feel well served by its machinery of government. We may infer this from the packed attendance at the lok adaalat type meetings that were held by Oommen Chandy while he was the chief minister. Mr. Chandy’s office had tied to spin this to their perceived advantage as the face of a caring government. It could not have escaped its attention though that the durbar may also be read as the public having been failed in the first instance, thus amounting to waste of the chief minister’s time and the public’s money. Actually, it may be interpreted as another instance of the political class’s reluctance to fix the system as that would eliminate its role as a purveyor of patronage to a beleaguered citizenry. This is in line with the disincentive of this class to finally eradicate poverty as then it can no longer appear benevolent by distributing private goods and announcing welfare schemes. So, quite unusually for an Indian political party, Kerala’s Left Democratic Front has signaled the need for administrative reforms. And, going by the news reports, it has chosen the right man to head the proposed commission. Mr. Achuthanandan may not have sparkled as chief minister but it is clear where his heart lies. He had had the nerve to publicly remind the state’s civil service that they were servants of the people. India’s politicians rarely read the riot act to the bureaucracy as they rely on it to further their personal interests.             

           Unlike in the states, some of which have a legacy of administrations instituted by Indian princes, the protocols of the central civil service have been borrowed lock, stock and barrel from the East India Company. The bureaucracy was both the instrument for extracting India’s wealth and repressing the native population so that the former activity could proceed unhindered. It is no coincidence that the Collector had combined tax collection with the maintenance of law and order. Unfortunately, not only did we not pension off the Indian Civil Service in 1947 but we actually continued with its privileges. Only this month has the Madras High Court ruled that the investigation of the conduct of public servants no longer requires a nod from the government.

          It is noteworthy that we have witnessed two major changes in the economic policy regime, first in the 1950s and then in 1991, but there has been no serious administrative reform. When these reforms do materialise they should be focused on establishing the principle of accountability of the bureaucracy to the citizen. It is not surprising that there is no such provision currently. The legendary concern within the Government of India for procedure when it comes to matters financial is all of a piece with this. The East India Company was a profit-making concern. Its business model, so to speak, had been extraction and it aimed to achieve this via what political scientist Sunil Khilnani has termed “cheap governance”. The financial oversight had not stemmed from a commitment to probity as much as commercial consideration. In this governance model there had been no room for sensitivity to the aspirations of India’s populace. In fact the ‘steel frame’ and the Indian Police had been designed to thwart them.  

          The consequences for India of retaining the protocols of a colonial bureaucracy are obvious. The system is imbued with ‘procedural rationality’ where the focus is not on the outcome but on adherence to procedure. The waste of resources that can accompany such a practice is overlooked for outcomes are of no concern, procedure is. It is only when we extend our vision beyond the secretariats, of both the centre and the states, that we even begin to contemplate the magnitude of the resulting waste and hardship to the people of this country. Once we see the public sector as extending to all spheres of government from the top echelons of the bureaucracy to the local government apparatus we would find that economic reforms without overhauling the administration can only have limited impact. In my book Economic Growth in India: History and Prospect I have identified three areas, in which increased public spending is not having the intended impact, namely irrigation, education and provision for mother-an-child care. This stems from the inability to enforce appropriate behavior in the bureaucracy. When a nation is hobbled in its ability to expand the production of food or advance human development purveying reforms of the economic policy regime is much of a muchness. The central role of administration in economic progress has been recognized in the characterization of East Asian governments as bureaucratic authoritarian industrialising regimes (BAIR). While this is no case for turning authoritarian it does suggest that the Indian bureaucracy too could have been a force for progress were it effectively governed by the political leadership.           

          We often hear of the potential of information technology (IT) to alter the state of affairs with regard to governance. Such a view appears to underpin the Digital India initiative currently on. It should be given a chance to succeed, but the limitations of a purely technological approach in the context may be borne in mind. Kentaro Toyama, formerly of MicrosoftResearchIndia, has shown how IT intervention has limited impact on developmental outcomes when the political will is absent. This is because technology can only be the ‘force multiplier’, it is not the force itself. The positive intent must originate in politics and works via the incentives faced by the bureaucracy to deliver on its mandate.  

          Most evaluations of the cabinet’s decision to raise the salary of the central civil service miss the point. They have focused on the quantum of the increase and declare it reasonable as ten years have passed since the last pay commission award. This fails to take into account that in a global comparison of average salary in relation to the country’s per capita income India’s central civil service has historically been far ahead of its counterparts in Asia, Europe and the United States. By bequeathing a salary hike without stipulating superior performance the Government of India has foregone an opportunity for administrative reforms.