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CAN BUREAUCRACY BE REFORMED ? Since the time Dr. Manmohan Singh made his intentions clear to reform and revitalize the Indian bureaucracy, a whole new debate has spawned over performance and accountability of 'Babus' in modern India. Newspapers continue to furnish details of recommendations made by various committees constituted to look into the bureaucratic tangle. Editorials have lashed out against the inept attitude of the bureaucracy to reform itself and one of the prime channels even beamed a debate on the very relevance of bureaucracy in modern India. Nevertheless, the steel frame of bureaucracy remains intact in protecting itself, considering it as yet another tidal wave of protest, only to peter out in a matter of time.

Is the steel frame intact? Do the IAS and IPS descendants of the legendary ICS and IP Officers of the pre-independence era, evoke the same fear and respect today? Do they have the spine to trudge along a principled path, ignoring the pulls and pressures of a medley of politicians, businessmen, dalals and the mafia? Have they delivered or dispensed justice to the common man? Has the army of Tehsildars, Thanedars, food inspectors, drug controllers etc improved the delivery system in the various states? No! even bureaucrats and politicians would admit this. Then why don't they change the system or introduce stringent penalties on errant officers? The answer is clear-vested interests of the politico-criminal-business-bureaucratic combine.

Tehsildars, Thanedars and a host of other minions are germane to the existence of MLAs and other elected representatives. Even collectors and SPs today are at their mercy, to avoid a transfer frenzy of the kind witnessed in the States of Bihar and UP. In the Center, every minister wants his own collector as his PS or if senior, then as a Joint Secretary in his ministry. The pattern is familiar-Secretaries are those with whom the ministers feel comfortable. Some Union Ministers carry their team for years. They quietly bide their time under a new dispensation before catapulting back after elections to their old masters.

Yes, whether accepted openly or not, India is moving towards a committed bureaucracy. One set of officers is aligned with the ruling coalition and the other with the opposition. Hence, the haste in changing key posts after a change of guard at the center or state. Today, the pernicious entry of business in politics and administration has also led to top bureaucrats aligning themselves with the various corporate giants.

Sometime back the Central Vigilance Commissioner had posted on the website a list of bureaucrats against whom enquiries were pending and those who had been charge sheeted. Amidst a storm of protests, the list was withdrawn. Hair splitting distinctions were made between those under enquiry or investigation or charge sheeted or put into jail. The entire bureaucracy was up in arms at the onslaught against their insulated environment. However, in states like UP the IAS association itself voted for most corrupt bureaucrats in their state. The bureaucrats have also made sure that no investigations can be launched against them before prior permission from their department. This despite the fact that the mandate of the CBI was to investigate primarily the corruption cases within the Government. Inquiries and cases against IAS officers keep languishing in the vigilance departments of the various states for lack of prosecution sanction. There are instances of state intervention in favour of IAS officers after their prosecution by the Lokayukt even. Only a miniscule minority of the bureaucrats are punished or reprimanded for their misdemeanor or incompetence.

A plethora of committees have been set up for recommending measures to make the bureaucracy accountable and deliver as per the national agenda. Alas! The committee delivered but the bureaucrats did not. In any case most of these committees were headed by ex-bureaucrats themselves. One of the most comprehensive set of measures was suggested by the 1978 Police Commission headed by Dr Dharamvira. The bureaucrats alarmed at the transfer of power from them to the police killed it. In the recent times reports submitted by committees headed by S/Sh Rebeiro and Padmanabhaiya are still being studied by the ministries. A year back the committee headed by UPSC Chairman Sh Surender Nath submitted its own set of proposals and after due respect paid in the media and Government quarters, it was shelved or is still lying under consideration. The latest to join the chorus is the Hota Committee Report whose recommendations are currently being debated.

Unfortunately most of the oft repeated recommendations for reforms do not find favour with most of the chief ministers. Security of tenure is a hackneyed theme since getting a tenure itself is at the mercy of political bosses. A number of upright IAS officers keep languishing in useless posts since they are useless for their political masters. The concept of a State Commission, independent of Government for appointing bureaucrats has been scoffed at and remains a chimera. The latest proposal to hone the skills of would be bureaucrats in finishing schools after matriculation goes against the very grain of globalization. While the whole world is moving towards privatization, its laughable and pitiable to see the efforts of the bureaucracy to retrench itself in countries like India. While developed countries are shrinking their bureaucracies and divesting them from various functions the bureaucracy in India is at great pains in distancing the technocrats from the executive heads. Hence, the suggestion of specialization amongst the bureaucrats is a ludicrous proposal since it entails getting in a specialist in the service and training him in rural India as an administrator and then after a number of years getting him to specialize in some other area to handle complex issues like finance, commerce, defence, home etc. That it is easier to induct technocrats and specialists at various levels in the Government is of course not palatable to our bureaucrats.

Herein lies one of the biggest stumbling blocks to reforming the bureaucracy. Bureaucracy in India is synonymous with the word IAS (Indian Administrative Service) and any reform is IAS centric. Yes, there are other services like the IFS (Indian Forest Service), IPS (Indian Police Service), Customs, Income Tax, Audit and Accounts etc. However, these are essentially specialized services and as yet no one has thought of inducting them as top level functionaries even in their own departments. Only the Indian Foreign Service and the Indian Railways Service have managed to retain their turf against the IAS onslaught. Rest don't even manage their own cadres. However, no reform committee on the issue of specialization has even once mentioned that the specialists working in the ministries can easily manage them on their own. Hence, all key positions in the Government today are managed by the IAS despite a number of other services coming under the nomenclature of civil services or the bureaucracy. Yes there are exceptions in the form of departments like space atomic energy where technocrats are at the helm of affairs. There are also instances of a Montek or Dr Manmohan Singh who bulldoze their way in through sheer brilliance and proven competence. Otherwise, it is the IAS which has flooded the various ministries as Secretaries, Additional Secretaries or Joint Secretaries at the key decision making levels. A majority of all loss making PSUs in country were managed by IAS officers and now they have become parking slots for bureaucrats waiting to find a berth in various ministries. From the President's and the Prime Minister's Secretariat to the various commissions all are headed by the IAS or ex-IAS officers. On the issue of performance or product innovation however it is a different picture altogether. Despite the accent on bureaucratic reforms it is the technocrats/specialists who have pioneered major reforms in this country. The green revolution, the nuclear explosion and major breakthroughs in the areas of telecom and economic reforms were piloted by the technocrats and specialists in this country. Yet no committee thought it fit to suggest a scheme for institutionalizing a programme for induction of technocrats at various levels in the Government of India. The ghetto mentality of the bureaucracy seeks more insulation against technocrats' supervision. No less than Montek Singh Ahluwalia himself has questioned the ability of one set of civil servants (retired bureaucrats) in the Planning Commission assessing the work of another set of civil servants working in various ministries. Critical national policy programmes like population; transport and conservation have floundered in the wake of speedy implementation with no accountability fixed on the executors.

Given the scenario a question well worth asking is whether the bureaucracy can be reformed at all? The bureaucrats would definitely blame the politicians and the system. If they cannot at least stand against the politicians then why carry the halo of 'AIS' around their necks? If work has to be done only on the dotted line then ordinary graduates could very well do the same and at a much lesser cost to the exchequer. It is time to question the very relevance of All India Services like the IAS, IPS, IFS etc. Have they contributed towards national integration? No! Bollywood has done a better job. In any case states like J&K and the North-East are too eager that their cadre officers from outside serve in Delhi. North Indians don't want to serve in the South and vice-versa. In any case the local officers are much more influential in their own state and the state Governments function in whatsoever manner despite the presence of so called IAS and IPS officers. Today the country needs more Bhabhas, Sarabhais, Kalams, Swaminathans, Pitrodas, Gills, Gare Khans, Ratan Tatas, Monteks and Manmohans at the helm of affairs than the bureaucrats. It is time to signal a goodbye to them altogether or reduce their intake to the very minimum for regulation and induct technocrats/specialists from outside for the thrust areas like telecom, finance and commerce etc.

What about the attitude of the politicians towards bureaucratic reforms? They couldn't care less. For them the bureaucracy doesn't deliver implying that in the present dispensation of politics by patronage, straightforward bureaucrats prove to be a hindrance to their personal designs. Hence, as ministers they chose their own bureaucrats and as elected representatives their maximum efforts are directed towards the posting of 'committed officers' in their own constituencies. Some of the biggest heavyweights in the political firmament today are those who care the least for governance. They are well aware that efficient running of ministries or introducing administrative reforms will not fetch them votes. They would rather woo their vote banks than waste time over administrative problems. In any case with coalition Governments having come to stay every issue would need protracted discussions with various parties before being resolved. Hence, the compulsion for getting committed bureaucrats to do the various jobs.

Dr Manmohan Singh as a disciplinarian and an eminent economist has rightly focused on the need to reform the bureaucracy which has outlived its use. The country is waiting eagerly to see the outcome.