Financial Daily from THE HINDU group of publications
Thursday, Mar 28, 2002
Nettle that nobody grasps III: Towards a new bureaucratic paradigm
B. S. Raghavan
THE basic premise on which sound democratic governance is predicated is that those working the machinery of the government must be in tune with the tenets of true and genuine democracy. Their attitude should be one of responsiveness to the concerns of citizens and abiding respect for their rights.
The only rationale that can ever justify the elaborate administrative edifice and establishment and the expenditure incurred on them, whether in government, civil society or in public or private sectors bureaucratic rigidities are not unique to government is the rendering of prompt and efficient service to the people in fulfilment of their needs, expectations and aspirations. Service first and last should be their motto.
India's adoption of adult franchise in 1949, when illiteracy was nearly 70 per cent, for elections to State Assemblies and Parliament, was, as the then President of the Constituent Assembly, who also became the first President of the Republic, Dr Rajendra Prasad, modestly put it, "an act of faith''.
It was in fact a breath-taking quantum leap by the founding fathers to a stage in democracy to arrive at which countries, such as the UK and the US, renowned as role models, took a few centuries of evolution.
Taking the rough with the smooth, there has on the whole been no betrayal by the people of the faith reposed in them. Time and again, they have risen to the occasion and played the part expected of them in applying the necessary correctives in the course of exercising their right of franchise.
As the masses get more and more enlightened from the spread of education and information-cum-knowledge revolution, there is bound to be an increase in the tension between the democratic and bureaucratic parts of the state apparatus.
Adult franchise and adulterated institutions cannot co-exist just as a nation cannot survive, in the words of Abraham Lincoln, half slave and half free.
Democracy either runs at full throttle or faces erosion and eventual extinction. Therefore, institutions, especially those which are channels of service of "we, the people'', cannot be half-accountable and half-callous.
It is to remove the hiatus that invariably develops between a so-called neutral "steel frame'' and the people from the depth of whose feelings and sentiments it is insulated and isolated that the US has adopted the practice of appointing nominees of the elected political executive to the top three or four layers of departments. This ensures that the implementing levels of the government act in consonance with the will and consent of the party that receives the people's mandate, and not work at cross-purposes on the pretext of giving independent advice on the rights and wrongs of a proposed policy.
Under the US system, the political, economic, financial and legal implications are debated and sorted out by appointees of the party in power and all that remains for the executing agencies to do is to put the decisions into effect. They are also absolved of the responsibility for the consequences which is assumed by the political adjunct of the extant administration. The separation of powers whereby the Congress is vested with the authority to approve or veto political appointees above a given level, oversee the functioning of the various departments and investigate lapses and misdemeanours helps keep the executive branch in track.
In India, and generally in the parliamentary system of government, although in name the legislative and executive are supposed to have separate and well-defined roles, in practice, the distinction is blurred and they become mutually-dependent and almost collusive. In theory, the permanent bureaucracy is to tender its advice and discharge its duties without fear or favour, but in practice, over a period, it learns that peace of mind and well-being of the family and children lie in kowtowing to the powers-that-be.
If it so much as pretends to live up to its mission, it is bludgeoned into submission by threats of damage to career prospects. In the past 30 years, there has been a rapid rise in the number of instances of members of organised services becoming pliant accomplices of politicians in perpetrating and perpetuating misdeeds for selfish gain.
Thus, India is bereft of both the openness and oversight of the US system on the one hand and the integrity and impartiality of the British civil service on the other.
It is time the pitfalls of the present confusing state of affairs were acknowledged and India's bureaucracy was recast so as to buttress its democratic content and sharpen its reflexes.
On balance, the American pattern of manning the policy-making levels with political appointees and making the legislative and executive branches co-equal and sovereign within their respective domains seem more suited to India's cultural ethos and pluralistic polity.
Likewise, the multiplicity of focal points of authority and control and the conflicts of interest and egos have been bedevilling district administration for quite some time.
This is because of the indefensible superimposition of the outmoded and paternalistic paraphernalia of district collectors / magistrates over elected panchayati raj institutions whose legitimacy as the custodian and promoter of the welfare of the people is unquestionably greater.
Functionaries from the Chief Minister down to the panchayat president should be answerable to their masters, the people, and all grades of government officials at the district, union and panchayat levels brought under the administrative control of the respective elected body.
It goes without saying that vested interests will fight these reforms tooth and nail every inch of the way. It is necessary to involve every section of the civil society in creating an avalanche of public opinion that will sweep away all the systemic deadwood before it and force the Government's hands.
Meanwhile, there is plenty that can be done to put public officials on notice that either they perform or they will be booted out.
The illustrative menu of measures (to which many more can be added) given in the box is to be taken as a precursor to the launching of a comprehensive set of reforms capable of serving the intended objectives.
Setting the stage for bureaucratic reforms
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