Vol 02 01
Praxis Logo
Quarterly Journal on Management
From the publishers of THE HINDU BUSINESS LINE

Vol. 2 :: No. 1 :: March 1998

Give a Little


Bureaucracy has been the perennial whipping boy of the people of all nationalities all over the world. Critics have exhausted without the least fear of contradiction almost all the abusive invectives down to the last letter of the alphabet in lambasting it: Abrasive, arrogant, bloated, callous, cold, complex, discourteous, heartless, inefficient, insensitive, lethargic, mindless, negative, obstructive, opaque, oppressive, ponderous, rude, wasteful, wooden, zany. It also serves as the ready-at-hand alibi, pretext, excuse and scapegoat all rolled into one for non-achievement on other grounds on the part of those having to deal with it in pursuit of their avocations or enterprises. In short, bureaucracy-bashing is one pastime common to all countries, cultures and climates.

India's bureaucracy is no exception. It has taken so much beating for so long from so many diverse quarters as would have made any other institution in its place give up its ghost by now. It is a miracle that it is still going strong, or plodding along, as you will, taking all the opprobrium in its stride. May be, such indifference to insults is also true to its character!

The period following the launch of economic reforms in 1991 has seen a virulent eruption of all the pent-up hatred against the country's bureaucratic demons. Not one foreign professional, academic, or businessperson passing by omits to refer to it as a pernicious drag on all that had been sought to be achieved. The mildest dig is that India rolls, not the red carpet, but extra- deep red tape for foreign investors.

Case against bureaucracy

Year after year, Mr.Claude Smadja, Managing Director of the World Economic Forum, has been in the vanguard of institutions and individuals taking cudgels against India's bureaucrats in the strongest possible terms. Since he reflects the general trend of thinking, let us try to understand the case for the prosecution from his standpoint. Here are a few extracts of his castigation made on different occasions: ``Everybody in the bureaucracy has been encouraged to procrastinate in the belief that it is better to stand still. This is a very vicious mindset that has bred insecurity and arrogance in officialdom...Though controls have been eased in a lot of areas, Indian bureaucracy is till fighting to retain its hold with many hidden rules and regulations, resulting in haggling and obstructions...the very presence of bureaucrats means work will have to be found for them and that is the cause for the continuing indifference...Indian government is yet to doff its bureaucratic inhibitions much to the chagrin of the investor.''

Bureauphobia is built into the psyche of Indian academics and commentators in a way that some of them simply cannot stand the sight or bear to hear the name of a bureaucrat. Here is a sample of vituperation culled at random from a newspaper column: ``(The prime architects of the Indian economic reform process) did not bargain for ..a process of attrition in which the bureaucrats would always have the upper hand and even in some situations the power of veto...the notion that bureaucrats will simply recede to the background is unrealistic. In the real life situation in India, where politicians in power and the bureaucrats have developed mutually profitable modes of collaboration, it will be even harder to achieve debureaucratisation to any worthwhile extent.''

In this background, it is not unlikely that anyone who makes bold to approach the issue in an objective manner will be considered fit to be consigned to a lunatic asylum. But the risk is worth taking in the larger public interest as also with a view to mitigating the manic obsession with the darker side of the picture. Any corrosive phobia is bad in itself, apart from the harm it causes to the health whether of an individual or body politic. This article written, may it be revealed at the very outset, by an extinguished but, in his own estimation, unorthodox bureaucrat, who has had experience of government, public and private sectors and international organisations, will be an elaboration of five propositions.

Five balancing propositions

1. Our Freedom heroes did not find it wanting

The first one relates to an unswallowable absurdity. The logical corollary of the criticisms heaped on Indian bureaucracy is to imply that indomitable freedom heroes such as Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, Rajagopalachari, Govind Vallabh Pant, Morarji Desai, Kamaraj and others who braved British lathis and bullets for well-nigh 40 years and who were acutely sensitised to the imperative of building up the nation and raising the living standards of the people had become traitors to their cause and allowed themselves to become either blind and cowardly slaves of bureaucracy or its gullible collaborators in furtherance of unpatriotic designs. If they retained it and worked with and through it, it could have been only because they felt that, taking the rough with the smooth, it was standing them in good stead.

2. Complexities -- the stuff of all bureaucracies

However (and this is the second proposition), without doubt, Indian bureaucracy had fallen a prey to the temptation of making simple things complex and entangling the system in an impenetrable web of convoluted conditions, injunctions and prohibitions. But this is the very stuff of every bureaucracy, including that of industrially and technologically advanced democracies. It is all the more so in a long-established organisation like that of government. It is intrinsically cautious, if not suspicious, and this distrust of human nature finds vent in its compulsive urge to devise safeguards against misuse and mistake. Just as opposites meet at the extremes, transparency carried to excess becomes opaque, accountability blends into immobility, and even-handedness sends citizens back empty-handed!

To give the Government its due, beginning from the first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, various Commissions and Task Forces had been entrusted with the task of reducing and simplifying the rules, and making the cutting edge of administration responsive to the citizens. Realistically, there will be no time when there will be no need to carry out this process of weeding out and pruning. Even countries such as the U.S. and the U.K. which swear by open Government accessible to citizens had been going through a similar process of wielding the broom from time to time.

3. Bureaucratic behaviour inherent in any structured, hierarchical setup

Third, bureaucracy is not something connected with government machinery alone. It is not as though only the secretaries, joint secretaries or deputy secretaries are bureaucrats. Any large-scale formally structured organisation with its employees categorised in hierarchies based on precisely designated layers of responsibilities and functioning in accordance with rules and practices to be applied in a fair and impartial manner is a bureaucracy. Conversely, being non-bureaucratic should not be taken as the licence to be arbitrary, capricious and whimsical and to play favourites.

Viewed thus, you take at random the name of any prominent and large setup that comes to mind in the non-government sector, you will find it behaving like a government bureaucracy. Banks, corporate hospitals, universities, corporate conglomerates, media establishments -- all these vie with government bureaucracy in their routines and rituals. If you have any dealings with them at any time over, say, reply to a communication or return of a phone call, refund of a deposit, redress of a complaint, securing an exemption or a concession, sanction of an advance, payment of a bill, approval to a purchase, funding of a project, and the like, you should not be startled to find that their functionaries also are every whit as off-putting, cumbersome and procedure-bound as those of government, with their own forms to fill and, alas, in some regrettable cases, their own palms to grease.

4. Track record of Indian bureaucracy not to be sneezed at

The fourth proposition to which mot enough justice is done by critics is that it is this very Indian bureaucracy which, for all its faults and imperfections, had in its own way contributed to the not unimpressive progress the country has made since Independence in the establishment of heavy industries, addition to infrastructure, expansion of education and health services, implementation of schemes for rural development, increased agricultural production and irrigation facilities and so on. It may be argued that with greater responsiveness and speed of decision-making by the government bureaucracy, the results could have been far more and far better. But this line of reasoning applies to all organised undertakings at all times and till the end of time, since it is always possible to do more and better with greater zeal and less hassles in any group activity in any walk of life.

5. Right approach gets the best out of bureaucracy

The fifth and final proposition is the critical core of this article. With the formidable all-too-familiar array of repellent factors, it is still possible to get the best out of bureaucracy without having to resort to underhand subterfuges. It must be remembered that government bureaucracy teems with earnest-minded and dedicated persons keen to see their country prosper in the same proportion as any other bureaucracy. Many politicians, academics and professionals will readily acknowledge that they had been able to get things done by government bureaucracy without suffering harassment in the process; likewise many private sector enterprises had managed to thrive even during the high noon of licence-permit-quota raj which, on all accounts, was in the vice-like grip of bureaucrats. Mr.C.Subramaniam brought about the green revolution and Dr.V.Kurien, the white, dealing with the same breed of bureaucrats that is now under attack.

In sum, while bureaucracy has much to answer for, not all the blame for its failing to meet public expectations can be laid at its doors. Imposition of impractical policies, systems unsuited to a democracy, bureaucracy's propensity to create a morass of rules to plug every loophole, inadequate recognition of the record of performance to its credit and an unawareness of how structured organisations work are also equally to blame.


Some things never change. For those who thought that the unprecedented rise in rail accidents is a new phenomenon, the following extract from the report of the Administrative Reforms Commission presented to Parliament by Mr.Morarji Desai in 1968 will come as an eye opener:

"The position (regarding accidents), instead of improving, seems to have worsened. Political interference in the day-to-day working of the railways is having a serious impact on the work- load at all levels of management and is undermining discipline which is of paramount importance for efficiency and safety. It takes continuous effort and a long time for discipline to be built up, but it can be disrupted in very little time. We realise that the environments in general have also been unfavourable. While there may be no direct link between the growing indiscipline and the recent spate of accidents attributable to human failure, the fact remains that the reflexes and impulses of a human mind are delicately poised, and unless they are constantly attuned to the state of disciplined conduct, they are apt to fail at the crucial moment.

"We, therefore, consider it our duty to sound a note of warning that unless the highest sovereign body in the country, namely, Parliament, decides to observe a self-denying ordinance in respect of internal matters, particularly those concerning routine matters such as staff promotions, transfers, discipline etc. and the Members of Parliament confine themselves mainly to broad issues of policy emanating from the Ministry, whatever improvements we may suggest, they are not likely to prove fruitful. If this higher authority lends its positive support to the efforts to tighten discipline, it would indeed be of immense value. In the advanced countries with nationalised railways, such conventions are well-established. Sometime back, a Minister of Transport in Japan was castigated by the Press and public opinion, because he ordered that an express train should stop at a station serving his constituency and he had ultimately to resign. Public opinion must be built up and conventions established to avoid interference in the day-to-day working of the railways."

These salutary remarks are true for all Ministries.


The Hindu | Business Line