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

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


A Close Encounter

An Interview

Whether it is managing a small or medium corporate entity or something as vast as a state or central government, the inescapable factor in any management exercise is the bureaucracy. But then who is going to manage the bureaucracy?

Take the IAS for instance. Supposed to be the cream of bureaucracy, efficiency, and much more so, integrity levels have been deteriorating so rapidly in the service, that today an IAS officer is no longer looked upon with the veneration he attracted a few decades ago.

To get an insight into the deterioration in top level bureaucracy in the country and understand its problems, Business Line's Rasheeda Bhagat spoke to a retired IAS officer from the Tamil Nadu cadre - Mr. B. Vijayaraghavan - a man of impeccable integrity and optimal efficiency.

Beginning his career in the IAS in 1957 he held with distinction posts such as the Chairman of the Tamil Nadu Electricity Board, (where he is remembered by the workers and officers even today, a decade after he left the Board), Vigilance Commissioner, Commercial Taxes Commissioner and Home Secretary. Excerpts from the interview.

Despite various Reform Commissions and attempts to make the bureaucracy more accountable and transparent, the image of the bureaucracy in public perception remains dismally low. Why?

One reason is that compared to the situation 30 or 40 years ago, the expectations from the bureaucracy in the public mind have become enormous. It is today dealing with problems which are of great import to the public, more intensively and extensively than ever before.

Forty years ago the expectations were very subdued. But today they are so vast that even the most efficient officer will not be able to satisfy them beyond a measure.

Secondly, the pulls and pressures to which the civil servants are subjected today, bear no comparison with the situation a few decades ago. Officers who can stand up to these pressures and still deliver the goods are in a minority.

Thirdly, there has been a sometimes gradual and sometimes steep erosion in the values in the civil service.

Why have people's expectations from bureaucracy increased?

Because of the enormous increase in the role of the government. Before independence or immediately after, the role of the government was very limited. But now with various socio economic and welfare measures and populist programmes, the government's involvement in public life has become much more intense.

How has the bureaucracy changed to meet these expectations, and has its role become better or worse?

It has become better in the sense the efficiency of the civil servant has increased. Today the civil servants are certainly much more efficient than they used to be... judged in the context of the requirements from them. And they're hard working. But for various reasons, because of the fall in values and the degradation in the environment, they have not been able to do a really good job.

The fall in values in the overall context?

Yes, because it is very wrong to think of the civil service in isolation from the community. After all where do the civil servants come from? The basic stock is the same. You take any profession. The standards of rectitude, integrity or responsibility towards their clients and customers are certainly not the same as they used to be. Take doctors, lawyers, teachers, industrialists or any other profession. There has been a tremendous deterioration in integrity standards.

To understand is not necessarily to forgive. But it is necessary to understand. It is not as though the civil service alone has been subjected to this deterioration. But the question is whether the civil servant, considering his role and expectations from him has got the right to say because everybody is bad or corrupt I will also be the same and get my share in the pie. Once they enter this service people expect certain standards from them. And they should not fail the people and fail themselves.

And specially IAS officers who are the cream of bureaucracy.

I agree.

Corruption is the oil or the grease which ensures that the wheel of bureaucracy turns and work gets done. There seems to be a rough divide between the honest but inefficient and the corrupt but efficient. He takes money but gets your work done. Who will get your vote?

(Laughs) If I can split my vote, I'll vote for both!

No, you're not allowed that!

Whether you like it or not, the average member of the public does not mind paying a bribe if he can get things done. Whether it is in getting his immediate requirements like the ration card, a permit, licence or quota. Or a big industrialist who wants a huge favour from the government. He does not mind paying a bribe as a price for it. This is a fact of life.

The honest civil servant has a peculiar problem. If he is absolutely even handed in his dealings with the public, he gets no credit for it. An officer of the Tamil Nadu Electricity Board for example, when he has lakhs of applications for pumpsets connections pending, and goes strictly according to priority, the applicant who gets the connection in his turn will not be grateful to the officer, as that was the applicant's right.

On the contrary if he accepts a couple of thousand rupees and gives an out of turn connection, the recipient will be very grateful to him consider him a good officer.

You did distinguish yourself as the TNEB Chairman. Could you recall some incident where you had to tackle a tricky problem and take a hard decision?

Well, the same pumpset connections. When I joined the TNEB I found a government order which gave the Chairman a 10 per cent discretionary quota. We all know what discretionary quotas mean and how they are operated.

One of the first things I did was to inform the government that I was surrendering my discretionary quota and would go strictly by priority of applications.

And how was this received?

Not well at all. The government was unwilling to cancel the GO. So I said, ``You cannot compel me to use my discretion. You can give me a quota but it will remain unutilised''.

What happened eventually?

Finally the government had to cancel that order. And from then onwards it became strictly according to priority.

Now no consumer would have felt grateful to me for that. He would not have minded paying me money which he would have made up many times over, especially if he was getting an out of turn connection. For a member of the public and more so for the industry, payment of such money is good investment. When the electricity connection is delayed even by a few weeks in an industry, the loss is enormous. So paying a bribe is looked upon as purely a commercial decision.

That is the anatomy of corruption. Corruption gets a bad odour only when talked in ethical terms, otherwise it is an investment for the one who gives it. If bribe is taken not as an extortion or on threats of harassment, but for speeding up something or doing a favour, the giver has no regrets. On the contrary he is extremely happy that such a situation prevails.

And so you have speed money. But the degradation comes about nevertheless.

Absolutely.

And once begun, there is no looking back.

I'm not justifying it. What I'm saying is that you may talk about it in moralistic terms but you yourself when you can't get a railway reservation, will be prepared to pay money for it. That is all corruption. We can talk about it in moralistic terms, but you and I are probably contributing to it in a small way.

In the recent scandals in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh and in the previous regime in Tamil Nadu, it came to light that bureaucrats had joined the politicians in looting the public exchequer. How would a senior bureaucrat like you explain this degeneration? Don't you think it is dangerous?

Of course it is. But it is not dangerous for the officers, it is very safe for them! Extremely safe. If you go into the history of these things, you'll find that if a corrupt officer hitches his wagon to the right star, he is safe. It is only when he operates as a loner he is likely to get into trouble. The best thing for a corrupt bureaucrat is to work in tandem with the Minister.

But when the colour of the minister changes, he may land in trouble as it happened in Tamil Nadu.

But if the minister is resourceful enough, as has happened in Tamil Nadu also, he will protect the bureaucrat. The bureaucrats realise that so long they work in tandem with the ministers they are safe. It is a mutual stranglehold.

But hasn't this nexus been increasing in the last few years?

Yes, very much so. In earlier times, an officer would not like to be identified with a minister. And when we heard some officer was very close to a minister, we used to frown upon it. Today that is the done thing.

What do you think of the recent move in UP to vote for the most corrupt bureaucrats?

That is just a childish reaction and will not produce any worthwhile results. And where does it take us? In the civil service we all know who is corrupt and who is not corrupt. If you want to dramatise it by voting the most corrupt how does it help to cleanse the system?

But why is there no attempt within the service to cleanse itself? After all at one time the IAS service was looked upon with enormous respect.

One thing is that the IAS as a service has lost its distinct character and cohesiveness. No one stands up for any one else any longer. When I entered the IAS in 1957 we had something like 60 officers in Tamil Nadu cadre, both the IAS and ICS put together. Today it is over 300.

Secondly, the honest bureaucrat if he is not able to get the support of the minister, easily gets marginalised and shunted out to the so-called `punishment posts'. Earlier only two punishment posts existed in Tamil Nadu for IAS officers- the Controller of Weights and Measures and the Director of Stationery and Printing!

In those days, if you fell out with your minister, you could be shunted out only to one of these two. So it really didn't cause much damage. But today there are so many IAS posts and at least 30 to 40 per cent have little significance. A few years in such postings warp your personality and affect your career prospects.

Today officers are becoming very sensitive to postings and transfers. It was not like that in the olden days. That kind of a complete transformation in your standing in the family or society could not happen. But today after holding an important post as a secretary, you can get shifted to a minor department... not many want to take that kind of a risk.

You talked about a large bureaucracy. But now with the licence regime supposed to be ending and deregulation coming in, don't you think the bureaucracy needs to be trimmed down?

Very much so. As far as the IAS cadre is concerned, I am strongly of the view that it should be reduced by at least 40 per cent. Most of the posts held by IAS officers today should be handled by persons belonging to the State services. Only posts which require particular kinds of skills should go to IAS officers.

The other unfortunate aspect is that the quality of life a civil servant aspires for has also undergone a change. Again it is a reflection of the consumerism scenario. When I joined service we were very lucky if we were able to purchase a second hand car in the first few years of service . In my case that was the only immovable property I owned for quite some years!

But today within one or 2 years of service, the young officer wants to acquire a brand new car, a house, a colour TV , a fridge and a wife; not necessarily in that order! This kind of lifestyle has taken its toll.

That again is a reflection of what's happening in society.

Yes, and the pressure from the family is immense. Unless the officer has tremendous moral strength, he will not be able to stand up to it. So he also falls into the groove.

But my personal view is that even given all the limitations of the environment, the pulls and pressures he is subjected to, an honest and efficient officer can still do an enormous amount of good work.

The system allows him?

Yes. Why, he can do it in spite of the system. So, to say that we are captives of the system and are not allowed to work is the defence of the bone lazy.

We talked about role models for youngsters.. if senior bureaucrats are corrupt, what kind of role models will they provide for the youngsters.

They cannot.

So today there are not too many role models around?

Very few. And these role models get marginalised. It is not as if we don't have honest and competent officers. But they rarely get a chance to get exposed to the public. They work unnoticed in posts of no consequence. The persons who get exposed to the public are the corrupt and the inefficient.

Who corrupts.. the political corrupts the bureaucrat or vice versa?

Both ways.

Today people look upon bureaucrats, especially IAS officers, as haughty and stand-offish. And an officer who wants to help people and rub shoulders with them, is looked upon as an outcast by his own colleagues. Your response.

The government servants by and large present an image of being too preoccupied with their work. But I don't think IAS officers by themselves are stand-offish.

Those who rub shoulders with the people are looked down upon as populist like the Surat Commissioner Mr. S.R.Rao.

He has a very good reputation and image.. unless it is a case of jealousy about someone who is able to deliver the goods despite difficulties. But I don't think he is looked down upon by his colleagues.

What about a person like Khairnar, is he not being made fun of?

Khairnar, unfortunately, went to the other extreme. This is the Seshan syndrome. Seshan, Khairnar, Alphonse.. this is a different kind of breed altogether.. partly inspired by ideals and partly by their own egos.

Somewhere along the line I think they get lost in their own self-glorification.

And its very difficult to say which of their actions is motivated by pursuit of personal glory and which by commitment to public welfare.

Can you recall instances when you tackled tricky situations without sacrificing your principles and upsetting your superiors?

I might not have sacrificed my principles but I cannot say I've not upset my superiors!

Bureaucracy is supposed to be the art of managing or balancing both.

I was not a very good manager of men. My principles were very simple and inflexible. When you think something is wrong make it 100 per cent clear you will not do it. And if you say that twice or thrice you will find you are absolutely insulated from that kind of pressures ever after.

You asked earlier why the bureaucracy has come to such a pass. In spite of the very great expectations from the civil service - from the government and the public - in the IAS there is no attempt made at human resources development. Once you get into the service your postings and transfers are made at the whims and fancies of someone or the other. No attempt is made at developing human resources. This does not happen in the corporate sector where there are departments wholly concerned with HRD. They pick up people, find out their aptitudes, train them in particular fields and then give placements.

But in civil service if you grow it is only by your own effort against great odds. You are not given an environment which is conducive to growth. On the contrary, if you are found to be too good in something, you are pulled out of it, and put in a post where you get totally frustrated and demoralised.

And if you do a good job and get attention, the politician does not like it.

That is there too. Of course the stamp of a civil servant is supposed to be anonymity. They are not supposed to give too much publicity about what they're doing.

It is strange that the government of India has done nothing on HRD...

At workshops and seminars this subject might have been discussed but no concrete attempt has been made.. and the state governments are in a worse position.

Today the civil service is a generalist service. Different types of skills are required.. and a generalist does not mean that he does not require any skills. Considering the range of responsibilities he is supposed to handle in different assignments, the government has to pick up the right people with the right aptitude for particular jobs.

This should be decided early in the career and a conscious attempt made to give postings where their skills and expertise can be developed and talent used.

How healthy are frequent transfers?

An officer should be in a post for minimum three to five years. Three years is the yardstick usually mentioned but for certain departments and organisations this is too short , for example, an Electricity Board. But IAS officers are transferred in the most mindless manner every few months or just a year or thereabout.

In a very general assessment what percent of officers you would say are corrupt?

Its very difficult to say. Corruption does not involve only officer's taking money. If he is a party to the minister taking money.. under the Prevention of Corruption Act, if a public service assists or abets, without receiving money himself, he is guilty of corruption.

That kind of corruption is quite rampant. But officers who take hard cash or other favours, that may not be more than 30%, which itself is shocking.

But does the system allow you to prevent the politicians from making money?

Certainly. There are very few instances when a minister will have the courage to overrule a civil servant and take a wrong decision, especially these days. If you take the history of administration in Tamil Nadu, you'll find that in 95% of the cases, the minister only agreed with the proposal made by the secretary. Because the secretary would have put up the note at the behest of the minister. If the secretary has the courage to say `No' in black and white, the Minister can't easily overrule him. He may transfer him and get somebody else to do the job.

In Tamil Nadu when the DMK government came to power in 1996, it said systems and procedures should be strictly followed. But does this not sometimes delay work?

If the systems and procedures contribute to delays you change them. But once they are laid down you have to subscribe to them or else there is no meaning in it. And if you don't subscribe to them in extraordinary circumstances and in the public interest, you record your reasons. The system allows you to do that.

Whenever action is taken against corrupt bureaucrats, IAS officers raise the bogey of victimisation?

Do they?

Of course. It happened in Tamil Nadu in the first few months of the DMK's coming to power.

There will be no charge of victimisation if action is taken in a fair and even handed manner without any political or personal considerations. But if political or personal reasons decide whether an officer should be prosecuted or not, as happened in a few cases, unfortunately in our state, then you get into problems. When the government is confronted with far too many cases, it has to take a selective approach, that cannot be helped. But it should be done in an absolutely objective manner.

So justice should not only be done but seen to be done?

Yes.

Do you think the bureaucrats should be tightlipped or take the media/people into confidence?

That old anonymity concept... We cannot carry it today beyond a point. You have to be accessible to the press, have to be transparent and make known what you're doing. But that should not be personal glory. And, when you get into controversial areas, where you have a difference of view with the government, that is a problem. There some basic questions of service discipline come in. There are ways in which you can express your point of view. But you cannot make it a public issue.

Then it becomes a trial by the media?

Absolutely. And today unfortunately the media also wants that kind of stuff. So it encourages officers like that. The media wants juicy stories and encourages such officers.

What do you feel about retiring bureaucrats taking up plush jobs in the corporate sector? Do you think they have special skills to warrant huge salaries?

Very, very rarely. Most of the jobs we handle do not equip us to perform very well in the corporate sector.

And still you have so many retired bureaucrats sitting in corporate posts.

That is something which has to be looked into; their marketability and the type of jobs they occupy. It is often a reward for services rendered while they were in government.

As senior bureaucrats you have a great clout with your juniors still in service!

That is another major reason. Very many companies are after retired bureaucrats because they want to use them as contact people.

Or facilitators?

Facilitators or whatever honourable names you may have for touts and pimps.


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