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

Get Up and Get Over


As is true of all relationships, handling bureaucracy belongs to the realms of both science and art, encompassing what may be called the hardware and software aspects. This is because, on the one hand, bureaucracy is an impersonal entity, a machinery, a tool-kit, a body of systems and procedures, with its output determined by the nature and quality of input, running along a set course on pre-ordained lines. On the other, it is also a collective of human beings, each of whom is a bundle of emotions, feelings, urges and drives, representing a corpus of knowledge and expertise, governed by internal etiquette and protocol, bound by practices and precedents, responding to leadership and inspiration, and reacting to risks, retribution and rewards the same way as other human beings do. They too want to be thought well of, and they too are no less eager to contribute to people's welfare than their detractors outside, but are constrained to observe a certain prudence, propriety and probity imposed by the framework within which they have to function.

The most successful approach to bureaucracy is, therefore, one that makes allowances for its deterministic as well as human attributes. This must be based on the recognition that (a) no system of governance or organised activity can do without some minimum essential rules, procedures and paper-work; (b) government bureaucracy, in particular, is accountable to the society at large through the mediation of elected legislatures and cannot afford to be seen as partial or negligent; (c) bureaucrats are from the same cultural stock and social milieu as those outside; (d) an adversarial or holier-than-thou attitude towards them will do no good to their morale which is the mainspring of effectiveness and efficiency; (e) for the rigidities and complexities of the system, the bureaucrats are not to be blamed; and (f) their tendency to hedge stems from their fear of facing the ignominy of an audit objection, vigilance inquiry or police investigation which can ruin their reputation acquired from a life-time of public service.

Paradigm for citizen-bureaucrat interface

Here's a paradigm based on the above postulates designed for a constructive and friendly encounter between the citizen (including the corporate citizen) and an average bureaucrat (assuming that he is not corrupt, sadistic or abnormal):

(1) Help him to help you. This you can do by making sure that (i) your request conforms to existing rules and regulations; (ii) you have complied with all the prescribed formalities and conditions; (iii) it is in line with any precedents that can be cited; (iv) it does not oblige the bureaucrat to show any special favours.

(2) Think ahead and provide for the necessary lead time for completing the examination of any request. Submitting requests at the nick of time and hustling everyone for action only results in frustration on all sides.

(3) The mode of presentation is important. An average bureaucrat is flooded with phone calls, visitors, assignments and errands. They tear into him from all directions, and constantly disrupt his priorities. One has to be superhuman to be cool- headed in the midst of these distractions. Hence, the more crisp, concise and cogent the proposal, the less the demand it makes on his time and the greater the likelihood of its getting his best attention. If it can be made attractive and graphic taking advantage of information technology, all the better. Handing of a complicated proposal is best preceded by an oral presentation of the salient features at the appropriate level.

(4) In presenting a case to a government bureaucrat, all the cards must be placed on the table. Recourse to selective enumeration of facts, even if it be in the honest desire not to clutter up the proposal, can spell future misunderstanding, if the bureaucrat chances upon them on his own.

(5) Pestering and putting extraneous pressure (especially invoking the highest level even before making a formal proposal to the concerned functionary) should be avoided. This builds up resentment and resistance, leading to nitpicking queries and sometimes rejection. It is always easy for a bureaucrat to find plausible reasons to stonewall, which higher levels will hardly be in a position to over-rule. It is better to allow for a reasonable time before reverting to the subject by way of a reminder.

(6) Trust and courtesy beget both in return. It never pays to approach a bureaucrat, or anyone for that matter, in the spirit of "I am OK, you are not OK".

(7) Where a request has been denied, and the matter is taken up for reconsideration, the approach should be free from imputation of motives or intemperate language. Every person is to be presumed to have done his duty to the best of his ability. The aim should be to win him over by answering the objections to the point and/or advancing fresh arguments, where possible.


The case of the stalled airstrip

When I was Deputy Commissioner (Collector), Jalpaiguri, in West Bengal, in 1957, it was the heyday of Dr.B.C.Roy who as the Chief Minister left an indelible imprint on the State. I was out on a tour in the district when I noticed a number of bulldozers leveling a large area of agricultural land, and small hutments serving as beehives of construction activity. On stopping to enquire, I was told by those at the site that a well-known commercial firm, whose chief had access to Dr.Roy, was laying an airstrip for starting private air shuttle services between Calcutta and Jalpaiguri, apparently with the approval of the CM.

Now, those were days when there was no rail or road bridge over the Padma river at Farakka, and an agonisingly long and arduous ferry-crossing made surface travel to North Bengal districts a torture, besides acting as a drag on the region's economic development. So, an airstrip was unquestionably a long- felt need. However, I felt that a right thing was being done the wrong way. Under rules, the Collector's permission was essential to put agricultural land to commercial use. For laying a runway, again, clearance was required in the interest of the safety human settlements, public buildings, hospitals, schools etc. in the vicinity. I, therefore, clamped an order under section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code stopping all further work, and started legal proceedings against the firm.

The chief of the firm, instead of realising his mistake in short-circuiting procedures, once again tried circumventing the district officer by prevailing upon the CM to write to me emphasising the importance of the project and asking me to be helpful. By that time, the Court proceedings had started, and could not be brought to a close without the firm complying with the mandatory safeguards, the whole process taking about three months. If only the executives of the firm had spent a week with the officials of the Collectorate before taking up the project, instead of applying pressure from the top by remote control, the project could have taken off faster in a spirit of cooperation and goodwill at the field level.

The case of duplicitous dealing

I was in charge of the Food Department at the Centre at a time of scarcity of foodgrains and monthly State-wise allocations were made from the available stock based on population, the pattern of consumption and so on. The requirements of wheat for roller flour millers were also met as per a formula worked out in consultation with their federation. The Food Corporation of India was the only source, and open market purchase was not permitted. A prominent flour miller approached the Food Department making out a case through the federation for increased allotment, but held back the fact that he had secured a similar increase from out of the State Government quota as well.

The fact became known when the State Food Secretary called on me on some other work. The result was the issue of a notice to the miller to show cause against blacklisting him for any further allotment. He sought to bring pressure on the Union Food Minister through the State Food Minister, but the former refused to intervene. During the six months or so it took for the case to go through its various stages and the supply was restored on the miller tendering an apology, the mill had to remain closed, causing much financial loss. If the miller had not resorted to subterfuge, he would have got the increased quantity without any trouble or loss of time or business.

Politicians and bureaucrats

The interface of the bureaucrat is not just with the citizen. Ministers and members of various elective bodies too deal with bureaucracy at various levels to get things done. There is a built-in scope for the relations to sour in their case primarily for three reasons: (a) They are apt to throw their weight about and seek to browbeat or push around the bureaucrat; (b) Political compulsions and ignorance of administrative norms may drive them to press demands which are irregular, improper or injurious to public interest; and (c) Superciliousness and want of empathy on the bureaucrats' part may accentuate the clash of cultures.

The remedy, of course, lies in both sides being on guard against such lapses. In addition, there are useful lessons to be drawn from case studies of mutually reinforcing and highly productive relationship between the Minister and the civil servant. Notable examples which took the partnerships to historic peaks of achievement are: Jawaharlal Nehru, G.S.Bajpai, Homi Bhabha, Vikram Sarabhai and S.S.Bhatnagar (atomic energy and space research, network of laboratories for scientific and industrial research); Sardar Patel, Mr.V.Shankar and Mr.V.P.Menon (integration of states); Mr.C.Subramaniam, Mr.B.Sivaraman, Mr.S.Venkitaramanan, Mr.M.S.Sondhi, Dr.M.S.Swaminathan and Dr.V.Kurien (green and white revolutions, integrated rural development; steel and heavy electrical projects); Dr.B.C.Roy and Mr.S.N.Ray in West Bengal (all that is the State today).

Taken together, they throw light on the observance of the following principles in dealing with bureaucracy: (1) Total trust (2) Full delegation and support against criticism in the discharge of the duties in good faith by the civil servant (3) Inculcating team-spirit and constant mutual consultation with the Minister as number one among equals (4) Absolute independence to the civil servant to implement decisions without interference (5) Unhindered freedom to the civil servant to give frank expression to his point of view orally and in writing to the extent of opposing the Minister, when necessary (6) Complete autonomy in internal management of the department under the civil servant in respect of deployment of personnel, tenders, distribution of work etc.

Bureaucrats and economic reforms

Finally, it is necessary to deal with the accusation that government bureaucracy has been deliberately stalling economic reforms for fear of losing their stranglehold or due to other ulterior motives. How true is the near-unanimous condemnation of bureaucracy on this score? It must be noted that the charge against bureaucracy has been leveled mostly by foreign commentators. One should take account of the possibility of their view might being coloured by their impatience with the bureaucrats for exercising innate caution and prudence in the national interest in examining their proposals.

My talks with bureaucrats of various levels lead me to believe that they are in fact happy to shed the burden of regulations and controls which subjected them to tremendous pressures and harassing queries on the manner of using their discretion and judgment. Barring a few black sheep here and there, there is no ground to suppose that they as a class are out to derail the reforms process.

Some support for this conclusion is found in the fact that within the country, opinion among national chambers of commerce and industries, business persons and investors has been less strident. This is perhaps because, they are culturally more attuned to the ways of bureaucracy, having lived with it for so long with its good and bad points. They are also more aware than their foreign counterparts of the systemic straitjackets it suffers from. Hence they are better able to appreciate that as in every other aspect of human behaviour anywhere else in the world, the situation can never be wholly black or wholly white and there is always a grey area. After all is said and done, the old adage is still valid with full force: It is a bad workman who quarrels with his tools. So the onus is squarely on the leaders of political parties forming governments at the Centre and in the States who have to get their acts straight and formulate clear- cut and practicable public policies.


The case of the constructive troubleshooter

The late 1960s represented the most acute phase of the licence-permit-quota raj, and there I was, as the Commerce and Industries Secretary of West Bengal (and a member of the Centre's Industrial Licensing Committee), being buffeted by Central Ministries on the one side and numerous claimants and applicants for various favours on the other. One particular industrialist gained the confidence of not only bureaucracy but also the business community by acting as a bridge between both. He saw to it that all the queries were anticipated and answered and all the facts and arguments marshaled well in advance of the inclusion of the proposals in the agenda, and did so in a self-effacing manner without asking for any favours for himself. Result: Smooth and swift passage of proposals and thriving of his own industrial concern. No wonder, he rose to great heights and retired as a member of his company's overseas board.

The case of the harbinger of harmony

I was the chief executive of the Damodar Valley Corporation (DVC) in the early 1970s at a time when the total demand was more than double the available power supply. I faced the problem of catering to the divergent power requirements of different categories of industrial consumers. The continuous process industries (e.g.aluminium) could not go without power even for a minute; the demand of railways, steel plants, collieries etc had varying peak and lean periods; and it was necessary to save consumer goods industries from loss. The media image of the DVC was also poor.

The Bengal Chamber of Commerce mooted the idea of forming a composite group of representatives of various industrial consumers, the media and independent professionals and reviewing the situation with me every month so as to take note of the concerns of the consumers and find ways to maximise the DVC's generation potential. Its noteworthy contribution to the stabilisation of supply arrangements and normalisation of power generation made it a model of crisis management. In fact, I adapted the idea during my chairmanship of UN bodies by evolving the concept of Chairman's Friends to resolve differences and take action plans forward energetically.


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