It’s time the PM shook up the bureaucracy

  • Shishir Gupta, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Apr 19, 2016 08:34 IST
The IAS and Allied Services Training Centre, Patiala.The resident bureaucracy is proving to be a drag on the government, thanks to over-cautious decision-making and lack of vision and interest or both. (HT File Photo)

After the Kupwara flare-up on Friday, Indian Army Chief General Dalbir Singh Suhag called up defence minister Manohar Parrikar to brief him on the incident. Before the chief even began to speak, Parrikar told him about the incident and the counter-strategy to be adopted by the army to control the spread of violence in Kashmir Valley.

A surprised general asked the minister whether the incident has been reported on TV. A top navy officer went through a similar experience a week before when Parrikar questioned him about an incident involving a warship in Mumbai harbour. Parrikar is on top of his job. And so indeed are many of the other ministers. But the same cannot be said of the bureaucrats who are meant to keep the machinery of government running smoothly.

Let us take the example of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. A lengthy sectoral presentation by the Niti Aayog before the PM was cut short at 9.30 pm over a week-end last month due to lack of information on the civil aviation sector. Modi jokingly berated the bureaucrats, asking them what he would do going home so early. Nearly two years after he was sworn in as PM, the common refrain is that while the Modi ministers (barring some) are working diligently, the implementation of the schemes and policies leaves much to be desired.

The reasons are not far to seek. The resident bureaucracy is proving to be a drag on the government, thanks to over-cautious decision-making and lack of vision and interest or both. For a large section of the bureaucracy — military or civilian — it is just another job with little accountability. However, much pain is taken to ensure that the turf is protected and silos guarded. No one seems to care that the Modi PMO works 24x7 with principal secretary Nripendra Mishra a permanent resident of South Block or National Security Adviser Ajit Doval constantly on the move from South Block to Sardar Patel Bhawan to the international airport for official trips. Despite the limitations of the party’s bench strength, Modi is expected to reshuffle his Cabinet next month. He is likely to weed out indifferent non-performers.

READ: PM Modi’s cabinet recast, Shah’s party rejig likely in late May

This is also the time for the PM to shake up the bureaucracy. After all, two years is enough time for civil servants to get over their UPA hangover. The PM was quite aware that the bureaucracy was the permanent opposition in residence from May 2014. But he gave them enough time to reform and change. This path of patience has not worked despite the carrots of the Seventh Pay Commission or the One-Rank-One-Pension scheme.

With three years left for the next general elections in 2019, Modi should grasp the nettle when it comes to babudom. He must give preference to merit using the route of deep selections and not go by the seniority principle in top military and civilian postings. Towards the end of its tenure, the AB Vajpayee government moved towards meritocracy by appointing home and defence secretaries through deep selections. This was reversed by the UPA-I through the insidious tarnishing of the reputations of those civil servants.

READ: To keep Swachh Bharat on track, PM Modi gets ‘outside’ help

One of the first steps in the reform of the bureaucracy by the government should be an end to job extensions to civilian bureaucrats. This is an incentive to make them malleable to the pressures of the party in power. It also enables dithering in decision-making so that errors of commission are eliminated. This system of rewards in the form of governorships, staff cars and State-subsidised bungalows in Lutyen’s Delhi must end.

One solution is to divide jobs between regulators and line appointments. On reaching at the age of 55, the bureaucracy should be asked to choose between the two careers. Those interested in regulation should be allowed to continue till 65 years while other follow the direct line operations till 60 or, in exceptional cases, 62 years.

The next step that needs to be taken is to consider three batches of civil services at one go for a better choice of officers at the joint secretary level and remove the deadwood on the basis of non-selection in three years. Given that some secretary-level jobs require a high degree of skill and technical expertise like in the areas of nuclear, climate change, civil aviation, cyber security, counter-terrorism, power and defence acquisition, the government should look at filling these posts through lateral entries. It could look at filling 25%of the requirement from the private sector at the level of additional secretary and above. For the bureaucracy to perform, bona fide mistakes must be condoned, and merit, initiative and hard work rewarded with important assignments overlooking any political considerations. Wearing one’s honesty on one’s sleeve alone cannot be the sole criterion of suitability. A bureaucrat is expected to be honest. This cannot be used as a justification to delay decision-making as is seen to be done by officials serving in defence. This sector is the key to the flagship ‘Make in India’ programme, and the finance ministry.

The government also needs to energise internal security by first injecting fresh blood into the intelligence agencies at the senior level and then getting them on the same page by breaking existing silos. Intelligence agencies have been largely reduced to dumping grounds for officers from politically uncomfortable postings at the state level and who have sought central jobs.

This has meant that accountability is often judged by the number of security alerts issued on a given day. While one acknowledges the supreme sacrifices made by the men and women of the Indian armed forces particularly the Indian Army, there must be strong accountability at the leadership level so that the country is not taken by surprise as in the 1962 China war or 1999 in Kargil.

Visionary military leadership seems to be missing in the field as well as in innovation. This has meant a distinct lack in producing India-specific doctrines. Nearly 69 years after Independence, the government and in-house strategists are still grappling with short- and long-term objectives on our neighbours, particularly Pakistan. The Indian growth story is promising. But the government can capitalise on it only by making the bureaucracy more effective in the speedy implementation of its policies. The argument that the CBI, the CVC or the CAG prohibits effective decision-making by civil servants is a self-defeating one. This let down the UPA-2 regime. The NDA should learn from those mistakes.

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