The Political and Economic Risk Consultancy Ltd recently released a report, which stated that Indian bureaucracy is the worst in Asia . To begin with, the report needs to be looked at in perspective. It is not a comprehensive analysis but only the outcome of a survey of the opinions of 1,300 expatriate businessmen. They were asked to rate the countries on a scale of 1 to10 on six parameters namely voice and accountability; political stability and absence of violence; government effectiveness; regulatory quality; rule of law and control of corruption. If India scored 9.21 where 10 is the worst score, I can only conclude that the expatriate businessmen polled had no idea of what India is and how businesses in India — both local and foreign — are thriving. The report is, therefore, fit to be consigned to the dustbin, where I am sure it has already gone.
Having said that, it does not mean that all is well with Indian bureaucracy. Petty corruption at the lowest levels that affects the vast majority of the population, is rampant. Consider the difficulties ordinary people face in getting a ration card, driving licence, gas connections and a host of other daily essentials. Here it is the sheer volume of applications and the lack of adequate number of staff that is one major reason for the delay and consequent corruption. Most people are not aware of the government order issued in the 1990s that for every three staff that retire only one post is to be filled up. That was the policy of downsizing the government that played havoc with the government’s functioning during the last decade and only slowly being corrected now. And that too at a time when government programmes kept increasing such as the NREGA, SSA, NHRM, Bharat Nirman etc. Yet, at the same time, technology also played its part in reducing corruption. See what happened as railway reservations went online. Does anyone now pay bribes to get a car or a two-wheeler? Competition and surplus ensured that corruption stopped in the purchase of these goods. Mobile telephones are the other significant area where the common man did not have to pay any money to obtain the goods.
Yet corruption thrives because of an inherent lack of trust between the government and the people. Take the case of a municipal licence before one can start constructing a building in an urban area. Why can’t the rules be amended to state that any resident can commence construction based on a plan approved by an architect who certifies that the plan meets all the statutory requirements? A copy of the plan can be sent to the municipality for record. If at a later stage, it is found that there was a violation of the statutory regulations, the licence of the architect can be revoked and the building demolished. The customs department, by adopting the risk-assessment method, has simplified and done away with a lot of the harassment that exporters and importers were otherwise facing. In all such cases where one trusts the citizen, the penalty for misuse/violation must be made exceedingly severe so that there is a deterrent effect for violators and the honest citizen is allowed to do his work without harassment. It is to be noted that 95% of the tax revenues come from compliant citizens who pay their taxes on a voluntary basis and the entire income tax department is responsible only for collecting 5% of the tax collected.
The citizens’ charters now increasingly being made a statutory provision will also reduce corruption to a large extent especially if it gets linked with the checklist system before an application is received.
It needs no emphasis that all these steps require a political and administrative commitment that has been lacking. Senior officers consider it infra-dig now to go to the sections and see how files are handled, periodically review the pendency of files and applications and question reasons for delay. If this is done regularly, 25% of the corruption that exists today can be eliminated.
The RTI Act will be another step in greater transparency and accountability. Currently there is an element of misuse but it is a recent Act and we need to give it some more time and also educate the public on the objectives of the Act and highlight misuses so that people are more discerning in its use for public purpose.
There are very large numbers of honest public servants in the country and all bureaucrats should not be treated as corrupt. Training of lower bureaucracy is woefully inadequate and needs to be stepped up substantially. I do believe that given the right leadership and by employing technology to reduce the interface and speed-up work, corruption can, to a large extent, be eliminated.
— The author is former home secretary, Government of India