It was once called the steel frame of the British Raj. Today, the Indian bureaucracy is a rusty parody of its former self.
Meant to be the interface between the government and the citizen, it usually leaves citizens seething, or in despair.
A driver’s licence, an electricity connection, a birth certificate — it’s virtually impossible to get any of these without paying out bribes at every stage or taking days off work to stand in serpentine queues, waiting for officials to return from three-hour lunch breaks.
Just last month, a report by Hong Kong-based Political & Economic Risk Consultancy ranked India’s bureaucracy the worst among 12 nations it surveyed in Asia, including Thailand, Vietnam and China.
The report tagged our babudom “suffocating” and full of “slow and painful” processes.
Of course, there have been exceptions. But many of them crossed over from the private sector, bring with them a much-needed level of integrity and efficiency.Take Manmohan Singh. Now prime minister, this alumnus of Oxford and Cambridge spent the first few years of his career with the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development.
He then went into public service, serving as governor of the Reserve Bank of India before opening up the Indian economy as finance minister in 1991.
Then there’s Sam Pitroda, who was invited by then PM Indira Gandhi to join her government.
Pitroda brought with him over two decades of expertise in telecommunications and handheld computing and is largely considered responsible for the telecom revolution in India. Specifically, he is credited with setting up the ubiquitous, yellow-signed Public Call Offices (PCO) that took telephony to the street.
Most often, though, the civil service is dominated by IAS officers who have spent all their years in the bureaucracy, promoted in batches on the basis of seniority and confidential annual reports.
So here’s what we suggest: Make bureaucrats compete with professionals for top posts, ensuring that the man who gets the job is not the oldest or the one who’s been around the longest, but rather the man who is actually the best candidate for the job.
It may also help keep bureaucrats within the system on their toes, preventing them from being lulled into lethargy by a system that promotes them every five or six years, regardless of how they perform.
A merit-based system has worked well for Singapore, which was ranked first in the same study that trashed the Indian bureaucracy.
The Singapore system is also based on its colonial past with the British, but unlike India, where a public exam is the gateway to a lifetime of excuses, Singapore recruits its babus from among the top graduates of its most elite universities.
The Public Service Commission also awards scholarships to promising youngsters for study in Singapore and abroad, on condition that they return and join the civil service after graduation.
Young recruits are often given substantial responsibilities and ambitious projects if they show initiative and capability.
In Germany and France, meanwhile, top bureaucratic posts are opened up to outside competition.
France even has two sets of examinations for postings at senior levels: One for career bureaucrats, the other for contenders from private organisations.
Germany and the UK, which India has modelled its own administrative system upon, have an open examination, where both career bureaucrats and professionals appear for senior-level postings in the government.
“Posts at the level of joint secretary and above should be opened up to outside competition,” says Bimal Jalan, an economist who served two stints as governor of the Reserve Bank of India. “It is need of the hour. It will provide competitive value to the Indian bureaucracy.”
And it’s about time. A recent World Bank survey ranked India 122nd out of 181 countries, in a survey on ease of doing business.
The Political & Economic Risk Consultancy survey explains why, describing the Indian bureaucracy as “a power centre in their own right”, and an institution that has made commerce “very difficult”.
“Competition from professionals will provide a better pool to select officials from,” said a senior technocrat with the Planning Commission, speaking on condition of anonymity as he is not authorised to speak to the press.
It is not that the government has not given thought to the idea.
The last government set up a second Administrative Reforms Commission, but did not implement its suggestions. Both commissions had, in 1966 and 2006, recommended lateral entry for professionals into the Indian bureaucracy.
“After 13 years there should be a career review, which will generate warning signals. A further and rigorous review [should be conducted] after 20 years, and those found incompetent asked to leave. At that level, the professionals should be allowed to join government through a competitive exam,” said, Veerappa Moily, who headed the Second Administrative Reforms Commission.
Numerous studies have shown India's bureaucracy to be among the most corrupt and inefficient in the world. Set up to act as the interface between citizens and the government, it is instead mired in red tape, making even the most basic processes fraught with delays and discouraging foreign investment and even tourism. A recent study by Political & Economic Risk Consultancy termed the Indian bureaucracy "suffocating".
Make bureaucrats compete with professionals for top posts, rather than promoting IAS officers in batches, based on seniority and confidential annual reporters. This would encourage more men with global, hands-on experience to step up, infusing some much-needed professionalism and integrity in the bureaucracy.
Opening up the field to competition would also ensure that that the man who gets the job is not the seniormost or the one who's been around the longest, but rather the man who is actually the best candidate for the job.
Competition would also help keep bureaucrats within the system on their toes, preventing them from being lulled into lethargy by a system that promotes them every five or six years, regardless of how they perform.