PM Narendra Modi must turn from ‘ruler’ to ‘server’

  • Valmik Thapar, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Dec 23, 2014 09:04 IST

After working for 40 years on issues concerning forests and wildlife right from the district to the state to the capital of India and with 20 years of association with the central and state governments, I am convinced that for any radical change to positively impact the country’s future we first need to implement enormous reforms concerning the nearly two million people who are regarded as government employees of the Centre, the states, the public sector undertakings and the autonomous institutions, including our universities, aided by the government. I believe that these two million or just under half a per cent of our population rule India with their tentacles buried deep into the very basic soul of this country. Politicians come and go but few have an impact on this core group that over the decades has become more and more powerful. At one level or another, right from village to city, they deal in endless ways with the lives of 1.25 billion citizens. Only powerful politicians like Indira Gandhi before and Narendra Modi now could shake them up by being decisive and firm.

Yes, you must repeal hundreds of 19th century laws that plague our legal system — yes, you must simplify procedures for the citizen — yes, you need radical reform of many mechanisms of governance but even before this you need to deal with reforming the mindset of the government servant. Only then will he change from ruler to server or ‘people’s servant’. Only then will you get the proper implementation of new and innovative policy. This is the only logical way to create a new India. How do we do this?

Lateral entry into the services was suggested in the report of the 2nd Administrative Reforms Commission in 2009. It has been suggested that all posts from additional secretary upwards need to be advertised in order to attract people from the private sector so as to infuse fresh blood and bring in creativity and dynamics in reform. The Commission’s report states: “there is almost universal acknowledgement of the need to induct outstanding skills and talent from outside the government to staff some positions in government departments”. I believe the Commission wanted to suggest this for joint secretaries also but later decided to stick to positions above that. Such lateral entry should be at all strategic levels of government service from village to city in order to attract the very best talent in our country for better governance. Dozens of secretaries to the government and several ambassadors have been appointed without them being from the services, but this process has largely been ad-hoc. It now needs to be institutionalised and expanded to every sphere of leadership even in the districts. It has to encompass education, health, forests, environmental action, archeological sites, culture, land use, water and every essential sphere of life. It is this movement of talent into the mechanism of governance in order to recharge what already exists that will usher in genuine change.

Then there is the important area of public private partnerships (PPPs) and outsourcing. There is a small office in North Block within the ministry of finance and in the department of economic affairs (DEA) that is responsible for PPPs and supervised by a joint secretary. They look at many different areas where partnerships could be viable like major airports, highways, railways, ports, and even in agriculture, chemicals, fertilisers and, of course, civil aviation. Ten thousand senior and middle level government officers are supposed to have been trained in promoting PPPs and in critical parts of this country’s infrastructure. The mission statement of the DEA is very clear: “PPPs present the most suitable options of meeting targets, not only in attracting private capital in creation of infrastructure but also in enhancing the standards of delivery of services through greater efficiency”. It is such partnerships and outsourcing that can show results. In Delhi’s passport office a combination of the Tata Consultancy Services and the ministry of external affairs can get you a passport in the post in 48 hours! Let’s enhance the reach and strength of the PPP office in the ministry of finance a hundred fold. Let the best of the ‘outside of government sector’ get engaged in governance. It has to be a meeting of minds in and out of government and in this process the rotten within will get weeded out.

Between enlarging the scope of lateral entry, strengthening PPPs, and outsourcing and doing this on a war footing the Modi government will see results. Ridiculous and rigid rules will change and a new way of working could result as attitudes and mindsets change. This process could lead to better answerability and accountability and best practices could then be linked to promotions and wage scales. It could also determine job security and lead to hire and fire policies. It is also the best way to break the powerful stranglehold of India’s bureaucracy on the mass of India’s citizens and convert the concept of ‘ruler’ to ‘server’. The best politicians and the best of reforms will only work when the ‘government servant’ gets his or her wake up call and is so shaken that all their tentacles in the system are forced to retract and deal with the reality of competition and fresh blood. Only then will a healing process start that results in efficiency and creativity in governance. The scams that we wake up to and go to sleep with and the corruption we breathe in the air will get minimised. Then and only then can we create a new Bharat.

(Valmik Thapar is author of Tiger fire—500 Years of the tiger in India. The views expressed by the author are personal)

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