After his successful campaign for the Jan Lokpal Bill, Anna Hazare is now targeting electoral reform to curb corruption. While politicians were his main target, few realised that it was the bureaucrats who had enabled the politicians to abuse the system. The war on corruption needs drastic administrative reforms to curb the enormous power of the petty babus. The good intentions of prime ministers, the commitment of good officers and the draconian powers of emergencies and ordinances can all be sand-papered to death by these millions.
According to 2007 data, India today has about 5,600 IAS officers who, with about 80,000 category 1 officers, are supposed to manage some 18 million babus. For the common man, the government is the tehsildar, thanedar, patwari, dealing assistant and inspector - officials who have few compunctions about fully exploiting the opportunities provided by their positions.
There is no Indian who has not witnessed the tyranny of these 'chhota babus'. The village patwari does not work only to earn a small government salary. The fate of valuable properties, inheritances and taxes are often decided by his little notings. Thus, laws may be passed, rules issued in gazettes but all of it might become ineffectual in his hands. No order can be signed by a senior administrative officer unless the file has been prepared and put up by the clerks in the concerned section. A typical file has to move slowly from a dealing assistant to a section officer, divisional clerk, deputy secretary, under secretary, joint secretary, secretary to a minister and then back down that ladder before orders can be issued. A file may need 50 or more clearances so it is not surprising that applicants must have agents to speed their files through the labyrinth.
Any police thana will show a wide variance between the high principles of our constitution and the ground reality. Postings at sensitive police thanas are routinely auctioned. Court clerks can ensure that legal cases are indefinitely delayed by missing witnesses, misplaced documents and other technical hitches. The petty bureaucrats hold the country to ransom. The electoral officers who manage the electoral process are also petty babus only too willing to favour officials or politicians who benefit them most.
Officials are insulated from the consequences of their inaction, incompetence, dishonesty and rudeness by the certainty that they cannot be sacked. They are highly accountable for their smallest action, but not for inaction or delay. Placing an order for a rupee higher than the lowest quoted tender would invite departmental inquiries, public accounts committee investigations and even questions in Parliament. But if procedure is followed, no one is accountable even though it might involve months of delay and crores of additional expense.
And while there is public outrage at corruption in 'high places', there seems to be a complacent acceptance of the petty corruption of petty bureaucrats.
Senior bureaucrats from the ranks of the IAS, IFS or IPS often harbour a high level of idealism and integrity. But over a period of time, many realise the futility of trying to buck the system and recognise the limitations of their authority over their subordinates. Most officers lose the initiative and get caught in the trappings of their authority.
Politicians are a major element in corruption. No politician is content to merely conform to his constitutional position. In fact, the appeal of politics lies in its ability to interfere in executive functions, often with the help of these petty babus. The much vaunted British system of checks and balances has been streamlined for efficiency in Britain and Singapore but thrives in India.
If we are to break free of the web of corruption, we must drastically reduce the number of rules, along with number of gatekeepers needed to manage them. Computers in government departments will anyway enable us to allow quick and effective approvals with minimal human intervention. It would be cheaper to let babus draw their salaries and stay at home than allow them to block India's progress and growth.
Murad Ali Baig is a Delhi-based writer. The views expressed by the author are personal.