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Bureaucrats on the loose

india Updated: Jan 22, 2009 00:56 IST
Arnab Hazra
Arnab Hazra
Hindustan Times
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A year ago, China Youth Daily, a Communist Party paper, released an online survey that said 90 per cent of the respondents were fed up with China’s bureaucracy.

A similar survey in India would reveal just the same. In fact, an ongoing Hindustan Times campaign seeking ideas for change has already had many people seeking an overhaul of the bureaucracy.

The similarities end there.

Within days, the Chinese leadership called for comprehensive reforms and set up a State Bureau of Civil Servants. Recently, the bureau stipulated that bureaucrats found “incompetent” in two consecutive annual appraisals would be dismissed.

In India, civil servants are dismissed only if they are convicted on a criminal charge or for breach of security. Former Cabinet Secretary BK Chaturvedi recalls the sacking of only three IAS officers in his 40-year career.

In countries like the US, the UK, Germany, France and Japan, dismissals are linked to inefficiency and ill health. Detailed evaluation is done every year in the US and the UK. This is done at least once in two years in France and at least once in five years in Germany.. The results are reflected in assignments, promotions, and salaries.

In India, a confidential career report by seniors is still the norm, although the Administrative Reforms Commission (ARC) has recently suggested performance appraisals instead. But the absence of punishment for non-performing government officers is at the root of the rot afflicting our bureaucracy.

“The first principle of good governance is that it should be citizen-centric, but every babu thinks of himself as part of the ruling class and the public as his servant,” said Subhash C. Kashyap, a former secretary-general of the Lok Sabha who is now the Constitutional Adviser to the Indian Government. “Even after 60 years, the gap between the ruler and the ruled has not changed.”

The ARC has recommended career reviews and exit processes. “After 13 years, there will be a career review, which will generate warning signals. A further review after 20 years will take place, and those found incompetent will be asked to leave,” said Veerappa Moily, chairperson, Administrative Reforms Commission. Although much more mild than the Chinese version, implementing even these recommendations in India won't be easy.

Moily has also recommended encouraging competition for senior positions.

“Above the post of joint secretary, there should be competition among all services; and for additional secretary and above there should be open competition even from the private sector,” he said.

International comparisons show initial promotions are automatic, but for senior positions there is competition. The US, UK and Germany actively promote this. In France and Japan, executives from the private sector can join in.

In the US, a career bureaucrat can rise up to the rank of director general. Thereafter, positions are political appointments, wherein career bureaucrats are also eligible. “This allows specialists to occupy positions involved with policy making,” said Subir Gokarn, chief economist, Standard and Poor’s, Asia Pacific.

In contrast, lateral entry into the Indian system is miniscule. The previous Commission in 1966 had made similar recommendations — opening the ‘road to the top’, by promoting specialization among civil servants, curtailing its all-purpose character — but nothing happened.

The irony is that India’s bureaucracy is one of the oldest among modern nation states, set up by its colonial rulers even before Britain got its civil service in 1854 and the United States in 1872. Yet, ours is the farthest from reforms. The “iron frame of India”, as the civil service was once called, is desperately in need of some shine.