Can IAS become an agent of change?
For better roll-out of policies, administrative capacity at the state level needs to be fortified
With Independent India’s diamond jubilee three years from now, new laws, reforms and announcements can be expected. Will a risk-averse, status-quoist bureaucracy rise to the occasion? Will the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) bureaucrats mostly posted in the states become agents of transformation or find ways to stonewall change? Last December, the Niti Aayog released Agenda 2022 with a foreword by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. I critique the bureaucracy’s capability to implement its aspirations.
Agriculture: The document suggests converting farmers into “agripreneurs” by expanding the e-National Agriculture Markets and replacing the existing Agricultural Produce Marketing Committee Act. A model Bill proposed in 2017 has not made much headway possibly because it extinguishes middlemen and commission agents. The state bureaucracy’s uninspiring performance in replacing water-intensive crops, containing wasteful irrigation practices and the alarming depletion of groundwater does not bode well for effecting radical change.
Sanitation: Agenda 2022 gives primacy to gargantuan problems such as landfills, plastic waste and sustainable revenue generation from municipal waste. It seeks to subsume these neglected areas under the Swachh Bharat Mission. But unless the municipal commissioners compel waste segregation and deter non-compliance with fines and penalties available under the solid waste, plastic and water pollution rules, cleanliness cannot come. Municipal commissioners and district magistrates rarely act. Unless municipal offences are fined heavily on-the-spot like traffic violations, the goals cannot be realised.
Power: Agenda 2022 seeks to rationalise power tariff to promote the use of renewable energy. But without privatising the DISCOMs, good intentions will not change the ethos underlying distribution. To reap the benefits of renewable energy fully, only privatising the DISCOMs can rationalise power purchase and tariff. No chief minister is however willing to privatise power distribution and bureaucracy by itself cannot usher in privatisation. Delhi remains the solitary exception.
Employment: The codification of labour laws and expanding apprenticeships will boost employment but unless industry has the flexibility to make a transition from micro-to-small to medium-to-large manufacturing, apprentices will have few places to learn on the job. The flexibility to reduce the workforce within the law must be ensured and the backlash met firmly. This will present the biggest challenge for bureaucracy.
Procurement: Modernising public procurement systems to international competitive bidding (ICB) standards is another important reform. Unless there is willingness to outsource this to professional bodies, ICB will stay on paper. The move will meet with stiff resistance from state politicians, contractors and lobbies. No bureaucracy can pursue this proposal without solid political backing.
Governance: The commitment to implement the recommendations of the second Administrative Reforms Commission (2008) is welcome, including two reviews nearing 14 and 20 years of service. India’s first deputy Prime Minister, Vallabhai Patel, wanted IAS officers to be men of integrity and capable of “brashness” possibly meaning bold, audacious and self-assertive. But today brashness is unacceptable to bosses within the political executive and the bureaucracy. Notwithstanding much criticism on several fronts, the IAS remains indispensable primarily because the officers provide an interface with the political executive and handle complex federal issues, Centre-State relations and municipal and panchayat governance functions. They coordinate and interact meaningfully through a nationwide network which remains matchless. No chief minister can run his government without them. However, only 4,000 officers administer populations the size of countries. This is done despite a shortage of nearly 1,500 IAS officers. Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal, for example, have a shortage of over 100-130 officers each.
If Agenda 2022 is to become a reality state-level capacity needs to be fortified. Both at the Centre and more so in the states, there should be sizeable induction of professionals but only by following rigorous and transparent processes for selection.
Finally, unless lethal issues like air and water pollution, medical malpractice, the destruction of the environment and over-commercialisation of education are responded to through policy, oversight and enforcement, the rewards sought through Agenda 2022 cannot be attained.
I suggest two strategies:
First, subdivide the 41 identified goals into those which require the approval of Parliament or state legislatures. Set up empowered councils headed by a central minister with state ministers as members to reach consensus within six months on the lines of the VAT and GST councils. The central and state bureaucracies function best under this edifice.
Second, in areas which fall in the state domain, only if working models are seen as cost-effective and beneficial, will the state bureaucracy respond. Goals like establishing a Unified Metropolitan Transport Authority in a million-plus cities, establishing public health cadres, introducing user charges for garbage collection and toilet maintenance, using treated waste water for non-potable purposes need just one working model of each in a single State, city or district to emulate. This could be inspirational.
Agenda 2022 looks good. The spirit may be willing but now the flesh too must be strong.
Shailaja Chandra is former chief secretary, Delhi
The views expressed are personal