The Indian State needs administrative reforms, writes Manish Tewari
In the past, I represented a dense urban agglomeration, Ludhiana, once known as the Manchester of India, in Parliament. I now represent a predominantly rural constituency, with small towns scattered all across, called Sri Anandpur Sahib. Both are in Punjab. While both have diverse issues, one problem common to both of them is the quality of governance from the grassroot-level right to the very top of the pyramid. This is common across India.
A parliamentary constituency invariably spans across at least two administrative districts. Sri Anandpur Sahib goes across four. As an elected representative, it falls to your remit to interact with the district administration for both developmental and administrative reasons. On both counts, the experience is far from satisfactory for a variety of reasons. However, before getting into the reasons, let us broaden the canvas to encompass the entire nation.
Of 1.3 billion Indians, a little over 941 million live in rural areas while 420 million stay in urban areas. For a substantive bulk of people living in the countryside, their contact with the Indian State is primarily with a patwari, the local village official handling land issues, and higher up in the hierarchy, a kanugo, and rarely, a tehsildar, on the civil or revenue side. On the law and order or criminal side, the bulk of their interface is with either a beat constable, police havildar, or at best an assistant sub-inspector in charge of a thana (police station).
When the administration interfaces with citizens, it is usually not pleasant. It is an autocratic, usually extractive, and often, an authoritarian experience. If you happen to live in Jammu and Kashmir, especially more so after the nullification of Article 370, the Northeast or Left-wing extremist-affected areas, especially those declared disturbed areas and come within the purview of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, then maybe the only face of the State you perhaps come across is one wearing olive green or khaki, and carrying an AK-47.
The situation is identical in urban settings. The contact of a majority of citizens with the government is limited to rent-seeking civic authorities and an exploitive police apparatus. The only consolation is that people are more easily able to access the instruments of grievance redressal and the media.
What is the solution to this problem? One remedy that the political Right suggests is mass privatisation of public services. From the late 1970s to the great economic meltdown in 2008, the world witnessed the denationalisation of public services, from sewages to the railways, as the State withdrew from its natural role. This got a fresh push after the collapse of the Soviet-instituted command economic model in 1989. However, privatisation of public services is a model unsuited to India for the delivery of public goods. What then do we do?
On an average, a deputy commissioner/collector (DC) of a district administers a budget of over Rs 1,000-odd crore for revenue, capital and developmental work. This money flows in both from the central and state government. The DC has a workforce of around 1,000 people at his disposal. The DC’s core team consists of two additional deputy collectors (ADCs); one looking after general administration, and the other, development. He is further assisted by sub-divisional magistrates, and revenue and civic officials down the line. Not only is the administrative footprint very light on the ground per capita of population, even the quality of human resource is very poor.
There is only one-way out — a bottoms-up administrative re-engineering of both the administrative and law enforcement apparatus. There have been two administrative commissions. The first was set up on January 5, 1966, under the chairpersonship of former prime minister Morarji Desai. It had an expansive 10-point remit: The machinery of the Government of India (GoI) and its procedures or work; the machinery for planning at all levels; Centre-state relationships; financial administration; personnel administration; economic administration; administration at the state level; district administration; agricultural administration and problems of redress of citizens grievances.
The second was constituted on August 31, 2005, under the chairpersonship of Veerappa Moily. It also had an extensive 13-point mandate. Organisational structure of the GoI; ethics in governance; refurbishing of personnel administration; strengthening of financial management systems; steps to ensure effective administration at the state level; steps to ensure effective district administration; local self-government/panchayati raj institutions; social capital, trust and participative public service delivery; citizen-centric administration; promoting e-governance; issues of federal polity; crisis management and public order.
Both commissions submitted voluminous tomes as reports. However, the bureaucracy, ably led in this case by the Indian Administrative Service, buried both these reports. Even the political executive has come up short in dismantling colonial era structures of the mai-baap sarkar (paternalistic State) put in place by the British to oppress Indians.
The one thing that stands out is that no government, irrespective of its political colour and character, would do any cosmetic administrative reform. Therefore, it is incumbent on the legislature to step in. Parliament must constitute a Permanent Standing Committee, chaired by the Speaker of the Lok Sabha to study, update, recommend and, if necessary, legislate through even the Private Member Bill process, comprehensive administrative reforms. Since Parliament was elected only eight months ago, it has a full 42 months to complete the single most important task confronting the nation.