Time for a real round of reforms in the bureaucracy. The last one didn’t work
Nearly 20 years after the recommendation of the Kargil Review Committee on higher defence management, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the decision to create the post of Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) during his August 15, 2019, Independence Day speech from the Red Fort. The decision was not so simple as many within the defence establishment were opposed to the idea of concentrating military decision-making in one person. Yet, PM Modi followed the letter and spirit of the 1999 Kargil Committee and appointed General Bipin Rawat as the first CDS for three years on January 1, 2020. He was also made Secretary of the newly-created Department of Military Affairs (DMA) and tasked with delivering on military reforms through transparent need-based hardware acquisition and creation of theatre commands for better synergy among the land, air and sea-based forces. The idea was to cut through bureaucratic red-tape and speed up decision-making in the defence ministry. The kind of red-tape that led the government to hold back approvals to let troops posted in Siachen get access to snow scooters. It was eventually approved, but only after former defence minister George Fernandes ordered the two babus who had blocked the purchase to visit Siachen to see firsthand why the scooters were needed.
PM Modi too has tried, and sometimes succeeded in cutting through the bureaucratic chaff. But the Indian babudom continues to be driven by process rather than the outcome. Many ministers say they find their bureaucrats behaving like the permanent opposition, determined to tire out the political executives who come to power on a five-year tenure as against the 30 years that the officials spend in the higher civil services.
Nothing makes this point starker than the fact that it took more than one year for the government’s human resource manager, the department of personnel and training, to make key appointments to the department of military affairs. CDS Gen Rawat worked around the slow-moving bureaucracy by getting military officers to officiate as additional and joint secretaries in the interim period. All this happened at a time when India nearly came to war with China over its aggression in East Ladakh.
There are many other horror stories about the Indian bureaucracy including those from the scientific community. Road transport and highways minister Nitin Gadkari and railways minister Piyush Goyal have alluded to some when they appeared to vent their frustration in public. But the public rebuke is unlikely to lead to any change in the system.
That is why as the government prepares for yet another Civil Services Day on April 21, 2021, it perhaps is time for PM Modi to appoint the third administrative reforms commission to institute cutting-edge reforms in the Indian bureaucracy to ensure timely delivery and implementation. And this time, he should make sure that the recommendations are actually implemented - and not just on paper like the second administrative reforms. It should not matter that the recommendations don't suit powerful civil services such as the Indian Administrative Service if these are in the public interest.
The bureaucracy must shed its British imperial past as officers sometimes function as part of an occupying power without any awareness of the position on the ground. The chasm between the common man and the bureaucracy, despite having a 24X7 Prime Minister, has not reduced as the babus are more interested in keeping the file perfect. While a permanent civil service cadre may have the advantage of order and continuity, babus in this age of artificial intelligence and multi-formatted information generally have inadequate domain knowledge of their areas of work, resist infusion of fresh blood and ideas to guide them in their emerging roles and have inadequate communication or communication with the Indian youth. This can also be said about their supervisors or cabinet ministers, who may lack sectoral knowledge for better oversight and accountability.
This is why it is time for the Modi government to separate the wheat from the chaff by incentivising deserving senior officials through an alternative fast-track career progression channel. This will also lower the age profile of the top officials. The government should also consider promotions to higher levels, that is additional secretary or secretary-level posts from a pool of four to five batches together and not on a year-by-year basis as is done now. This will give the government a larger pool of officials to make their selection. Perhaps, appointments at additional secretary or secretary-level could also be offered on a contract basis for five to ten years with compensation for premature separation or termination on each side. This will ensure accountability in terms of delivery on the ground.
While the government has inducted officers through lateral entry at joint secretary levels or below, this should be encouraged at an additional secretary or secretary-level as a laggard top official will ensure that the lateral entrant has no work. India should have a new result-oriented bureaucracy when the nation celebrates the 75th year of Independence next year as the present architecture needs to be torn down and rebuilt. The time for tinkering is over.