From the police to the railways: The many flailings of the Indian state, writes Mark Tully
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From the police to the railways: The many flailings of the Indian state, writes Mark Tully

Throwing money at a flailing, corrupt, colonial force, incapable of disciplining its own officers is going to mean most of the money will go down the drain unless the police are reformed.

columns Updated: Oct 15, 2017 08:52 IST
Indian railways,Police reform,Shatabdi Express
A policeman attempts to clear a traffic jam in Batala, Punjab. The government has cleared a Rs 25,060-crore umbrella scheme aimed at modernising the central and state police forces over the next three years, a strategy that includes ‘perception management’.(Sameer Sehgal.HT File Photo)

As the mid-day Shatabdi Express made its halting way from Chandigarh to Delhi, slowing down time and time again because of speed restrictions or signals flashing red, I looked out of the window to see stubble burning or burnt in field after field, and was reminded of the word flail. A flail is an instrument for threshing corn but that was not why I was reminded of the word. The verb means to thrash around energetically but ineffectually. The burning stubble reminded me of a World Bank economist’s description of India as “not a failing state but a flailing state”, because the Haryana government’s efforts to stop the burning of stubble were clearly yet another example of governmental flailing.

The Shatabdi was an example of the government railways’ flailing, their inability to run trains on time in spite of numerous punctuality drives. I have been on five Shatabdis recently and all were late. The Chandigarh Shatabdi was almost one hour late. As my driver attempted to find a way through the traffic jamming the station exit I was again reminded of the word flailing – the Delhi police flailing ineffectually to enforce traffic rules. Two-wheelers in Delhi are allowed to be a law unto themselves. Crouched aggressively over their handle bars, riders shoot across crossroads when the lights are red, mount pavements, drive the wrong way down main roads. Cars jump queues at traffic lights by driving up the wrong side of road dividers. The police themselves violate traffic rules so frequently that Delhi Police Commissioner Amulya Patnaik has just issued a warning to officers that offenders against those rules will “be booked under appropriate sections of the law”, a typical hollow, bureaucratic threat which is unlikely to amount to much.

The government is now going to spend Rs 25,000 crore on the “modernisation of the police forces”. This is to include “upgradation of infrastructure, of forensic science laboratories, institutions and equipment.” In my last column I warned against the delusion that digitalisation would solve all India’s problems of governance without the need for institutional reform. As a result of this planned modernisation I think another warning might be appropriate – throwing money at a flailing, corrupt, colonial, police force, incapable of disciplining its own officers is going to mean most of the money will go down the drain unless the police are reformed.

The new chairman of the Railway Board is planning to tackle one crucial weakness of all government institutions, their lack of inner democracy, the we and they division between officers and their staff. Ashwani Lohani has called for an end to treating senior officials as VIPs and to “buttering them”, a wonderful word for all the pervading sycophancy in government institutions. Officers have been told to get out of the comfort of their offices and spend most of their time on field duties, and most importantly treat all staff as equal and pay due attention to the suggestions of ground staff. Apparently as part of this democratisation, senior officers may well find themselves travelling sleeper class rather than in their private saloons.

During my national service, I found myself straight out of school, with only a few weeks training, commanding a troop of men some of whom were World War II veterans. Had I not listened to the suggestions of my men and treated them as my equals, I would have got into all sorts of trouble. I came to feel this so strongly that in an essay written for the regiment’s adjutant, responsible for disciplining young officers, I maintained that morale in the British army would never improve until the distinction between other ranks and officers was abolished. Needless to say the adjutant was not amused.

I dare say the adjutant was right, that in the armed forces you do need this division, but I think there would be a lot less flailing in the other government institutions if that division was abolished, if the word ‘sir’ was banned, and if buttering was seen for what it is, an unattractive, perhaps I should say, obnoxious habit. At least all recruits to the central government services should work at the grassroots before becoming officers thereby learning from those placed lower in the hierarchy, and avoiding the embarrassment I felt as a young inexperienced officer.

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Oct 14, 2017 16:15 IST