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‘It isn’t really that bad’

Negative perceptions at home and abroad notwithstanding, the track record of our bureaucracy has been impressive. Omesh Saigal writes.

india Updated: Jan 22, 2012 01:12 IST
Omesh Saigal
Omesh Saigal

Indian bureaucracy is often seen as a constant tug of war with doctors, scientists, engineers and educationists competing with accountants, auditors, vigilance men, and veto wielding finance and secretariat babus. When the exhausted competitors reach home for a much-deserved cup of tea, little do they realise that that their mutually opposing efforts, strenuous as they are, have merely ensured a status quo, with the rope not moving an inch. But is this its only face and is the tag of ‘Asia’s worst’, given by an international agency, justified?

Though the report, prepared by the Hong Kong based Political & Economic Risk Consultancy (PERC), is silent on its methodology, it is a fair guess that it is based on a poll of ‘01,476 expatriate business executives in 13 countries and territories across the ASEAN region’. While admitting that ‘perception and reality are different things’, the agency insists it is important as ‘companies usually base their investment decisions on perception, not reality’.

Even by itself, it is an opinion hard to ignore for an economy desperate for foreign investments when an important strand of Indian public also finds it to be ‘tardy, inefficient, and unresponsive’ (report of the 2nd ARC) it becomes critical and cries for urgent remedial action. The perception must change if not the bureaucracy itself.

These negative perceptions here and abroad notwithstanding, the track record of our bureaucracy is not so bad. Be it the handling of the calamitous post partition trauma or the unprecedented influx of 10 million refugees from the erstwhile East Pakistan or hundreds of devastating natural disasters, our administration has never been found wanting. It is only now, hemmed as it is with a hyper-critical media, a spitefully pro-active judiciary and a combative and corrupt political class, that it has been forced to go into a self-denial mode.

The Green Revolution, which pushed the age-old scourge of famine into history books, would have remained confined to research labs if our rural extension workers had not ensured timely delivery of inputs and dissemination of techniques to millions of widely dispersed farmers in half a million villages. The ancient curse of Kali — small pox — has been eradicated as have so many other killer diseases; all due to strenuous efforts of our field and extension staff.

Much of these innovating developments happened because the bureaucracy was willing to change and adapt. From the Community Development movement of the early fifties, which took extension workers to almost every village, to the setting up of the large public sector corporations for utilisation of our vast manpower and for the exploitation of natural resources, it has shown inclination to evolve and change. But lately, it seems, this trend has been bucked.

Most of the spectacular recent achievements whether in IT, telecom or GNP growth, have come not just outside the system but despite it. Corruption has reached new heights and so has inefficiency and sloth and morale could not be lower. The tragedy is that all th has happened when the country needs an effective bureaucracy more than ever before.

The growth of GNP is unprecedented but is so skewed that the bulk of it goes to a minuscule minority. The result: a small group of people enjoy riches beyond their wildest dreams, while the remainder of the population is left to gaze at the dark and gloomy end of the tunnel. The programmes for the poor are so poorly administered that only a small fraction of the funds reach them and they are left scraping the bottom of the barrel.

The tug of war must stop and different arms of the government move in the same direction. While retaining the system of checks and balances, the atmosphere of mutual hostility must go. The only way this can happen is for the rule of distrust to be replaced with the rule of trust and mutual understanding.

If I had a magic wand I would have, with one wave, ensured a sudden and complete disappearance of all the Swami's compilations, the GFRs, FRs, SRs, the manuals and the like and replace them with a slim tome whose Nishkama Karma is ‘TRUST’.

If bureaucracy has to shed its tag, its three workhorses — the doctors and engineers, the accountants and finance veto wielders and the politicians — must pull the troika in the same direction based on the spirit of understanding and trust rather than engage in an exhausting tug of war.

—The author is former chief secretary, Delhi and secretary, Government of India

First Published: Jan 22, 2012 01:10 IST