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India’s babus are both perpetrators and victims of a flawed system

Kaushik Basu’s observations and the experiences of former IAS officers, BD Pande and Keshav Desiraju, demonstrate the talent that there was in the bureaucracy under the Congress and the hindrances which hampered talented bureaucrats. Has this changed under the Bharatiya Janata Party? That could be the subject of another column.
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Over the last few weeks, I have been reminded several times of some of the outstanding officers who have served the government, and of the faults in the system of government that have stood in the way of them making full use of their talents. (Amal KS/HT PHOTO)
Updated on Sep 25, 2021 06:51 PM IST
By Mark Tully

Bureaucrats are derisively dismissed as “babus”, and the bureaucracy is often blamed for the failures of governance. Yet, over the last few weeks, I have been reminded several times of some of the outstanding officers who have served the government, and of the faults in the system of government that have stood in the way of them making full use of their talents.

Renowned international economist, Kaushik Basu, served as India’s chief economic adviser from 2009 to 2012. He recounted his experiences in his book published earlier this year, Policymaker’s Journal: From New Delhi to Washington DC. Basu found India had “one of the most cumbersome bureaucracies in the world with sluggish decision-making which slows down the entire economy”.

He pointed out particular faults in the functioning of the bureaucracy — for instance, it is a system in which everyone gets involved in decision-making, which leads to files circulating just to collect “no objection certificates”. He counted a secretary in the ministry of commerce saying “sir” on average 16 times per minute to demonstrate the continuing British raj hierarchical ethos in the bureaucracy.

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On the other hand, Basu never ceased to be surprised by how much talent he found in the bureaucracy. The economists of the Indian Economic Service particularly impressed him.

The diary of BD Pande has also just been published. After retirement as cabinet secretary, the top position in the bureaucracy, he served as the governor of Punjab during the two years leading to Operation Blue Star.

The diary reveals the shambles in the administration of the state, created by interference in the government — another characteristic weakness of Indian governance. When I interviewed Pande, he told me that he was plagued by conflicting orders, from backseat drivers in Delhi which included the coterie surrounding Indira Gandhi, the home minister, and the then President of India, Giani Zail Singh, a Sikh himself.

Indira Gandhi herself didn’t support her governor. He believed that there should be a settlement of the Akali Dal’s grievances, but when one was reached, she scuppered it. In her first meeting with the governor, she insisted that the Punjab government take a hardline, saying “she would not hesitate to bomb the Golden Temple if she had to”. Pande was greatly disturbed by this. He wasn’t even consulted when eight of his advisers — the equivalent of ministers under President’s Rule — were changed. Political interference in the police, reaching down to the level of posting constables disturbed him too because it undermined their morale and reduced their effectiveness.

The tributes paid to former health secretary, Keshav Desiraju, who died three weeks ago, tell the story of an outstanding Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer who resisted corruption — the bane of governance in India — and paid the price for it.

As health secretary in Uttarakhand, and then in the central government during Manmohan Singh’s time, he played a key role in the development of a mental health policy to create awareness of the needs of the disabled, and in the formation of the National Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation. But he was summarily transferred to the ministry of consumer affairs after only serving 11 months as health secretary.

Then health minister, Ghulam Nabi Azad, said that the transfer was “a regular affair”, but it was widely reported that Desiraju had been transferred because of his refusal to tolerate corruption in the Medical Council of India, and his opposition to the tobacco lobby — a substantial contributor to party funds.

After retirement, he co-edited a collection of essays called Healers Or Predators? Healthcare Corruption in India. Basu’s observations and the experiences of Pande and Desiraju demonstrate the talent that there was in the bureaucracy under the Congress and the hindrances which hampered talented bureaucrats. Has this changed under the Bharatiya Janata Party? That could be the subject of another column.

The views expressed are personal

Bureaucrats are derisively dismissed as “babus”, and the bureaucracy is often blamed for the failures of governance. Yet, over the last few weeks, I have been reminded several times of some of the outstanding officers who have served the government, and of the faults in the system of government that have stood in the way of them making full use of their talents.

Renowned international economist, Kaushik Basu, served as India’s chief economic adviser from 2009 to 2012. He recounted his experiences in his book published earlier this year, Policymaker’s Journal: From New Delhi to Washington DC. Basu found India had “one of the most cumbersome bureaucracies in the world with sluggish decision-making which slows down the entire economy”.

He pointed out particular faults in the functioning of the bureaucracy — for instance, it is a system in which everyone gets involved in decision-making, which leads to files circulating just to collect “no objection certificates”. He counted a secretary in the ministry of commerce saying “sir” on average 16 times per minute to demonstrate the continuing British raj hierarchical ethos in the bureaucracy.

RELATED STORIES

On the other hand, Basu never ceased to be surprised by how much talent he found in the bureaucracy. The economists of the Indian Economic Service particularly impressed him.

The diary of BD Pande has also just been published. After retirement as cabinet secretary, the top position in the bureaucracy, he served as the governor of Punjab during the two years leading to Operation Blue Star.

The diary reveals the shambles in the administration of the state, created by interference in the government — another characteristic weakness of Indian governance. When I interviewed Pande, he told me that he was plagued by conflicting orders, from backseat drivers in Delhi which included the coterie surrounding Indira Gandhi, the home minister, and the then President of India, Giani Zail Singh, a Sikh himself.

Indira Gandhi herself didn’t support her governor. He believed that there should be a settlement of the Akali Dal’s grievances, but when one was reached, she scuppered it. In her first meeting with the governor, she insisted that the Punjab government take a hardline, saying “she would not hesitate to bomb the Golden Temple if she had to”. Pande was greatly disturbed by this. He wasn’t even consulted when eight of his advisers — the equivalent of ministers under President’s Rule — were changed. Political interference in the police, reaching down to the level of posting constables disturbed him too because it undermined their morale and reduced their effectiveness.

The tributes paid to former health secretary, Keshav Desiraju, who died three weeks ago, tell the story of an outstanding Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer who resisted corruption — the bane of governance in India — and paid the price for it.

As health secretary in Uttarakhand, and then in the central government during Manmohan Singh’s time, he played a key role in the development of a mental health policy to create awareness of the needs of the disabled, and in the formation of the National Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation. But he was summarily transferred to the ministry of consumer affairs after only serving 11 months as health secretary.

Then health minister, Ghulam Nabi Azad, said that the transfer was “a regular affair”, but it was widely reported that Desiraju had been transferred because of his refusal to tolerate corruption in the Medical Council of India, and his opposition to the tobacco lobby — a substantial contributor to party funds.

After retirement, he co-edited a collection of essays called Healers Or Predators? Healthcare Corruption in India. Basu’s observations and the experiences of Pande and Desiraju demonstrate the talent that there was in the bureaucracy under the Congress and the hindrances which hampered talented bureaucrats. Has this changed under the Bharatiya Janata Party? That could be the subject of another column.

The views expressed are personal

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