Dialogue October-December, 2011, Volume 13 No. 2


A Bureaucracy Sans Governance


Dhirendra Nath Bezboruah



All over the world, the principal function of the bureaucracy has been to ensure good, efficient governance with an innate sense of justice and compassion. And while it is expected that the political executive will take care of policy matters for the bureaucracy and the government machinery to execute, this has not always happened in India because the political executive had little or no training to be able to formulate policies of state during the early years of independence. That was when the bureaucracy also had a role in formulating policy even though the charade that it was merely assisting the political executive to arrive at decisions was very discreetly sustained. It is easy for a bureaucrat to shake off the responsibility of compassion on the plea that ensuring compassion cannot be part of the professional obligation of a bureaucrat. It is tempting to do so because governance without compassion is what the administrative system of India inherited from the colonial rulers. It is also tempting to do so because the top brass of the police too has perpetuated a mind-set that is no different from the police mind-set of the British days. No wonder the police too have remained no different from the police force of the colonial days in the assessment of their role in an independent democracy. As such, while the main thrust of this article may be an assessment of how the bureaucracy has functioned and discharged its obligations during the last 64 years of independence, a brief background of how the present bureaucracy of India came into being may not be out of place.



      From 1858, after the East India Company’s jurisdiction in India came to an end, the British civil service assumed administrative responsibilities in India. The sole motivating factor of this change was the first Indian rebellion for independence of 1957 that was called the Sepoy Mutiny in our history books for many decades. It was a rebellion that came very close to ending British rule in the country. In the early stages of this change, the British civil service was virtually a part of a police state. Its major task was that of carrying out law-and-order functions, and there was no code of conduct developed by any of the British India provinces. Thus different provinces had different civil services.

    There were two exclusive groups of civil servants during the formative stage of British rule in India (after the takeover from the East India Company). The higher category of employees was the one that had entered into covenants with the East India Company. They came to be known as “covenanted” servants, whereas those who had not signed such covenants came to be known as “uncovenanted” government servants. The latter group was generally relegated to the lower positions. This distinction between the covenanted and the uncovenanted came to an end with the constitution of the Imperial Civil Service of India based on the recommendations of the Public Service Commission, 1886-87. The Imperial Civil Service actually came into existence only in 1893 and remained operative (on paper) till 1946 when the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) came into being (on paper). But as is common with labels that have a status symbol, the word covenanted continued to be used to refer to anyone in a salaried position with a long-term contract. The name Imperial Civil Service was changed to Civil Service of India. However, the term Indian Civil Service (ICS) persisted and the acronym ICS continued to be used to denote the covenanted civil servants.

    A third group, the Statutory Civil Service which functioned in the second half of the 19th century was disbanded by the beginning of the 1890s. To this group were recruited young men from respectable and affluent Indian families. This service was replaced by provincial civil services, constituted on the basis of the recommendations of the Aitchison Commission. It consisted of two cadres, the Provincial Civil Service and the Subordinate Civil Service. In retrospect, it is easy to see how seriously the British government had taken the Macaulay’s Minute and the grand plan to turn Indians from respectable families into subordinate clerical material for a colonial administration.

     By 1934, the system of administration in India had gradually come to consist of seven All India Services and five Central Departments, all under the control of the Secretary of State, and three Central Departments under joint Provincial and Imperial control. The ICS and the Indian Police Service were in the “transferred field”, that is, the authority for the control of these services and for making appointments was transferred from the Secretary of State to the provincial governments. It is interesting to note that the All India and the Class I Central Services were designated as Central Superior Services as early as in 1924.    

     The competitive examination for entry to the civil service in Britain was combined for the Diplomatic, the Home, the Indian and the Colonial Services. The age limit for the candidates was between 21 and 24, giving everyone three chances for entry. The maximum marks for the examination was 1,900. The selected candidates underwent one or two years of probation in England depending on whether they had taken the London or Indian examination. This period of probation was spent at Oxford University, Cambridge University or the School of Oriental Studies (now known as the School of Oriental and African Studies) where candidates studied Law and procedures of India consisting of Criminal Law and the Law of Evidence (all of which gave the knowledge and the idea of the revenue system), read Indian history and learnt the language of the province to which a candidate was assigned.

    After the partition of India, the Indian Civil Service was divided between the new dominions of India and Pakistan. The parts that went to India retained the name Indian Civil Service, while Pakistan renamed the parts it inherited as the Civil Service of Pakistan (CSP).

     The Indian Administrative Service (IAS) was technically formed in 1946—a year before the country became independent—but it came into operation only by 1948 with the first batch of IAS and IPS officers  The controlling authority of the IAS is the Ministry of Personnel, Public Grievances and Pension, Department of Personnel and Training. The general nature of its functioning is policy formulation, policy implementation, civil administration, advice to ministers and managing the All India bureaucracy both at the Centre and the States. The head of the civil services is the Cabinet Secretary of the Government of India. The Lal Bahadur Shastri Academy for the training of IAS officers is located at Mussoorie and for the officers of the Indian Police Services at Hyderabad.  Other Central and Allied services have their own training centres. All services undergo a joint Foundation Course together at Mussoorie.


Shaping a new bureaucracy:

    Perhaps the most fundamental mistake in attempting to create a bureaucracy for an independent country was the model chosen for it. One can visualize the urge to opt for a ready-made model for the IAS rather than the willingness to put in the arduous work needed to create a model of our own. The urge to simply take the ICS model and save a lot of back-breaking work must have been very strong. Perhaps it did not occur to them that the model for the bureaucracy of an independent nation should not replicate the model that had been in use for a colonial power. Our colonial rulers had a bureaucracy suitable to rule over “subjects” and not fellow citizens. And how could we, even in our wildest dreams, imagine that this model would be quite suitable for a bureaucracy that had to ensure efficient governance for its own people?  The ICS model of bureaucracy and apparatus in general obviously had to underscore the elements of control and command based, in turn, on the motivations of unquestioning obedience to the colonial masters and their Indian officers. There was no need to lose sleep over matters like liberty, justice and participation in governance. In the days of the British, a tiny cadre, a little over a thousand in number, ruled more than 300 million Indians. In other words, each civil servant had an average of 300,000 subjects under him. They were not regarded as citizens as they had no elected representatives and had to look up to the government for everything. Each Civilian penetrated every corner of his subjects’ lives, because the ICS directed all the activities of the British-Indian state. No wonder the expression mai-baap for the government took strong roots in the Indian ethos. It is an image of the government that remained in the Indian mind for decades even after independence because there was no change in the style of governance. All the talk about people’s participation in governance came later and the idea was repeated by bureaucrats on suitable occasions to maintain the pretence that the democratic ideals had been given their due place in governance. However, it would not be fair to blame the bureaucracy alone for the inability to evolve a suitable model for an efficient and appropriate civil service for the country. The political executive must take a large share of the blame for it. The only change that our politicians seem to have effected in the civil service was to assert the supremacy of the political executive. Accountability of bureaucracy towards the citizens remained vague and ill-defined.

      And what about the training of bureaucrats at the Lal Bahadur Shastri Academy in Mussoorie? We have verified from very senior IAS officers that the motivation required to make an IAS officer quite different from his ICS counterpart in attitude and mental make-up and to make him think of the people of India as citizens rather than as subjects was lacking in the training programme. After the Constitution of India was adopted on 26 November 1949, it apparently became standard practice for the faculty in the Academy to refer trainee bureaucrats to the Constitution of India for most of their queries.

      All said and done, the training of the higher bureaucracy proceeded on the expected lines of the ICS training programme even though the objectives of the two training programmes should have been very different. And even if the ICS model was initially adopted for want of any other model to go by, it was imperative for the training academies to evolve a home-grown model for the training that was vastly different from colonial model. A different model for the IAS to produce a fine home-grown model suitable for independent India was needed. The same aberration overtook the Indian Police Service (IPS) because that Service too chose to adopt the model of the Police Service of the British days. As a consequence, the Indian police force today has by and large remained a carbon copy of the British police force. It has remained a force that is used for snooping and surveillance, for passing on information about ‘undesirable elements’ to the police top brass and for providing personal security to VIPs. All the talk about a people-friendly police force in India is really for the birds because a force that is responsible for custodial death and custodial rape can never really be friends of the people. If anything, we have managed to create a state where the people are actually afraid to go anywhere near a police station. Even after 64 years of independence, the police in India have remained as brutal in dealing with their own people as they were during the British days. The same tragedy has overtaken higher education in India. It was not difficult for Macaulay and his ilk to convince the Indian bureaucrats that there was nothing worth preserving or following in the ancient Indian system of education and that Indians would be better off following the Western models of education. Even the Indian bureaucrats who had worked under the British seemed convinced that the Indian contribution to Mathematics including the concepts of infinity and very large numbers and the zero and decimals, not to speak of Calculus were worth nothing at all. So higher education in India kept borrowing heavily and mindlessly from Europe and the United States thus fulfilling the objectives for higher education for Indians as envisaged in Macaulay’s Minute. And because much of this borrowing was done quite mindlessly, most of it became ritualistic. No wonder the tragedy of Indian education is that we have confused the process with the product and the ritual with the result. And it is this climate of confusing the ritual with the result that has been derived from the prevalent pattern of education that has shaped the mind-set of the Indian bureaucrat whose penchant for rituals shapes the distinctive style of governance in India. Tragically the political class has contributed little to improve the situation.

       Getting back to the higher bureaucracy, they have been so adversely affected by six major aberrations that there is now little hope of successful course correction. These can be summed up as the failure to be people-centric in their approach to administration; an obsession with empty rituals; a total heedlessness of public waste; the use of non-valid yardsticks for measuring development and other activities; a gradual disinclination for real meaningful work; and an inability to do anything about tackling corruption that has actually made a section of the higher bureaucracy itself corrupt.


Paper-centric rather than people-centric:

    The average bureaucrat of today sees his work in terms of files rather than in terms of human beings. When an Indian bureaucrat talks about integration, more often than not he has in mind notions of territorial integration rather than social integration. Had our bureaucrats clear ideas about the paramount status of people in a democracy, the priorities may have been somewhat different. It is because the thought of common people is missing from their scheme of things that we are witness to such large-scale displacement of tribal people from their original homesteads to make room for some industry or project. Since the average bureaucrat thinks more often of the minister’s noting on a file than of the people who will be affected by a perverse order, there is generally a total lack of compassion for the disadvantaged sections of society. When an order to vacate land is issued to a tribal group, the bureaucrat who passes the order seldom thinks of the fate of his own compatriots shoved out without even a roof over their heads. This tendency to think of files rather than of people and development projects that have to be completed expeditiously and efficiently has given rise to other major aberrations in our governance that are ritual-oriented rather than work oriented.


Rituals take precedence:

     Today’s bureaucrat is no longer concerned about what needs to be done for the greatest good of the greatest number. All that is deemed to be out of date. He is far more worried about what will please the political bosses and look good on television. So we have actions every day that purport to be development work but what are really no more than an empty rituals—often powerful vote-catching devices. Good performers at examinations have to be rewarded. How reliable or valid the examination was that projected the ‘toppers’ does not matter. What is important is that the minister concerned should be seen on television as rewarding ‘good students’. So he distributes computers to students regardless of whether the recipient’s village has electricity to run computers or not. There is an announcement that the government is distributing subsidized yarn to weavers. The number of beneficiaries does not matter. It does not even matter whether the beneficiaries are really weavers. All that matters is the ritual conducted with just a few beneficiaries so that the show looks convincing on television. And ditto for the distribution of title deeds to agricultural land for farmers. It does not matter how many people really get title deeds. It does not matter if the recipients are all party members. What matters is how it will look on television and media. And the bureaucrats endorse all this, often plan it out and execute the charade as well. More than anyone else they know that none of this is really development work. But this awareness has not prevented them from being a part of the charade. Perhaps some of them are beginning to convince themselves that this is indeed development work.


Promoting waste of public resources:

   The governance seems least concerned about waste of public resources. The contrast between how careful the Indian bureaucrat is about his personal money and resources—and time-and how careless he is about money from the exchequer, public resources and office time is all too visible. The typical Indian bureaucrat thinks nothing of taking a trip to Delhi to sort out a small hitch in public sanctions when he has all the facilities of 21st century communications at his disposal. He has a landline telephone connection, a mobile telephone and internet—all provided by the government. There is no earthly reason why a bureaucrat has to fly to New Delhi at the drop of a hat when he has access even to tele-conferencing facilities. But he does, because he doesn’t have to pay for it from his own pocket. The government pays. If he had to make that trip from personal resources he would think ten times about spending that money. In fact, he does something else. If there is a cousin’s wedding in Delhi, he fixes a needless official trip just around that time so that his personal trip is paid for by the government. He is not entitled to use government transport to drop his children at school every working day. This is not stipulated in his service conditions, but the two-wrongs-make-a-right principle comes in very handy here. He is sponging on the government resources because others are also doing so. Responsible bureaucrats of a poor country would have got together and arranged a van or bus to transport all the children from the same area to school. But that would not do because his status would suffer if his child did not go to school in a chauffeur-driven government car. When it is a matter of his own conduct, no rules or laws are needed. The same thing holds good as far as free electricity for his residence is concerned. I know many bureaucrats who can happily waste their work hours on attending three seminars a day that are not likely to take their careers or the country one step forward. And this colossal waste of office time is shown as work! Arun Shourie’s book Governance and the Sclerosis that has Set in begins with a remarkable instance of how bureaucrats spent more than a year on the puerile exercise of finding out whether officers were entitled to use red or green ink for writing their notes on files! A better example of a combination of the obsession with rituals and a cavalier waste of office time would be difficult to find. I have yet to find a bureaucrat who winces at having to send an official vehicle on the same errand three times because the no one had bothered to think carefully about the books or files that it was supposed to fetch from another office. After all it is government money. What can be the commitment of such bureaucrats to the country if they keep forgetting so frequently that the exchequer too belongs to the Mother India of our songs, dances and poetry? Over the years, they have given rise to a breed of very exclusive parasites that claim the privilege to feed on the country for all their needs. Think of the majority of the IAS officers of the Assam-Meghalaya cadre from outside the region who spend the better part of their careers in New Delhi on deputation. What kind of service are they giving to the States to which they have been assigned?

      One cannot help wondering whether this casual attitude to waste of government money, resources and time was not fuelled by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru’s own attitude to losses sustained by our public sector undertakings (PSUs). On quite a few occasions when his bureaucrats pointed out the possibilities of losses of a projected PSU, Nehru was known to have flared up and said, “Don’t talk to me about profits. Profit is a dirty word,” or words to that effect. Quite obviously, it must have set quite few bureaucrats thinking that it was not their responsibility to worry about the government’s losses.


Assessing development:

    For decades now, the bureaucrat has resorted to the most bizarre means of assessing development. For about five decades, bureaucrats have used the yardstick of money sanctioned for a project and spent on it as the means of assessing development and progress. What is very conveniently forgotten is that we do not have saints handling government funds. Siphoning money out from grants received for projects has become standard practice. We are aware of bureaucrats who often do not know where a particular development project is located. But they will assert that x amount of funds was sanctioned for it and that a percentage of the sanctioned amount has already been spent. In actual fact, no work might have been done on the project at all. Most of the money shown to have been spent on the project might just have been siphoned off. But the bureaucrat who knows next to nothing about the project and has not visited the site will continue to claim that development has taken place on the strength of his strange yardstick.


Rejection of real work:

   People talk about the law’s delay and completely overlook the bureaucrat’s delay. So strong is the influence of visible rituals and the electronic media that the bureaucrat has developed the mind-set that only workaholics and idiots think of real work. These days, the illusion is often more convincing than the reality. The political executives have given up keeping a tab on what the bureaucracy is doing and what real development has taken place. The bureaucracy has been quick to take the cue. Smart ways of putting on a show on TV are being perfected and refined every day. It is hardly surprising that in such a milieu very little real work of any worth is getting done—especially in the rural areas. The bureaucrat of today will never be caught hurrying. It seems as though hurrying is deemed totally undignified for a bureaucrat except, of course, when the minister wants something done right away. The bureaucrat of today who is accustomed to think more in terms of territorial integration rather than social integration is often unable to achieve even this. One looks in anguish at the 87,000 hectares of Assam’s land that has been encroached by neighbouring States and the inability of the administration to do anything about it. Ministers make occasional noises about not ceding an inch of land to anyone. It may be argued that vacating this encroachment is the responsibility of the police. However, the initiative has to come from the politicians and bureaucracy that must take the help of the police to effect the actual eviction.


A helping hand to corruption: 

      The kind of eternal vigilance that is said to be the price of democracy has obviously to be exercised by the people through their representatives. In a sense, therefore, this eternal vigilance becomes a special responsibility of the bureaucracy as well, particularly because the machinery for exercising this responsibility is controlled by the bureaucracy. However, an endemic failure of the bureaucracy to exercise any command and control over the activities of vested interests has been the undoing of our governance. A few simple examples should suffice. Over the years, unlawful syndicates for all kinds of economic activities have burgeoned in the country. There is an urgent need to control them. What obviously stands in the way of this happening is the nexus between these syndicates and our politicians who are successful in restraining the bureaucracy from taking any action against such unlawful activities. In Assam we have a very powerful coal mafia masquerading as a syndicate. The government dare not touch it. Former ULFA cadres who surrendered in 1992 and gave rise to the Frankenstein monster called the SULFA (the first letter of the acronym standing for ‘surrendered’) have been involved in a whole lot of such activities including the collection of ‘goonda’ taxes, but have remained untouched for about two decades now. A government that has given its blessings to free trade cannot control healthy competition being stifled by cartels that have developed in virtually every industry. A collusion to charge mutually accepted high prices has replaced competition. The pharmaceutical industry is a typical example of a cartel hijacking competition. Food prices have soared abnormally not because the actual producer is getting fair prices but rather because non-productive middlemen have increased. And this lot cannot be controlled because most of them are politicians. What is happening is that the bureaucrat has refused to go against politicians in any aspect of their wrong-doing. There is now a strong element of collusion in this for a price. And that is the really saddening aspect of our bureaucracy, because the number of bureaucrats who go in for these activities is increasing.  We swear at politicians for being corrupt. But the corrupt politicians last for a couple of terms in office after which they are generally voted out. Some politicians have a longer innings as lawmakers, but these are generally the relatively cleaner ones. The bureaucrat has about 34 years of service after which he/she is entitled to be given special assignments. It is a much longer innings during which he/she can do a great deal of harm to the system.

     The reluctance of a number of IAS officers to furnish statements of their personal assets is worrying. Recently statements of personal assets of some IAS officers of the Assam-Meghalaya cadre were made public. Quite a few officers furnished statements of personal assets only after repeated reminders. It was not difficult to fathom the reason for this. Their personal assets were far in excess of their known sources of income and what could reasonably be saved during their years of service despite sending their children to expensive schools. There is no denying that a sizeable section of our bureaucracy too is corrupt. Instead of standing up to the politicians as they should have, many bureaucrats have chosen the rosy path of riches not honestly earned. And this is what makes corruption so difficult to tackle in our country: all categories of public servants have embarked on the path of sabotage.


Getting the bureaucracy back on the rails:

      Getting our bureaucracy back on the rails is a very difficult task but not an impossible one. The first requirement, of course, is that the bureaucracy itself should want to get back on the rails. For this to happen, the bureaucracy must realize that it is not on the rails just now.

    One gratifying fact of life is that our bureaucracy still has many officers who have not entirely jettisoned the principle of tyaag (sacrifice) for the more attractive principle of bhog (enjoyment). We must laud their efforts and achievements and hold such bureaucrats up as role models. They must be projected as the right choice for the people even in the face of all the paid news that gets published at election time. That section of the media that sees unfailingly what their duty to the country must highlight the credentials and the track records of such bureaucrats who have done the country proud. At a time when we are demanding the right to recall our elected representatives, it is important to simplify the process of getting a bureaucrat dismissed. An officer knows how difficult it is for anyone to get him dismissed for any offence that he may have committed. The day the officer realizes that the amended rules have made his dismissal less difficult, he/she may be a better bureaucrat with more dedication to service than to political bosses. This is where the assistance of the media is going to be vital. Finally, the people must make use of the powerful weapon that the government has put in their hands—the Right to Information Act—with telling effect to keep bureaucrats on their toes.


Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)                                                Astha Bharati