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


Bureaucracy: Complete Overhaul Needed

Sudhanshu Ranjan



About two years back, Infosys chief N. R. Narayana Murthi demanded the abolition of the Indian Administrative Service and suggested the creation of the Indian Management Service in its place. Without mincing words, it can be said that bureaucracy is a much-derided institution in the estimation of the common people. In a developed society, the role of the administration in minimal. However, there was no serious attempt to reform the bureaucracy in over six decades of independence. The tendency to look to the bureaucrat as maai-baap is an atavistic hand-me-down from the colonial government. In fact, officers are getting more and more powerful. Recently, the Indian Coast Guard launched two ships for which advertisements were given in major national dailies, and the two were launched by the wives of bureaucrats- one by the wife of defence production secretary and the other by the wife of a joint secretary. This proves the clout of bureaucrats that not only they themselves but even their wives are given such importance.

     In fact, it was befuddling that though the Founding Fathers of the Indian Constitution provided for universal franchise in one stroke ushering the nation in full democracy, they also inherited the entire colonial bureaucratic structure. The British came to India to rule over this country and they did so through the bureaucrats. Therefore, they did not have any confusion about the role of the administration which had become synonymous with the government. David C. Potter has commented, “…the IAS officers are formally public servants, whereas their predecessors were themselves the government.” The will of the bureaucracy prevailed to such an extent that it was not possible even for the Secretary of State to take a different line. After the formation of the ‘extremist’ and ‘moderate’ groups in the Indian National Congress, Lokmanya Tilak commented on the strength of bureaucracy in 1907, “Do you mean to say that when the whole bureaucracy, the whole body of Anglo-Indians (British officers in India) is against you, the Secretary of State will set aside the whole bureaucracy and give you the rights? Has he got that power? If he does, will he not be asked to walk away?” Tilak was vindicated when, in 1919, the Secretary of State, Edwin Montague, failed to institute any public inquiry into the Jalianwalla Bagh massacre due to the stiff opposition from the Indian bureaucracy, and lamented, “…the powers that be in India- the services- are wholly against us.” Bureaucrats in India enjoyed perks and privileges without accountability. Penderel Moon, an ICS official, has written in his book Strangers India, “…pay, passages, leave and allowances were improved as a result of the Lee Commission (1923) so as to ensure a standard of living unsurpassed by any civil service in the world…Retired civilians, public men and the Secretary of State for India himself visited the Universities and urged young men to go to India where there awaited them a task, different indeed from the preceding generations, but perhaps more enthralling, certainly more difficult and, if successfully accomplished, more redounding to the glory of the English name.”   

   However, allowing the administration an overbearing role in governance in a democracy is indeed baffling. Since these bureaucrats, especially the IAS officials mattered so much in decision-making they went on aggrandizing their own power and status causing untold damage to other institutions. One example will suffice. During the British regime the commander-in-chief of the Indian Army was the second man under the protocol, that is, next only to the Viceroy. But after independence his position was continuously downgraded and now he ranks even below the Cabinet Secretary. Now there is desertion from the Army and nobody wants to opt for a career in the Army. Similarly the growth of technology, science and other professions has been severely affected by the practice of placing an IAS official on the top of every department presuming him to be an all knowing Solomon. Instances of scientists committing suicide in India are not unknown. One argument supporting the supremacy of the IAS is that if a generalist like an IAS officer heads a department s/he can communicate with the minister and make him/her understand better since the minister is also a generalist, or sometimes even illiterate. But the question arises who does the bureaucrat learn from? Obviously from specialists.

      But, instead of giving powers to specialists, unfortunately, we have in India a burgeoning, hierarchical bureaucracy which was strong enough in the colonial period and has been acquiring new areas of power after independence. Since the British Indian bureaucracy represented the government in its entirety the leaders of the nationalist movement had struggled against it to win freedom.

    Now, bureaucrats, are responsible not only for administration but also for development. In no other country is there such a concept of development through administration. Development and administration are two separate entities but they have been clubbed together here giving enormous power to the bureaucrats. In developed countries like the UK and USA there is no such post as District Magistrate. In Britain maintaining law and order is the responsibility of the police and since 1832 the police are in the control of local government. What is unique is that policeman there are unarmed. But this, instead of being a weakness, is their real strength. They do not face any problem in controlling crime as they get the support of the common people. Since they fall under the jurisdiction of the local government which comprises elected representatives, citizens at large have a feeling that it is their sacred duty to ensure peace and order. This is an example of how common people can tackle a problem effectively if given responsibility.

       In France, Napoleon introduced the system of administration through prefects in 1800 AD. The British Government created the posts of sub-divisional Officer, District Magistrate and Divisional Commissioner in India on the French pattern. But even the French Government abolished the post of Perfect a few decades ago considering it redundant in a developed and conscious society. What is more, the very concept of district magistrate is an anathema to democracy as district magistrates enjoys power on territorial basis, whereas at the most they can be given functional power. A district magistrate wields power on every area of the district which reminds of the monarchical system in which different territories were allocated to different chieftains.

    Unfortunately we in India are not only carrying on the system inherited from the imperial power but are reinforcing it day by day by compounding its power and expanding its area of operation. No serious endeavour was made to bequeath power to the people. Gandhi conceived the idea of village republic and wanted to attain it through the Panchayati Raj. Shriman Narayan Agarwal even wrote a ‘Gandhian constitution for free India’ with the tacit approval of Gandhiji in which he envisaged a system based on panchayat which was to be the primary unit of governance. It was also supposed to be the basic legislature elected directly by the people and legislatures for the higher levels were to be elected indirectly by the representatives of panchayat. But the most vehement critic of Panchayati Raj was Dr. B.R. Ambedkar who opined that Indian villages are a cesspool of backwardness, ignorance, degradation, casteism  and communalism. So giving power to the village community, he thought, would be disastrous for the health of the country as power would gravitate around a handful of local feudal lords. Due to such vociferous opposition the subject of Panchayati Raj was never taken up for discussion in the Constituent Assembly. When Dr. Rajendra Prasad and K. Santhanam raised it in the constituent Assembly not even a five minute debate took place and it was incorporated in the Directive Principles chapter. B.N. Rau, a retired ICS, opposed the introduction of the Panchayati Raj on the ground that our Constitution is already quite voluminous when we have only a two-tier government. If it is made a three-tier government the Constitution would be unwieldy. However, the recent experience of Panchayati Raj has not been heartening because of corruption which is endemic and it is said that it is not only the decentralization of power but also of corruption. It must be understood that our bureaucracy is not capable of rendering any real service to the people simply because the British introduced a structure of administration which was never supposed to serve the people. That is why they called their own bureaucrats in Britain public servant’s whereas in India they preferred to call them ‘government servants’. The situation remains unchanged even after independence.

    Now, the question that arises is: why did we adopt this bulky structure without any alteration? The reason can be traced to the historical mistake made by the Indian National Congress. Instead of fighting for the abrogation of the ICS, it fought for the Indianisation which simply meant an opportunity to share power in ruling over the Indians along with the British. By 1869 the strength of the ICS had grown to around 800 but it did not have even a single Indian. However, slowly Indians were able to make it to the coveted service and in 1919 Indians comprised six per cent in the ICS which rose to nearly 41 per cent in 1939.

      After the transfer of power Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel emerged as the champion of the ICS and supported the creation of a similar service, the IAS. Lauding the role of the ICS, Sardar Patel said in the Constituent Assembly on October 10, 1949: “I wish to assure you that I have worked with them during the difficult periods, and I must confess that in point of patriotism, in point of sincerity and in point of ability you cannot have a substitute. I wish to place on record of this House, that if during the last two or three years most of the members of the services had not behaved patriotically and with loyalty, the Union would have collapsed.”

    The ICS officials who were considered very loyal to the English Government were given plum posts in independent India. Sir Girija Shankar Bajpai was appointed the Indian Ambassador to the USA by the English Government during the Second World War. Bajpai not only criticized Mahatma Gandhi in the USA but he also attended the meeting that Winston Churchill had with the US President, Roosevelt, for eliciting US support when the British Government planned to start trial against Mahatma Gandhi and other national leaders on the charge of sedition. But surprisingly he was elevated to the post of Secretary-General of the Ministry of External Affairs after the attainment of freedom.

     There is a crying need to start a national debate on the role of the bureaucracy in India. The bureaucracy must be made a facilitating wheel, rather than a stumbling block in the nation’s growth and it must not be allowed to impinge on people’s power. One of the intriguing features of India’s democracy is its compromise with an elaborate, pervasive bureaucracy. This marks a departure from the pattern of the functioning democracies such as in the UK or USA. Since the goal of the truly representative government is the empowerment of people, it is required that the system must allow optimum play for people’s own awareness, and opportunity for their own endeavour, without being hemmed in by agents of authority at every step. On the contrary we have in India a burgeoning, hierarchical bureaucracy which was strong enough in the colonial period and has been acquiring new areas of power after independence. Since the British Indian bureaucracy represented the government in its entirety the leaders of the nationalist movement had struggled against it to win freedom.

       The enactment of the Right to Information Act, 2005, was a genuine effort to empower the people. But now having experienced the result of transparency, even Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh has said that there is a need to review it as officers are not putting in their comments on files honestly and frankly. It is inscrutable why an officer should fight shy of making honest comments? And the prime minister is so worried about the officers who have been humiliating the common people who sought information earlier, but not about people who have been treated like dirt by officers. They have been made to run from pillar to post for a document which they can rightfully claim. People are being insulted that frivolous information is being sought to harass or defame some one but who is worried about the corruption that these officers indulge in and fudge documents.

   The British did not have any confusion about the role of the administration which become synonymous with the government. In stratified society like ours hierarchy is always important and so is the case with the officials. IAS officials are claiming superiority on the basis of this hierarchy. Before the Fifth Pay Commission, the deposing Secretaries presented a hierarchy chart showing the common man, zila parished chief and officials from other agencies including the Army and Railways reporting to the District Magistrate. They also claimed that the responsibility for basic law and order is theirs. If they aldmit that maintaining law and order is primarily their responsibility how is it that the IAS officials of Bihar took to the streets at Patna when the then District Magistrate of Gopalganj, Krishniah, was killed in November 1994? Whom were they remonstrating against? Secondly, then what is the role of the IPS as Justice S.R. Pandian, the Chairman of the fifth pay panel, had himself asked.

      In the Sixth Pay Commission, bureaucrats introduced inequality on an unprecedented scale when the difference between Pay Band 3 and Pay Band 4 is now nearly Rs. 30,000. Earlier, it was proposed to give Pay Band 4 to officers in the rank of joint secretary, but to ensure that they get this scale early and under protest from other services, Pay band 4 was given to non-functional grade. There are several groups and cadres in government service which does not get any promotion at all and they can never get Pay Band 4 and the differences in the salaries have become significant.

     Bureaucrats, particularly IAS officers, have worked out plans for post-retirement assignments also. They are seeking sanctuaries in various commissions like Information Commission, Election Commission, UPSC, State Public Service Commissions, and are manning even Raj Bhavans. This trend must be discouraged.


Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)                                                Astha Bharati