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


Bureaucracy and Governance


V. Balachandran




   The best of describing the present state of relationship between bureaucracy and governance is by recalling what Lawrence Peter of the “Peter Principle” fame had famously said: “Bureaucracy defends the status quo long past the time when the quo has lost its status.” This is not surprising since the very structure of bureaucracy breeds a large amount of rigidity in its operations which hinders flexibility in meeting the fast moving challenges of modern governance.


History & evolution of bureaucracy:

      German sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920) who charted our present system of bureaucracy from the more traditional forms of rule like feudalism had described it as a fixed system of labour where jurisdictional areas were clearly demarcated with specific set of official duties for each area which cannot be changed without adequate reason. He envisaged a hierarchy with the senior most person taking decisions but also laying down a set of rules which permitted the lower echelons a right to appeal against decisions. Weber’s aim was to control resources, protect the workers and achieve organizational goals through decision making. An important component of this system was emphasis on personal integrity by separating official property from personal gain which did not exist earlier. Officials would be “appointed” on merits and not “elected”. They would have clear career paths. However there are indications that Weber was also worried how society would maintain control over expanding state bureaucracies. He felt that the problem was not inefficiency or mismanagement but the increased power of public officials.

     The concept of “Public Bureaucracy” arose during the evolution of “Constitutional democracy” especially in USA where the government was based on the consent of the people, meaning that bureaucracy had to obey the will of the people. Conflicts arose how this should be practiced. In some democracies like America, individual rights of citizens were sacrosanct. In 1788 James Madison feared that the American democracy might produce a brutal majority which could invade private rights. He, therefore, recommended that a “tyrannical majority” had to be avoided. In other constitutional democracies like India individual rights could be circumscribed for the “Public good” as determined by the bureaucracy and political leadership and adjudicated by the courts. On the other hand Alexander Hamilton wanted “Competent powers” for the executive through bureaucracy so that “the executive does not become powerless or controlled by the legislature”.

      Thus bureaucracy had always been drawn in while describing power dispensation whether in democracy or other forms of government since they have to implement government policies. This presupposed that bureaucracy had overall control of resources and service sectors for the public good. In Independent India this was carried to the extreme with a “Command Economy” or “Licence Raj” where bureaucracy controlled everything including service sector, financial services, means of production and communications. During this period the “Public” was kept out of all government decisions. Gradually a “Master-Servant” relationship emerged between our bureaucracy and the public resembling Colonial days.

       However the last 2 decades of the 20th Century changed everything. It shifted back almost to a situation in USA two centuries ago while their Constitution was being adopted when the role of Federal Administration was minimal. To quote Prof.F.W.Riggs, an authority on public administration: “Most public administration was, actually, carried out by state and local officials. Farmers, merchants, and artisans working in the private sector were self-sufficient and able to manage most of their affairs without governmental intervention. The need for officials and administrative functions was not included in the terms of the constitutional charter for the new U. S. government.”  This was because globalization in the 1990s loosened our State control over the polity. This was the general trend everywhere. Stanley Hoffman called this “erosion” as the “emergence of a transnational Society that includes multinational corporations, non-governmental organizations, criminals and terrorists”1. Corporate sector encroached into the governance arena, wresting some areas from government, such as vital industries, communications, financial and commercial management, which were also subject to trans-border developments.


Modern Challenges:

     In my key note address on October 12, 2007 to the Maharashtra Chapter of the Indian Institute of Public Administration I had said that the security structure of our country was unable to meet the challenges of 21st Century since it had not kept itself abreast with modern developments. The same arguments would apply to our civil bureaucracy too. Communication which was a government monopoly came under heavy private control and that too with transnational connections. Vodafone, which bought Hutch in India a few years ago, has presently 341.10 million customers in 26 countries. This trend was seen in media management, power generation, transport, airlines, airports, ports, shipping, highways, financial services and banks which are vital sectors in our developing economy. Bureaucracy’s control was considerably challenged by an aggressive media, especially the visual media which started questioning every aspect of governance. The “Right to Information Act” which was enacted to bring in more transparency also laid bare government irregularities or gave rise to different interpretations of bureaucratic decision making. All these developments brought in great strains on our stagnant bureaucracy. Recently we have seen many “Scams” hitting the country lowering the prestige of the government. This is a sure sign of a stagnating bureaucracy which could not catch up with a satisfactory regulatory mechanism in a privatized and globalized economy to check diversion of national wealth. 

       How did other countries tackle this trend? When 9/11 hit USA they came to a realization that the definition of national security had to be enlarged as it was found that the designated security organizations by themselves could not protect the mainland. Consequently they concluded that over 100 different sectors including private sector had vital roles to play in national security. The department of Homeland Security was set up to represent such diverse elements, including corporate sector, instead of casting the responsibility only on traditional institutions like department of Defense, intelligence services and FBI. Thus the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has a legally empowered advisory body for strategy, leadership and coordination, management and implementation and evaluation and feedback. It will surprise our Home Ministry mandarins that this group includes 12 representatives from the private sector, 4 from academia and think tanks, 5 from the police or police associations, 2 sitting or retired governors and only 3 retired senior officials. This is because several governments have realized that armed forces, police and intelligence agencies themselves cannot prevent breaches of national security or terrorism in a “stand alone” fashion without active involvement of regulatory wings in various government and private sector entities like transport and communications. Unfortunately there is as yet no such realization in India and security bureaucracy and its enforcing organs plod on single handedly to tackle national security with totally unsatisfactory results.

    There have been other challenges too confronting us affecting governance and stability which have to be tackled by bureaucracy. Of late security has been classified as “traditional” and “non-traditional”. Non-traditional security issues (NTS) like migration, human security, disaster, epidemics, diseases like HIV and AIDs, human trafficking, small arms, transnational crime and environmental security are given more attention now. Control of epidemics like SARS is no longer the worry of one country. It affects the entire region. Similarly the Indonesian “haze” affected all the countries in the region a few years ago. Based on this there was even an attempt to re-define “sovereignty” on the ground that the principle of non-interference and state sovereignty cannot deal with NTS. As Dr.Surin Pitsuwan, former Thai foreign minister had said: “One has to therefore revisit the sanctity of the concept of sovereignty.”2

     Pressures on national security change quite often beyond the control of national governments on a kaleidoscopic pattern in a fast changing “Wired world”. Turbulence in a country has serious security implications on its neighbours as the case of Pakistan/Afghanistan, Nepal/India, Bangla Desh/India and Srilanka/India. The gradual de facto ceding of national sovereignty by established national governments to non-State actors like commercial entities, multi-nationals and non-governmental groups is increasing. Commercial and social groups pursue their own foreign relations, which quite often outshine government initiatives, example being the lead role played by US-India Business Council, FICCI or CII during the Congressional hearings on the Hyde Act (2006) on the US-India nuclear agreement. Multinational commercial entities also pursue their own foreign relations, which act as compelling ingredients in the evolution of the security, foreign or commercial policy of a country, example being the influence of Boeing on US-China policy. The concept of “Global Civil Society” and “Global Justice” is evolving to act as pressure points on national governments. The strength of NGOs has been increasing tremendously. In 1948 only 41 international NGOs were on “consultative status” with United Nations. The number increased to more than 1,000 in 1992.3 Along with this there are demands to set up “Regional human rights courts” on the lines of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg to prevent suppression of press freedom and to protect journalists from libel suits.4 The dispersal of decision-making power from a centralized State apparatus to a diversified strata has increased the tensions of an already over burdened bureaucracy.

     Along with this, the power of media and the process of public opinion formation in a free society have undergone radical change due to Internet and faster means of communications like TV or FM Radio. Serious law and order problems occur well beyond the control of regulatory authorities when instant adverse opinion formation takes place. The problem is illustrated by the Danish Cartoon controversy in 2006, which caused riots in more than 12 countries including India, or the alleged derogatory remarks by a Delhi based FM Station on “Indian Idol” Prashant Tamang, which resulted in very serious riots in Siliguri on September 29-30, 2007.

     The fact that globalization has not resulted in alleviating poverty but has only helped the rich is causing serious pressure on governance. The 2006 report of the “National Commission for Enterprises in Unorganized Sector” had revealed that 836 million or 77% of India’s population earned less than Rs.20 a day. This is the combined population of USA, Indonesia, Brazil and Russia. Late Dr.Arjun Sengupta, Chairman of the Commission said that three fourths of Indian population was “bypassed “by the high rate of Indian economic growth.5 This has sharpened inequalities. A 2006 study by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai found that the number of homeless pavement dwellers in Mumbai varied between 250,000 to 500,000. It is already well known that 60% of the Mumbai population of 10.5 million lives in slums. The strains of our governance could be evident from the fact that we still do not have a policy how to deal with Maoist problem which even in 2007 had affected 150-165 districts in 12-14 States. “Frontline” (Sep 8-21, 2007) found that much of the blame for the growing strength of Maoist movement was  because of administrative lapses by the Central and State governments in not understanding the underlying issues and treating it only as a law & order problem despite forming the “Inter-Ministerial Group”(IMG) headed by the Addl.Secretary, MHA to focus only on socio-economic issues.

      The Asian Centre for Human Rights (ACHR) was quoted by Frontline magazine that an estimated Rs.6,500 crores for National Rural Employment Guarantee Programme (NREGP) were not spent during 2005-06. Similarly Rs.1,522.90 crores for tribal development could not be released by the Ministry of Tribal Affairs to State governments because the latter did not submit utilization certificates. Mr.D.Bandopadhyay, Chairman of the Expert Group on “Development Issues to deal with Causes of Discontent, unrest and Extremism” (Planning Commission) blamed governments concerned for the present situation since no care was taken to resettle jobless tribal people displaced from Central India due to mega projects. “There is no official figure estimating the number of displaced people due to coercive acquisition of land for development purposes. Scholars’ estimates vary. One scholar, Walter Fernandes, has estimated that between 1951 and 2005 roughly 5.5 crores of the Indian population has been so displaced. Of these only 28 to 30% has been properly resettled and rehabilitated. In the case of tribal people, it is estimated that only 18 to 20% of them have been properly rehabilitated”. He said that the States were not interested in utilizing Central funds in the Maoist belt: “The States are not interested in looking at that segment of the population, which according to them, are not part of the mainstream”. Or is it because of electoral considerations? He compared the present situation with the West Bengal experience of 1967 in putting down Naxal menace within two and half years by re-distributing 1 million acres of land to the landless.

    The looming effects on governance by the problems of climate change, water shortage and resultant migration have not been studied by our bureaucracy as a security challenge. Dr. R.K. Pachauri, Chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) had said: “Wheat production in India is already in decline, for no other reason than climate change. Everyone thought we didn’t have to worry about Indian agriculture for several decades. Now we know it’s being affected now”.6 IPCC's Working Group II had said that temperature rise by 1 to 2 degree centigrade was likely to affect 2 billion people while a rise of 3 to 4 will affect 3.2 billion, one sixth of the world’s population. In the resultant decrease in cereal productivity 50-266 million people would  be exposed to hunger.7 In 2004 The Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), the national intelligence agency of Canada warned in an unclassified analysis that climate change and environmental degradation was likely to contribute significantly to conflicts and instability. The study also concluded that migration was also likely to be the result of such changes. In 2005 at least 80,000 Hondurans migrated (legally or illegally) to USA after Hurricane Mitch. In the case of poorer nations like Honduras the capacity to limp back to normal is severely limited. It further said that Han Chinese migration into Western China and Tibet was because of the decreased precipitation in North Central and North Eastern China. The current unrest between Muslim Uighurs in North West China and Han migrants was traced to this migration. The study found a similar pattern in Pakistan which was experiencing high rate of population increase, degradation of agricultural land, increasing rural to urban migration all of which contributed to political instability.8

       Another big challenge is the way our government cedes control of vast areas to Maoists or “mafias”. Our bureaucracy without formulating any strategy gives responsibility of tackling this socio-economic issue only to the police. US Think Tank “Rand” in a 2007 case study of 8 “Ungoverned” territories found the following attributes which led to serious internal security and law and order problems which spilled outside causing turbulence to the whole region. “Ungoverned territories can be failed or failing States, poorly controlled land or maritime borders or areas within otherwise viable states where the Central government’s authority does not extend”:

(a)   Lack of State penetration: Absence of State institutions, Lack of physical infrastructure, corruption and the prevalence of informal economy

(b)   Lack of monopoly of force: Illegal armed groups, criminal networks, population with access to arms

(c)   Lack of border controls

(d)   External interference9



       It is very clear that the present state of Indian bureaucracy is unable to tackle the growing challenges of governance facing a globalized and privatized world. They are still in the mental framework of “Licence-Raj” without realizing that they have few powers of control left except recourse to law if they have to be an effective adjudicator in modern governance. As such a drastic reorientation of their thinking and training is necessary for making them relevant in the 21st Century.



  The New York Review, Aug 10, 2006.
  Inaugural meeting of the consortium of non-traditional security studies in Asia, Singapore 8-9 Jan 2007.
   Neera Chandhoke, Economic & Pol.Weekly, July 21, 2007.
  The Hindu, Oct 1, 2007-interview with Bambang Harymurti, President  Director of the PT Tempo Inti Media Group (Indonesia).
   Asian Age, September 23, 2007.
   The Hindu, September 22, 2007 quoting “The Guardian”.
   As above.
  Commentary No: 86, Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) March 2004.
   RAND Aug 2007 “Ungoverned territories-Understanding & Reducing terrorism risks”.

Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)                                                Astha Bharati