Bureaucracy and the pied piper of Hamlyn

The widespread agitation by the Patels in the state of Gujarat has left many people wondering. The idea that a community famous for owning motels worldwide requires reservation in their homeland is incredulous.

The unending saga of what appears to be an overwhelming demand for reservations by communities in India is seen as quite incredible. Especially by communities who otherwise do not suffer from the terrible, brutal discrimination that deprives them of access to resources simply on the basis of their caste. A section of society and the intelligentsia is seen to remind us that it was originally intended that reservations would last 10 years and 67 years after independence it is time to reconsider them.

On the other hand the question of political will, delivery of justice, quality of governance and merit comes up every now and then. The recent attack on the SDM in Delhi trying to clear illegal occupation of public land, attacks on traffic policemen and the common reluctance of Govt officers to take any action against those violating laws related to public space, public order, illegal construction, environment and traffic clearly shows an inability to deliver even though the officers serve Governments with very large mandates in the country and in the capital. Several instances where the politics of caste and religion overrides executive action, derails the rule of law and abets unfair distribution of national resources come to light very often.

In my view these two seemingly unconnected issues have an underlying commonality, different from what has been noticed hitherto, and which needs to be examined and addressed

Beginning with reservations for the Scheduled castes and tribes the ambit of this method of affirmative action has been expanded since independence to include many other backward classes. Several committees have indicated that the share of the SC/SC/OBC and minorities in education, access to services, and in economic growth is disproportionately low as compared to the upper caste Hindus. Most committees have their work centered around Government/public sector Jobs, universities and higher education( Mandal commission report,  Mahmood-Ur-Rahman Committee report 2013,  report of Post Sachar Evaluation Committee headed by Amitabh Kundu and National commission for Backward Classes report on creamy layer etc)

These experts appear to correlate that the percentage in total population of a particular backward caste or minority community, with its presence in Govt/Public service, is an index that should be considered for measurement of empowerment and socio political equality. Socially too, a government job is considered as the key to growth for any class/caste/religion that considers itself backward as compared to caste Hindus. This is incredible, given that upper caste Hindus, who for years had monopolized the civil services, did not quite make it an exemplar of efficiency, honesty and spirited public service.

The Government job is, in public perception, a lifelong opportunity for absolute job security, perks, power to harass & instill fear, make money on the side and retire finally with a pension. A Government job may be an opportunity to do significant work but it is widely believed to be the best insurance against inefficiency. The preference of a vast majority of the young to aspire without being entrepreneurs indicates a preference to be in the Government instead of relying on it.

Cornering a Govt. Job drives a large percentage of the population desperately. So deeply and passionately felt is this ultimate quest and its attendant perks that a section of people believe in an equalization principle built on the equal opportunity to take bribes.

Given all this, Civil/Government services in their current form are too alluring for any demand to end or even reduce reservations to politically succeed. What has also become surprisingly evident is that the current state of the bureaucracy is not capable of delivering on the promises made by any political party.

It was hoped that for the time being, a cessation of coalition politics will make it possible for governments to deliver quickly on the ground. The vast mandates given by the people to BJP at the centre and the AAP in Delhi have failed to deliver on the very basics of policing, traffic management, sanitation, water and power, grievance redressal, justice and other verticals that constitute the most elementary constituents of good governance.

It is my view therefore, that No purpose is served in reconsidering reservations but it makes sense to reconsider civilian Government jobs & the Bureaucracy.

Recent news reports suggest that the Government at the centre is considering retiring errant or inefficient bureaucrats close to the end of their careers.

Now the idea of providing very high job security to Govt servants has its basis in providing protection to officers in performing their duties without fear, in a free and fair manner. This is true for almost all bureaucracies in the world.

However, In India, the permanent government job has made it impossible for the ordinary citizen or taxpayer to have an incompetent, corrupt and vindictive bureaucrat punished, and the hapless consumer of public service is forced to wring his hands in despair and be not only servile to a government servant but also bribe him at the same time. The near impossibility of removing government officers has forced politicians to work around the fixture that is the civil services, instead of driving it to deliver on the promises made to their constituents. The situation is such that the representative and the official cover up for each other’s incapability to deliver.

Real and genuine political competition is, as a result, sacrificed at the altar of bureaucratic inertia.

There is absolutely no reason why an elected politician will not try and ensure that his constituents get what he promised them. He would be happy to deliver and win the next election. However he just cannot deliver as slothful officers just keep delaying matters or acting at times only when where there is money to be made on contracts. The very idea of local area development funds (LAD) provided to elected M.P, M.L.A and Councillors to compensate for the lack of development work, which should have been done by municipal bodies in the first place, is emblematic of bureaucratic cussedness and sloth.

Lack of merit because of reservations in the civil service is not the problem. The impossibly high job security creates reservation for the incompetent and the slothful while committed officers (regardless of caste/class/religion) lose their spirit.

Successive Governments have been unimaginative. Resurrecting section 56J of the Fundamental rules and using it more actively in compulsorily retiring bureaucrats (after 50 years of age) as a means of making the bureaucracy perform better is flawed in principle.

A system cannot be made efficient by removing its oldest members. It can be made efficient by punishing inefficiency and rewarding capability, of the youngest in the ranks.

Restructuring Government services is a difficult task.  A stable bureaucracy is very important in maintaining balance and continuity in a highly politicized, religious, superstitious and emotional population.

Consider this; the performance management division (http://performance.gov.in/) in the cabinet secretariat, Govt. of India has already put in place the Performance Monitoring & evaluation System and the Results Framework Document or the RFD. The Department in its own words ‘takes a comprehensive view of the Departmental performance by measuring all relevant aspects of expected departmental deliverables: financial, physical, quantitative, qualitative, static efficiency (short run) and dynamic ‘. Its Vision Statement:’ A results driven government machinery that delivers what it promises’.

Clearly the evaluation tools to do all this exists within the government. It should not be difficult therefore to take the next step in re structuring government jobs as follows:

I suggest that the first 15 years of Government jobs should be such that the officer can be removed for inefficiency and for not measuring up to performance standards established by the Government itself. This will require a change in existing service rules.

In this time officers have a choice of being dynamic, active, and innovative to deliver results, be fired from their jobs or leave for better jobs. In the absence of absolute job security, only those who are in it for the right reasons will remain. At this level a vast amount of government work requires efficiency in delivery. This is also the level at which inefficient government officers cause the greatest harm and inconvenience to the public.

The fear that politicians will just keep on firing efficient bureaucrats if they do not toe the line is misplaced. In any case it is not very difficult to build reasonable safeguards as compared to the absolute security currently provided.

Job security steps in after 15 years when an officer has built credibility around his capabilities and is poised to take over strategic positions and be himself in charge of retaining or removing junior officer. At this level, strategic planning and policy making capability, is expected of officers

A vast number of people will get an equal opportunity to perform and the ends of Affirmative action will also be met. Reservations can continue and this churning and high rate of turnover of young officers can actually work to the advantage of all.

If we do not make this change, the bureaucracy, like the pied piper of Hamlyn, will drown us all.

Ashutosh Dikshit October 2015

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