Adding more value to India’s babudom

| | in Oped
Adding more value to India’s babudom

The country’s IAS cadre is full of intelligent, capable and committed members who are working hard to take India to the next high level of performance. But many of them are shackled by their lack of domain knowledge

It is a continuing debate as to whether domain expertise or at least some knowledge is essential, or excellent man management and commitment is adequate for a CEO to succeed  in any organisation, be it in the manufacturing or the service sector.

Erstwhile telecom czar Sam Pitroda’s excellent track record of ushering in a telecom revolution more than two decades ago, was a classic example of domain expertise coupled with, commitment, superb man management and, last but not the least, firm political backing which saw him through thick and thin to deliver truly lasting results.

As Chairman of India’s Telecom Commission, Pitroda soon realised limitations of an advisory role when he could call the shots and decide key  policies  but unable to implement it on the ground, and  opted  to downgrade himself to Secretary of the Telecom Ministry in order to get things done in a time-bound manner.

Pitroda also had the advantage of a long innings of more than six years, though under different Prime Ministers   who were impressed enough by his technical expertise and commitment   to provide unstinted support.

Similarly, Ram Vinay Shahi, with his domain knowledge and  track record of managing BSES (Bombay Suburban Electricity Supply),  in a new avatar as  Secretary of the vital Power Ministry from 2002 to 2007, managed to bring about radical changes with his landmark Electricity Act of 2003, putting India’s energy sector firmly on a path of sustained and meaningful growth.

E Sreedharan, a seasoned railway engineer, who was at the helm of Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (DMRC) for a almost a decade, changed the way commuters moved  within the National Capital Region and its suburbs.

With a foot fall approaching the three million mark,  the DMRC has introduced a fast, comfortable, safe, and pollution-free travel now being replicated in other metros.

For his yeoman services, he was awarded the Padma Shri — followed a few years later by the Padma Vibhushan. He was also honoured as the Indian of the Year in public services, and Indian of the year by the television channel, CNN-IBN, before he bowed out.

Last but not the least is the success story of Aadhaar, conceived,  planned in meticulous detail and implemented  by Nandan Nilekani  with his hand picked team of equally brilliant and dedicated team, covering over one billion Indians within a short period of five years.

This single initiative has enabled Modi to introduce a slew of measures which has reached state benefits to millions of the needy and the poor while saving the nation crores of rupees from getting lost to middlemen. Every day, new avenues are being found to utilise this  highly powerful tool set up by the wizard from Infosy to identify an individual entirely by his or her unique biometric data.

Herein lies an important lesson  for Prime Minister Narendra Modi.  The civil services bureaucracy may be committed and honest in implementing  policies, but often a lack of domain expertise and even basic knowledge  can prove to be a severe handicap to its members. 

Moreover, over the years, a budding young IAS officer may be involved in activities varying from district administration to animal husbandry, health, agriculture, finance, space, science and technology and highways to transport, and  end up a couple decades later being jack of all trades but master of none.

Coupled with this, a relatively short tenure of two to three years at the very top  — secretarial level,  no long-term objective can be achieved. He or she has to rely mostly on the domain expertise gained over the years and resident with the ministerial officers at Joint Secretary and lower levels, which at best is of an arm-chair variety !

Considered the nation’s cream, occupants of the top slot of the UPSC (Union Public Service Commission) selection process, do provide the Government with an excellent pool of talent to macro-manage respective ministries under its charge. However, unless these civil servants gain some domain knowledge, leave alone expertise, it may be akin to trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. A judicious mix of bureaucrats and specialists in various fields from industry and other sectors with proven track record and domain expertise is what will give the Prime Minister a fighting chance to make India of his dreams a reality. For him, failure is not an option.

(The writer is a former Member, Railway Board)

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