Quo Vadis, Indian bureaucracy?

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Quo Vadis, Indian bureaucracy?

Officials are constantly playing safe rather than taking bold decisions for the people’s benefit due to the fear of persecution

A different habit, with worse effect, was the way that ambitious officers, they came in sight of promotion to the Generals' list, would decide that they would bottle up their thoughts and ideas, as a safety precaution, until they reached the top and could put these ideas into practice.  Unfortunately, the usual result, after years of self-repression for the sake of their ambition, was that when the bottle was eventually uncorked the contents had evaporated.

This astute observation about British Army officers by Captain BH Liddell Har, who was an English soldier, military historian as well a military theorist, may as well apply to the vast Indian bureaucracy.

All young officers, under various categories of the All India Services, dreaming big, bursting with ideas and a burning zeal to make India a better place, get their first jolt when they have a brush with any one of the Big Three Cs — the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG), the Central Vigilance Commission and the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI).

If his/her most well-meaning and well-thought out proposal or initiative turns out to be somewhat a failure, all hell breaks loose with finger pointing taking a priority over all other activities. Even issues as innocuous as lack of a formal sanction for a programmed work, which had to be undertaken on priority, can be construed as a gross infraction of rules and regulations.

Written complaints, anonymous or even signed by a fictitious person against a member or members of a tender committee about a decision to award a contract, could stall that person's promotion for years till the charges are proved to be false.It's a very brave tender committee indeed which dares to overlook the lowest quotation on grounds of lack of experience, inadequate expertise, poor resources and not having undertaken a similar project or supplied such a component in the past, anywhere in the world. 

Very often, politicians try to influence a decision to be taken by a bureaucrat by speaking directly to his/her minister-in-charge, placing him/her in a moral quandary. Vested interests often try to scuttle any change in a procedure, rules or regulation, which may impact their business by adopting dubious means, including an anonymous complaint. Of all the investigative agencies, the CBI has the most debilitating effect on the morale of an officer, who may be honest and forthright in his public and official dealings yet find himself hauled in for questioning or even be put behind bars for a few days.

He may have rubbed a few powerful people, especially of the political variety, the wrong side way or worse even ignored the broad hints dropped to favour a certain party while deliberating on a high value tender.The mere hint of a CBI enquiry is enough for any hardworking and honest officer to jettison all initiative and ideas, which he/she may be bursting with. Worse still, this has an effect down the line on the morale and effectiveness of other officials with a disastrous effect on the functioning of the organisation.

What is often lost sight of by all these agencies in their headlong rush to prove the accused guilty, is whether it was a deliberate flouting of rules and procedures which caused a financial loss to the Government, or an unfortunate error of judgement and turn of events which caused the loss.

 In cases of alleged corruption, whether the accused monetarily gained from his action, it can easily be established if he has assets disproportionate to his known sources of income.A number of high-profile and much-publicized cases have got both the politicians and the bureaucracy worried.While the politician can brazen it out by denying his role in any wrong doing and even opt to join forces with the party in power, thereby taking the heat off, a bureaucrat does not enjoy the luxury of such an escape route.

No wonder, most of the members of the vast governmental bureaucracy prefer to sit tight, undertaking tasks which are routine, where no initiative is called for. As a result, such individuals manage to while away their tenure not attracting an adverse report or negative comments while they await the next slot to open up for promotion. End result — the scum floats to the top, and slow or very poor implementation of the most well-thought out government initiatives fail to yield the desired result.

(The writer is a former Member, Railway Board)

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