February 18, 2007

REFORMING BUREAUCRACY? YOU MUST BE JOKING!

I knew there must be more to it than meets the eye when I read media reports about the latest move by the Prime Minister to send Indian bureaucrats to American universities to improve their ‘governance skills’. Since he took office in May 2004, the honourable Prime Minister has time and again emphasised the crying and urgent need for reforms in the Indian bureaucracy. Many a time, he has used public platforms to assert that India cannot shine for its deprived and disposed citizens unless Indian bureaucrats become more transparent, efficient and accountable. He has even chanted the ‘corporate’ mantra of promoting bureaucrats solely on the basis of merit and performance. Could hapless Indians, who are forever at the mercy of the whims and fancies of Indian bureaucrats, even dream of such a thing happening in the country?

I think their dreams will be dashed. The Prime Minister may be an honourable man; but the ‘system’ in India is ensuring that his noble intentions will never be translated into reality. And that Indian bureaucracy will continue to be arrogant, corrupt, uncaring and unaccountable. That this will remain a system where the honest bureaucrat will face a torrent of ‘transfers’ and harassment while the corrupt ones and their political masters will continue to make merry. This sense of shame and frustration was reinforced when I read two media reports buried in the avalanche of information that we are now overloaded with.

The first was about a decision taken by the Union Cabinet to force investigators and law enforcement officials to take ‘prior permission’ before prosecuting even retired bureaucrats. Till now, serving bureaucrats were shielded by the ‘prior permission’ weapon, while retired bureaucrats, who had made tonnes of money while serving, could face the heat from investigating agencies like the CBI. No longer! The second Cabinet

recommendation is even more astounding. Henceforth, corrupt bureaucrats who are being prosecuted can enjoy their ‘ill-gotten’ gains till they are actually convicted by a court of law! What does that mean? Suppose the CBI raids the premises of a corrupt babu, who’s suspected of purchasing bungalows and fancy cars clandestinely. While the CBI will prosecute the officer and the case will take its own sweet time in the labyrinthine maze of the Indian judicial system, the corrupt officer can continue to stay in the bungalow and drive the fancy cars. They cannot be attached.

These two strange decisions are just a manifestation of the stranglehold that Indian bureaucracy has on the nation and how it is refusing stubbornly to answer calls for more responsive governance. I recall a few years ago how the then Chief Vigilance Commissioner (the body entrusted with the task of checking corruption), N.Vittal, was lambasted by the bureaucracy because he had the temerity to post the names of officers facing corruption charges on the official web site. All his efforts to remove the ‘prior permission’ clause from the rule books were defeated. All the efforts of the CBI to remove the clause were defeated. And the law was manipulated in such a way that the vigilance body, as well as the CBI, effectively remained under the thumb of the Indian bureaucracy, rather than becoming autonomous bodies like the Chief Election Commission.

The same intransigence was displayed by the bureaucracy when the Right to Information law was on the verge of being implemented in 2005. Bureaucrats insisted that the ‘notings’ that they make on official files cannot come under the purview of the RTI. Activists argued that that the entire purpose of the Right to Information law will be defeated if corrupt bureaucrats are allowed to hide behind the shield of ‘confidential file notings’. Fortunately for India and its citizens, this sinister move by the bureaucracy to place itself above the law was scuttled by vigilant activists and an activist media. Still, bureaucrats resist every step of the way when asked to comply with RTI rules.

The root cause for this obduracy and arrogance on the part of the Indian bureaucracy is the unholy nexus it has formed with the political class of India. Every time politicians face the heat (like when the Election Commission suggested that criminals not be allowed to contest elections), the bureaucracy literally burns the midnight oil to create new ‘laws’ that will protect political goons. And every time the bureaucracy faces the heat, political masters approve decisions that will protect corrupt bureaucrats.

For India to truly realise its potential of emerging as a global powerhouse, the unholy nexus needs to be broken once and for all. Till then, ‘reforming bureaucracy’ will remain what it has always been... a joke!

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