Monday, November 29, 2010

Put out to pasture

What would happen if fifty percent of our bureaucracy were retired overnight? Would work grind to a halt? Would it perhaps slow down? Would the quality of work be adversely affected? No, no and no! 

 There is a large number of bureaucrats who cherish the belief that having worked so hard to enter the charmed circle of bureaucracy, they are entitled to a lifetime of respect/awe/deference from the tax payer as well as a salary (which of course the humble tax payer makes possible!) without really delivering any tangible outcomes in office.If a few perquisites are thrown in as well, such as residential accommodation at a posh address, perhaps membership of the Gymkhana club(or its equivalent), all the better! They devote themselves to doing all those things that they hold meaningful and significant in life, such as playing golf, and glance in at the office for a couple of hours a day, sometimes a couple of hours a week.

Then there are those who treat the job like  the proverbial golden goose, and focus all their energies on securing those postings where they can lay their hands on the largest, shiniest golden eggs. You can't really expect them to put in 8 hours of work a day, can you, when they have better things to do?

A significant percentage of  bureaucrats are too dispirited, too de- motivated, too despondent to really work as well as they could because they constantly compare themselves with the highest paid in the corporate sector, their five star lifestyles, and rue the choice they made to work in the civil services.

If all these people were shown the door, would productivity suffer? Of course not, because the contribution they are making today is nil.

Then there is the fact that many, many of us are terribly under employed. Massive changes in government policy leading to procedural simplification and rationalisation, and the IT -led automation of many business processes have resulted in huge redundancies. However, no one ever admits that. The advice I have received most often from well wishers is that I should never, never say that I don't have enough work, even if I don't. So, there are times when we spend the best part of the day scanning the newspapers, catching up with acquaintances we hadn't thought of for years, and thanking NIC for the terrific speed at which we are able to surf the internet, because there just isn't any work to be done.

Of course, there are also areas where work has  increased manifold and if work studies were the norm in government, rather than the once in a blue moon exercise they now are, a lot of productive re- deployment could take place. What actually happens is that existing posts that have become redundant are neither abolished nor diverted even while new posts are created, so there is a large number of persons at any given time with absolutely no work to do.

So a large part of the bureaucracy is but a parasite in glorious disguise, feeding on the tax payers' money, and no one cares a hoot precisely because it is the tax payer's money, not his or hers.

This indifference is nowhere more evident than in our amazing tolerance of employees who absent themselves for long periods, who make late coming and frequent unuthorised absence a habit, who are simply incapable of delivering satisfactory work, who are prevented by chronic illness or long standing family problems from making any meaningful contribution at work, who carry on commercial businesses from office during office hours, or who simply don't wish to work. If this were a domestic help we were dealing with, he would be shown the door in double quick time. In government, however, we either laugh it off or become the picture of compassion or say a few angry words once in a while --- and then forget it!

Hence my firm belief --- reduce the government by half, and we could perhaps be better off than before, certainly no worse!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The legal eagles

Though the Indian bureaucrat would never admit that he doesn't always know the best, he does have to obtain legal advice sometimes and to engage advocates when the State is the litigant.

Who gives legal advice to the Government of India? Most matters are referred to the Legal Advisers in the Ministry of Law, which is a terribly under-staffed Ministry, housed in dark, cramped, depressing office space. At one point of time, the Ministry's Conveyancing Branch , which vets all, repeat, all the contracts and tenders to which the Government of India is a party, had only 2 officers. I doubt whether any manpower augmentation has since taken place. We do create new posts all the time, but these are in regulatory bodies or enforcement agencies where all the fun is. Who cares about musty old Ministry of Law?

The Ministry's Legal Advisers depend heavily and almost exclusively upon books. Think of the number of laws that have been enacted since Independence, and laws which were enacted before but remain on the statute book. Think of the thousands of amendments that have been carried out.Think of the lakhs of cases that have been decided and have become case law. The Legal Advisers are required to be acquainted with all this massive store house of information, and to keep abreast of developments. 

Do you visualise them seated before their computers, plugged into huge data banks that simplify their task of looking up the law (including amendments and case law) before they give advice? That's a laugh. What you will actually get to see if you step into their offices is the strange sight of the peon being buzzed to unlock the book case, remove the score or so of obstacles such as furniture that's been pushed back because of the paucity of space, and pull out a book or several books, as the case may be, hand it/them to the officer, then wait to put the book(s) back. Obviously, the Government has not chosen to invest in IT applications that would aid and assist the Legal Advisers. There are computers in every room but these are only used as word processors.

Training? Familiarisation with new laws? Exposure to international best practices? Participation in international conferences and workshops? The answer to all these quetions is an emphatic "No". Its as if they were children of a lesser God.

No wonder then that the Legal Advisers  are, by and large, a rather dissatisfied lot. Who can blame them?

When is legal advice sought? All substantive amendments of the law are required to be examined and approved by the Law Ministry. Whenever there is conflict between two or more laws, the matter is referred for legal advice. Sometimes, there are questions of interpretation of law that are referred to the Law Ministry. Of course, all contracts, Notices Inviting Tenders etc are required to be vetted by them.

Given the constraints that our legal advisers are working under, I think they are doing a great job, but we don't always get good advice. That's because we don't want it. What we really want is for the Legal Adviser to endorse the view we have already formed, or to place his stamp of approval on the draft contract or draft notification that's been sent to him.In fact, the endeavour always is to get the file examined by a Law Ministry officer who is either to busy to disagree or is amenable to persuasion and will sooner rather than later endorse the view expressed by the administrative Ministry. So the moment we get to know that the file has been marked to X, not Y, in the Ministry of Law we rush around trying frantically to get that undone.

The reasons are manifold. We don't like to concede that the Legal Adviser knows better than us, at least sometimes. Then, work is always rushed through at the last minute so the luxury of having the proposal scrutinised by the Law Ministry isn't really available. Sometimes, the political bosses have directed a particular course of action so the bureaucrat sees himself with no choice except to get it pushed through in the Law Ministry. Increasingly, the Government is setting up tribunals that provide attractive options for appointments to law officers, so we now see an element of quid pro quo also creeping in.So there we are --matters get referred to the Law Ministry, and are returned either with concurring notes, or rather routine, bland, meaningless observations, and only rarely, good, strong legal advice.

And so we plod along, with laws that could have been better drafted, contracts that needn't have had the loopholes that are later exploited, legal representation in the courts that needs to improve a thousand-fold before it becomes effective. Oh yes! the Government Counsels ---that's another story, deserving a post of its own.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Take arms against a sea of troubles

To quote Hamlet, "Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer  The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune (read corrupt bureaucrats),Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, And by opposing end them?"

That question has bothered me for a long time.

Is it enough that I don't myself engage in acts of corruption, that I do my duty faithfully and diligently, to the best of my ability, keeping always the interest of the people in mind?

Is it enough that I don't , in any manner whatsoever, promote the cause of colleagues I know or suspect to be corrupt?

Is it enough that I act with utmost caution on directions given by a senior colleague whose integrity is suspect?

Is it enough that in whatever way I can, I encourage and facilitate efficiency and integrity among those whose work I direct?

I suspect it isn't. That is the reason, perhaps, that when I look back on what I have achieved in the past ten years or so, there is a lingering sense of dissatisfaction.So much more could have been done.

Take arms against a sea of troubles? How? I am searching for answers.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Endless love ( the Lallis of today)

Prasar Bharati CEO Lalli's wings clipped, says the TOI headline today. The Supreme Court, the report says, has directed that a three-member Committee should  handle the day-to-day business of the public broadcaster till the Central Vigilance Commission completes its probe into alleged irregularities committed by the CEO.  

Who is B S Lalli? He is a retired IAS officer of the 1971 batch, UP cadre. When was he appointed CEO of Prasar Bharati? In 2006, by the UPA government. His tenure was extended in 2008, notwithstanding allegations of corruption against him.

Why? Well, that's a tough question to answer. The logical presumption would be that he had the relevant experience. What I can gather from media reports on the internet is that he was Secretary (Border Management) in the Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India before he retired. How that experience would be relevant to running an organisation like Prasar Bharati is something I am still trying to figure out. Perhaps his contribution as Secretary (Border Management) was so outstanding that it weighed heavily in his favour! Hmm --- we all know how secure our borders are.  

Perhaps the reason why B S Lalli was appointed CEO, Prasar Bharati has nothing whatsoever to with his ability and experience. Perhaps the reason is that there is a strong and active nexus between bureaucrats and their political bosses to put in charge of as many organisations as possible retired bureaucrats who are then so obliged for being given the opportunity to enjoy their lives of comfort for several more years that they fall over themselves to keep the bosses happy.

Having enjoyed job security, assured promotions, comfortable salaries, and immense authority for 35 to 40 years, the large majority of bureaucrats are loath to let go of these priviliges. So they ensure that every new organisation which is created by the Government has a slot or two, or more, for retired bureaucrats. Since the Recruitment Rules are not placed in the public domain before they are notified, the public does not even know that the very bureaucrats who have made promotion of their own interest (as opposed to national interest) their life-long mission are going to flourish for another 3 to 5 years after retirement. Even on the occasion that civic society protests, or approaches the judiciary for relief, it isn’t able to secure justice, such is the stranglehold of the bureaucracy over our institutions.

We have seen this happening in the case of the Right To Information Act. The Central Information Commission and the State Information Commissions, set up under the Act, have become happy hunting grounds for bureaucrats on the verge of retirement. So the very bureaucrats who have spent a lifetime withholding information from citizens now man the appellate bodies which decide whether or not a citizen denied information that he sought under the RTI Act is to be provided that information.

If I am a bureaucrat who’s going to retire in a year or so, and I see some very attractive post-retirement options that my political bosses can help me exercise, am I going to be foolish enough to displease them in any way whatsoever? Of course not. Am I going to spend all my time and energy in doing my job? Of course not. Am I going to devote myself to lobbying for a post-retirement appointment? Oh yes!

What if I am also the kind of officer who believes that his entry into the civil services was but the doorway to a Swiss bank? What a godsend I would be to a political boss who wants to place a yes-man in a lucrative post! What a god-send the appointment would be to me, since I would continue raking in the millions even after retirement!

What if I am a bureaucrat with courage and devotion and efficiency and integrity? I wouldn’t be considered for a post-retirement slot in the first place, and even if I am, I would have to sell my soul to get there so I wouldn’t do it!

So the very bureaucrats we would be well rid of are the ones who grab post-retirement appointments!

Is the country so bereft of persons with the right qualifications that it needs to lean so heavily on its so called steel framework for filling up all significant posts? Of course not! It’s just that the steel framework has become a self-perpetuating, multi headed creature, which suffers from delusions of grandiosity. Nowhere is this more evident than the phenomenon of post-retirement appointments of bureaucrats to powerful, lucrative posts.

One of my colleagues suggested the other day, in the midst of a passionate discussion on whether or not India is in a self-destruct mode, that the single most important administrative reform the country needs is a ban on post –retirement appointments of bureaucrats. I whole heartedly endorse that view.

Ironically, the Administrative Reforms Commissions that are constituted from time to time have a heavy sprinkling of the very bureaucrats whose functioning requires reform. Are they going to make recommendations that curtail the perpetuation of the bureaucrat’s power? Of course not. Whatever recommendations the ARC does make are required to be implemented by the bureaucracy, which treats them like a headache which will go away if ignored! The latest ARC has submitted 15 reports, and every GOI Ministry has an officer who has become adept at doing a copy/paste job while submitting Action Taken Reports that could be dated 2000 or 2005 or 2010 or 2015 without any significant, substantive change in content!

So there we are, stuck with the Lallis of the world !

Read more:

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Name and shame

There exists in the Customs Act a provision which empowers the Government to name persons who have defaulted in the payment of dues to the Government. The logic is that if these persons are named, at least some, if not all, will be shamed into owning up the liability and will come forward to pay. This legal provision is being made use of by the Central Board of Excise and Customs, and the defaulters' names are made public in several ways, including publication on the CBEC website.

Whether this public shaming has resulted in payment of dues by the defaulters is an issue worth deliberating upon, perhaps in another blog, but it suffices here to say that our attitude to tax evasion being what it is, it is not likely that great results have been achieved by Indian Customs.

The more important issue is that while we do not hesitate to name tax defaulters --- and there ought not to be any hesitation ---- we are extremely wary of naming those amongst us in the bureaucracy who are no better. I would go so far as to call it a conspiracy of silence. 

Among friends who can be relied upon not to broadcast such views, we discuss who amongst are inefficient, lethargic, corrupt, careless, callous etc etc. We name such colleagues, we fulminate, we grow indignant at their acts of ommission and commission. 

Then we step back into our  'bureaucrat" skins and wouldn't be caught dead even nodding acquiescence when an adverse remark is made against the very same colleagues by a member of the public (that we are "servants" of) or even auditors. We rush to their defence or  pretend we have't heard. 

Those who do name names are frowned upon, labelled "eccentric" (so their views don't really matter!)or otherwise discouraged to be so open on a subject we agreed to maintain silence on when we enter the hallowed halls of bureaucracy.

So, its perfectly acceptable, for example, to name individuals and corporates who are smugglers and tax evaders, but it is not OK to name the civil servants who make this possible, either by active collusion or simply by their indifference and lethargy.

Is it that bureaucrats fear that the admission that there a few (actually, more than a few) black sheep in the family will tar them with the same brush, that it will compel them to discard the fondly-held belief that they know better, are wiser, in fact, superior to the public they serve? Its a belief deeply ingrained  in the civil services, a belief that is a legacy of our colonial past, a belief that is so pernicious that its destroying the civil services because if we do not admit there is a problem, we aren't going to address it. 

Sunday, November 14, 2010

the buck does not stop here!

It happened when we are all getting worked up about the CWG scam. It is happening again while we get our daily updates on the 2G spectrum scam. Each one of us, including the media, is wielding the stick only on the politicians. How is it that we have we all forgotten the role of the ubiquitous bureaucrat?

Does anything get done in this country or not get done, without the bureaucrat? Big or small, right or wrong, whenever a decision is to be made and whatever the decision to be taken, there is a bureaucrat lurking behind the scenes. Some give no advice, some proffer good advice and get snubbed or perhaps punished for that, some have only that advice to offer which the political master wishes to hear and reward; whatever the case, there is always a bureaucrat involved at every stage of decision-making in the Government.

For the politician, there is at least a semblance of accountability; once in a while, all too rarely perhaps, he is made to pay for his sins. The bureaucrat is another kettle of fish altogether. Almost always, he is a faceless entity, and governments may come and governments may go but he goes on forever. A minuscule number may have the CBI bursting the bubble of anonymity, but for the very large majority, this is a nightmare which never comes true.

So scams take place, one after the another, all the time, and sometimes these get exposed and sometimes not, but almost never does the bureaucrat's name crop up. How many of us know the names of the bureaucrats who aided and advised Kalmadi et al, or A Raja, for that matter ? Why are they not exposed to public scrutiny? No matter how obdurate the political boss, no matter how determined he is to have his way, if even a significant minority of bureaucrats refused to give in, would matters not stand differently? They don't, for a mutiplicity of reasons. Sadly enough, they don't get named either. So behind the Iron Curtain of anonymity, they march on, mostly disregarding national interest but safeguarding the political boss's interest!