The problem

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BUREAUCRACY is regarded as the greatest hurdle for globalization today. The prestige it gained as the most appropriate organization, both efficient and rational-legal, for administration of nation states ever since the end of the middle ages, has been considerably eroded. Its chequered career during the 20th century – from a vulnerability to totalitarianism as in Nazi Germany or Bolshevik USSR, to socialistic techno-economic centralization – points to the chimeral nature of its pretensions to rationality and legality.

The discourse on bureaucracy seems to be preoccupied with ways to control corruption beyond the natural self-serving nature of bureaucrats. In India, where a permanent bureaucracy continues to rule the roost even sixty years after national independence, corruption remains a major concern. Nevertheless, perhaps the discourse needs to shift from a preoccupation with considerations of efficiency and corruption towards examining the relationship of bureaucracy with basic democratic values such as liberty, property, equality, fraternity and security. The machinery of state cannot repair itself; it has to be dismantled by a societal initiative for democratization.

Indeed, change in the structure of democratic governance in India was initiated by global forces by the end of the 1980s. As a response, economic reforms for market re-entry as well as constitutional amendments to revive local bodies were politically introduced in the early 1990s. As a result, for the first time since independence, the state bureaucracy has been challenged. While the economic reforms and the revolution in communication technologies have unleashed an entrepreneurial zest as well as assertion of democratic rights among the middle classes, supported by a very powerful electronic media, the constitutional amendments for decentralization have come a cropper.

A regulatory regime for industries and services has replaced the licence raj. Or has it? Though the regulatory regime is working to the benefit of consumers in the telecom sector, the regulators continue to condone the inefficiencies of the state boards/companies in the power sector and the ports sector remains moribund. A Competition Act (which replaced the MRTP Act) is in place, but the commission and staff to man it are not. Overzealous regulation of AIIMS has revivified the draconian traits of governance in India. All in all, however, the ability of the capitalists to contest the high-handedness of the bureaucracy is well in evidence. And a whole new services sector reflects the entrepreneurial spirit of the middle classes that is at play.

The reasons for the failure to revive local self government lie in the half-hearted devolution of powers – no powers were granted by the constitutional amendments for subjects like land and police which are the real reins of power, and very little financial powers have been devolved by state governments to local bodies. Envisioning local bodies as mere conduits of finance for development programmes without any concomitant changes in the accountability structures (amendment of archaic local funds audit acts for instance) has further intensified corruption in delivery of development programmes. A large domain of governance, related to common property resources, remains neglected.

In this context of an accountability deficit, campaigns for social audit of programmes since 1990 and the right to information since 1996, have been remarkably successful. The right to information was finally enacted by Parliament, and notified in October 2005, after several crafty moves by the bureaucracy over two long years to abort its seeing the light of day. Thereafter, this right to information has been relied on by civil society institutions to agitate several other rights such as the right to food and employment. Parallely, the rights of tribals to forests have finally been recognized in major amendments to the Forest Act. These have been remarkable achievements of civil society.

The fond hope, voiced by Amartya Sen, that the permanent bureaucracy in India would be capable of delivering social development programmes quite as much as it demonstrated its ability to set up a public sector in the pre-reforms period, does not appear to be well founded. For one, even with the enthusiasm for public interest litigation and the might of the judiciary proactively supporting implementation of a public distribution system, the bureaucracy has demonstrably carried on its corrupt practices with impunity. Second, it has increasingly lost its relative autonomy vis-à-vis the dominant classes.

Third, the institution of the right to private property is still caught in an overhang of socialistic controls by the bureaucracy, with the result that private-public partnerships (PPPs) of the kind forged in UK by Thatcher, are not easy to devise. Woolly PPPs can confound the very notion of public interest as is evident in the power sector or medical care or the dramatic Nandigram episode. And finally, the hierarchy inherent in a bureaucracy is suited neither to the kind of empowerment of the marginalized (giving them ‘agency’) that is sought to be achieved, nor in the management of the commons which has emerged as the most critical sphere of livelihoods and sustainable development.

While the Second Administrative Reforms Commission (ARC) has correctly acknowledged the right to information as the cornerstone of good governance, it is shocking to find that in the approach paper published on the net, the ARC has failed to link the increasing resort to armed violence in several ‘pockets’ of the country with the stark facts of widespread unemployment and discrimination. It should have also realized that the manner in which the bureaucracy has run riot with the Salwa Judum, ‘encounters’ and the general failure to protect life and liberty across the country, puts paid to the notion that a permanent bureaucracy is the only legal means of safeguarding law and order.

The re-engineering of the state bureaucracy proposed by the ARC, in its seven voluminous reports finalized within two years, is a recognition of the fact that the bureaucracy as it stands today, with all the immunities from punishment under Article 311 of the Constitution, is certainly not capable of delivering anti-poverty programmes or sustainable development. While looking for remedies, however, instead of following an analytic based on what happens when the right to information and social audit are actually asserted on the ground, the ARC has relapsed into moral exhortations and failed to distinguish between the premises for professional ethics from individual or social morality.

We in India are often deluded into believing that the rationale for a bureaucracy stems from a need for economic and social development. Such ‘governmentality’ is perhaps a colonial legacy or a result of the acutely skewed social stratification where bureaucracy is mistaken as an agency of change. The fact that a permanent bureaucracy is more an integral part of the nature of sovereignty that the republic was invested with between 1947-1950, rather than a mission for social development, is often overlooked. We also fail to recognize that several features of pre-British bureaucracy, adopted by the British in India and carried through to present times, have no place in the technological age we are living in.

The design of sovereignty we adopted in 1950, based on the Westminster model as it had evolved by the end of the second World War with the implicit expectation that Parliament, the executive and the judiciary would act in tandem, contrasts sharply with the greater emphasis on separation and independence of powers in the design of sovereignty in the USA. The tax and expenditure proposals of the executive can be modified or changed completely by the legislature in the USA but, short of expression of no-confidence in the ruling government, no modifications to the budget are possible in the Westminster system even if parliamentarians were to debate it till they were blue in the face. There is no terrain for contesting components or details of the budget. An interesting institution, the Estimates Committee, which did provide such a terrain, was dismembered in 1993 when departmentally related standing committees were assigned the task of examining the demand for grants of the departments they were concerned with.

The bureaucracy regards parliamentary committees as the sites where the representatives of the people have to be ‘softened up’. The weak ineffectuality of the public accounts committee to translate parliamentary financial control into any meaningful activity is well-known. While other committees play a very important role in honing legislative bills referred to them, their role in budgetary control or policy formulation is negligible. Policy networks of civil society institutions working with the bureaucracy have therefore emerged in India (as in UK) as far more effective than parliamentary committees making feeble recommendations. Again, powers of ‘due process’ are vested in the judiciary by the constitution in the US, whereas in India the judiciary had to wrest powers of judicial review in the context of the emergency in 1975 and majoritarian excesses of the legislature. The uneasy balance between the judiciary and the legislature that has resurfaced in the last few years, only helps the bureaucracy to play one against the other and get away with its misdemeanours.

Post-reforms, Indian democracy has come of age with the assertions of the entrepreneurial middle classes, campaigns for the right to information and social audit as well as a powerful electronic media. Actively disbanding the permanent bureaucracy and appointing officials project-wise for limited durations as done by the nascent Scottish Parliament, along with another mighty push towards substantive local self government, are clearly the need of the nation at this juncture. Waiting for the bureaucracy to wither away will only continue the age-old predicament of citizens to remain supplicants to schizophrenics and dead souls.