Mohan Murti

Babus are like this only

Mohan Murti | Updated on March 12, 2018

Files become junk after long years of inaction.

The Durga Nagpal episode will silence an already impassive bureaucracy.

Who doesn’t remember that delightful ‘Yes, Minister’ series aired on the BBC years ago, which captured the deliciously awkward marriage between civil servant and politician. It effectively provided the world with a template for the influence that politicians wield over bureaucrats to get their work done.

Kautilya’s Arthashastra prescribed loyalty and earnestness as the two main qualifications for a civil servant. Kautilya also suggested some checks and balances — a continuous watch on their performance, and feedback on their work to the king.

Bureaucracy is a hierarchial, unyielding institution. The frequent incidents of civil servants being hauled to court on charges of corruption or nepotism have made the Indian public scornful of the bureaucracy.

Most Inefficient Bureaucracy

According to a survey by the Hong Kong-based Political and Economic Risk Consultancy (PERC), India has been named as having the most inefficient bureaucracy in Asia. Writing about India, the PERC survey says: “Politicians frequently promise to reform and revitalise the Indian bureaucracy, but they have been ineffective in doing so — mainly because the civil service is a power centre in its own right.” The survey further notes that dealing with India’s bureaucracy “can be one of the most frustrating experiences for any Indian, let alone a foreign investor”.

An interesting Harvard University research paper — ‘Political change and bureaucratic turnover in India’, November 2009 — which explores the phenomenon of the power of politicians to transfer bureaucrats to retain control over them, reports that the average tenure of IAS officers is merely 16 months.

In the Indian context, bureaucrats who speak out against corruption are frequently a threat to powerful politicians and come under attack. They are vulnerable to being demoted, transferred, suspended, even dismissed. Therefore, Indian bureaucratic elites are far more anxious to cover up the problem or even become a ‘gains partner’ in the depraved arrangement than deal with it head on. They would not even lift a finger without forms signed in triplicate, sent in, returned, queried, lost, found, lost again, and finally dumped in cold storage for some years before they are given away to the junk dealer. Therefore, when a Durga Shakti Nagpal episode happens, most Indian bureaucrats turn a blind eye.

Ministerial responsibility

In most European countries, it is the cabinet that decides, and, within each ministry, the minister has the last word, provided that the choice is within the framework of law. This follows from the principle of ministerial responsibility in a parliamentary system.

The minister’s formal superiority remains unchallenged even as regards decisions on recruitment, promotion and dismissal of career officials. Ministers are also given the right to dismiss civil servants in the ministries — only for serious offences. However, among the factors that are supposed to constrain the exercise of ministerial discretion, there are very stringent norms embedded in the governance system that ensure there is absolutely no room for reckless behaviour. And the justice system ensures quick delivery of justice. Therefore, in most of West Europe, especially Germany, Great Britain and Scandinavia, this subtle balancing of loyalty, objectivity and professional autonomy is at the core of the civil servant’s role.

(The author is former Europe Director, CII, and lives in Cologne, Germany.)

Published on August 06, 2013

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