Book Reviews

For Whom The Bell Tolls?

India today: 
A chief secretary and a director general of police flee Assam when election results are declared; the personal effects of another chief secretary on transfer are thrown into the street; about 50 secretaries of UP government camp in Delhi after the 1996 general elections helping their politicians get berths; a retired chief secretary and his son are beaten up at home by thugs in Tamil Nadu; in Haryana an SDO is transferred 5 times in 18 months; in Bihar a District Magistrate is murdered and his murderer stands as the ruling party's candidate in the 1999 elections; officers in charge of routine administration of the treasury help themselves liberally to public funds. At the end of the millennium and 50 years after independence, a group of Indian Administrative Service officers decided to look back and determine whether they had failed the nation and examine if this service had any relevance for the future. They belonged to the last batch that was trained at Metcalfe House, Delhi. Facilities for widening the scope of this courageous and timely attempt to introspect were provided by the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration, Mussoorie.

The book is in four parts. The first part provides excerpts from the bitter-sweet memoirs of 12 officers of the 1958 batch to set the tone of rumination, covering Orissa, UP, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, WB, Haryana, Bihar, Assam-Meghalaya and the Central Secretariat. These are, in turn, chosen in order to represent the blooding of a new entrant into the services, the middle-level years and finally the experiences at the senior level in Government of India. The second part records the proceedings of the workshop concentrating on certain nodal themes of governance: the crisis of corruption in the IAS, the constitutional position accorded to local government, the growth of new democratic institutions, the challenges of globalization, rationalization and the example of espirit de corps in the defence services. Considerable enrichment comes from the participation of eminent sociologist Andre Beteille, Justice Leila Seth (who provides a gripping critique in the form of a dialogue between the citizen and the civil servant), political scientist Sandeep Shastri, psychologist R.L.Kapur, management consultant M.B.Athreya and senior officers from the Indian Foreign Service, Indian Revenue Service, Indian Railways, Indian Police Service and Maj. Gen. A. Sawhney Deputy Commandant of the Indian Military Academy. The last part provides a fascinating case study of what ails the IAS as seen in Uttar Pradesh, the largest state in the country. Former Cabinet Secretary Zafar Saifullah's participation could have been a major attraction, but his contribution is limited to an exculpatory statement that corruption in the service reflects the socio-political reality (a la Indira Gandhi's remark that, after all, it was a global phenomenon!) and the way to remedy this is for officers to come forward to shoulder low rated jobs related to social development. One wonders what leadership he provided towards this laudable end. It is significant that he does not contribute a memoir to the first section of this book. A glaring omission is the complete absence of any reference to the third all-India Service: the Indian Forest Service, whose role is critical for the future in preserving the environment of the country against the assault of unprincipled consumerism.

Among the individual memoirs, P.B.Krishnaswamy's is particularly relevant today. His account reveals how the Madras, Andhra and Karnataka governments deliberately strangled the panchayati raj movement in its infancy. No state minister was willing to play second fiddle to local village and district personalities, particularly to lose monopoly control over finances and hand over funds to be spent as the panchayat thought fit. It is surprising that none of the contributors, not even the editor, link this to the 72nd and 73rd constitutional amendments which had to be enacted only because of the recalcitrance of the states to comply with the directive principles of state policy. Even in 1999, these amendments remain wholly unimplemented in Bihar with the central government remaining a silent spectator because political ambitions take precedence over the oath sworn to uphold the constitution. The same memoir provides a sterling instance of what is finest in our administration: a group of district officials in Cape Comorin effectively maintaining peace in the face of all provocation surrounding the setting up of the Vivekananda Rock Memorial. This group consisted of a Muslim, a Christian, a Hindu and a Jain (though Hindu Law includes Jains, Buddhists, Sikhs under the definition of Hindu, each of them tragically strives to build walls). We cannot but fling ashes on our heads at the absence of such a group around Babri Masjid.

G.L.Bailur makes no bones about exposing the fact that policies in India are never the result of a widespread debate, are rushed through without examination and pre-testing. K.N.Ardhanareeswaran adds that co-ordination and meticulous planning are utterly lacking. In Bailur, we have a bureaucrat who made the mistake of being more enthusiastic than the politician in pushing the integrated rural development program and watched it flounder, as essential preconditions did not exist in every block. The late Asok Mitra of the ICS made a similar mistake in going all out to implement the 'tebhaga' land reforms in favour of the tribals of Murshidabad. He had to pay the price very swiftly, being pulled up for taking so seriously a pronouncement of the political executive. Ardhanareeswaran found his minister not the least bothered about effective supervision of the program for universalizing primary education and only interested in the appointment and transfer of teachers. One is reminded of M.N.Buch suggesting to the forest minister of Madhya Pradesh that they exchange positions across the table since the minister was only bothered about transfers while he was sweating over preparing the state plan document!

Manohar Subhramanyam's is a very moving memoir of regret for collectively having failed the country and not having done enough to stem the rot that set in during the service tenure of the 1958 batch. What went wrong? In our democracy, the politician and money cannot be separated and any civil servant who stands by the public at the cost of the politician's interest has to make way. Bitterly Subhramanyam writes, 'I was na've enough to assume that my responsibility was only to the people I served and to my professional peers.' He feels that the reason for the signal failure lies in not having tried collectively to educate the political executive and instead allowing them to do as they pleased, only making sure that the bureaucrat's involvement remained minimal. 'We were making sure that we did not rock the boat, but while doing so we overlooked the fact that the boat was beginning to leak.' By playing safe and mistakenly looking up to the politician as 'master' the civil service let down the people of India.

Morale comes through as a major casualty in these accounts except in the rosy picture drawn by P.V. Shenoi of an unbelievably sunny career. Time and again, the superior service colleague does not support the junior and fails to provide guidance. Then, as now. The ICS was no stranger to this either, witness the experiences of W.W. Hunter and L.S.S. O'Malley highlighted by K.R.Biswas in his masterly introduction to the new edition of their works. The service also suffers from the lack of camaraderie because of which no successor is willing to learn from his predecessor, but will waste time reinventing the wheel, for he alone knows best. K.P. Geethakrishnan, former Finance Secretary, laments the total lack of interest among our officers posted abroad in remaining in tough with Indian reality and being only concerned about having a good time as lotus eaters. No wonder that the bureaucracy is seen as a bloated parasite battening on the life-blood of the nation, unashamedly rent-seeking in behavior, no better than any politician in being free from any scruples of conscience. Padma Shri Parkash Singh, ex-DG BSF/IP/Assam, identifies three stages in the decline of the IAS and the IPS: commitment to a party in the 1970s, currying favor with politicians in the 1980s and participating in the criminal-politician nexus in the 1990s. He suggests reforms through activist service associations (which are easily nipped in the bud by transferring key functionaries!), heads of services providing exemplary leadership by making these posts a matter of apolitical choice, isolating them from arbitrary transfers (neither of which are acceptable to the political executive), inculcate social values and public morality in conduct (how is this different from the conduct rules in force?), media exposure and voluntary associations to counter bureaucratic lethargy and stem the waste in recruiting technocrats to these services. There is no hint of how these are to be brought about. Who will be the cat?

This group of officers comes out with a firm declaration that there have to be abiding values in administration: neutrality, anonymity, independence of action, tendering frank advice in the public interest, obeying orders, upholding the rule of law in a style that is self-confident, caring, as necessary in a democracy. At whose door do we lay the blame for the failure in bringing this about, in doing away with the plethora of stifling rules, in abolishing hundreds of unnecessary laws, in protecting officers of independence and integrity, in taking the responsibility of grooming new entrants in these values? Has any Cabinet Secretary, basking in the halo of being the head of the civil service, ever stepped forward to ensure that state governments do not play football with the all-India services and to plan their careers according to principles of cadre management? As for the political executive, I remember Indira Gandhi's answer when asked by trainees why she did not stop politicians from interfering with officers who were only doing their duty. The most powerful prime minister the country has seen said, 'I always tell the chief ministers, but what can I do? No one listens to me!'
The issue of corruption naturally occupied the workshop proceedings and, without espousing a Gandhian way of life for the bureaucracy, it was strongly urged that financial probity and moral integrity were pre-requisites. The problem is that the officer is a product of his society, not a foreign implant. B.S. Baswan, Director of the LBSNAA, pointed out that recruits in their mid-twenties and early thirties impatiently shrug off any talk of morality and ethics. The unstated premise is what Yes Minister states so baldly: 'Government is not about morality, it is about stability; keeping things going, preventing anarchy, stopping society falling to bits. Still being here tomorrow.' The problem is that anarchy seems to have stolen a march over us all and it is an open question whether the civil service will at all be here tomorrow. Yet, how is it that the recruits to the Indian Military Academy do not display the same incidence of ennui and amorality ass those at the LBSNAA? With far more transfers and dislocation of family life than the IAS and IPS face, how do they maintain a code of honour and a high level of morale particularly when they know that their life is at stake? Have we nothing to learn from the way in which training is imparted, principles inculcated and camaraderie systematically fostered in the defence services?

Andre Beteille makes an important contribution by pointing out that the conflict lies between deeply rooted traditional loyalties of caste, community, region and modern governance in which each citizen is regarded as equal. Beteille urges that the new institutions of democratic governance need to be carefully guarded otherwise, as we notice in the BIHMARU (sick!) stakes (Bihar, Haryana, MP, Rajasthan, UP), the nation may fall apart or regress into a feudal ethos. For this it is important for those who have spent long years in these modern institutions to record their experiences. The absence of this is a peculiar malaise of Indian society reflecting the uncaring attitude towards modernization. Why does the LBSNAA not sponsor the preparation of such records systematically by retired officers?

The Metcalfians assert the need for personal and professional values, for role models and for the politician to make the first determined move in eradicating corruption. Yet again, the finger is pointed outwards! The problem lies with the IAS officer's sharp intellect, which discovers feet of clay in any model that is offered. The group failed to realise, despite their vast experience, that the time for setting up role models is passed, nor can we keep waiting for some one else to take the first determined step against corruption. Each has to be his role model. As the Buddha said, be like a lamp, be a light unto yourself. As for the recommendation for weeding out bad apples and become an activist group for probity, this begs the question: who will bell the cat? After all, naming 3 officers in UP as the most corrupt, of which so much is made, has not led to any change.

The group would have done well to take cognizance of how pressure from below can force even callous administration to respond. In Rajasthan, the right to information act has been effectively used at the village level to compel engineers and local bureaucrats to account for the money that flows through their hands. Now with increasing use of information technology the public needs to be given open access to data about how public funds are being used. That is what will make the political as well as the administrative executive responsive. Here too we notice governments deliberately dragging their feet, for they know only too well that knowledge is power and secrecy is the greatest bulwark against the people gaining control over state resources.

Ultimately the question remains, as raised by the editor, who will bell the cat? In the final analysis the ruminations of the 1958 batch of the IAS has nothing new to recommend. If one looks through the report of Morarji Desai's Administrative Reforms Commission, everything that is needed to be done to take our country out of its endemic soft state condition has been put down in black and white. When Indira Gandhi proclaimed the Emergency, she had set up a task force of three senior bureaucrats to revamp the administration. Their eminently salutary recommendations went on to gather dust with her silent approval. Who shall we blame for the virtual withering away of the state in Bihar? It is perhaps sufficient commentary that Satish Bhatnagar and Ardhanareeswaran, Bihar cadre officers who participated in the workshop, have not a word to say about the disintegration into chaos that occurred in front of their eyes despite the revealing example of T.N.Dhar and Dinesh Rai's pitiless expose of the UP situation.

The remedy? 
Psychologist R.L.Kapur points out that healthy societies encourage moral and compassionate behavior through models who are first parents, then teachers and references to history, mythology and leaders. All of this we have eschewed in our modern school syllabus. Rajeshwar Prasad's valedictory address pinpoints the core gap as that of human values. Like A.N.Wanchoo, ex-secretary of the Railway Board, this retired central government secretary finds the root cause of the decline lying in the removal of moral and ethical elements from school education on the basis of misunderstood secularism. Little things like courtesy, patience, humor, flexibility, initiative, learning from mistakes, ignoring pin-pricks to the ego, humility, taking the rough with the smooth and giving a human face to administration make all the difference, he points out and holds up Lal Bahadur Shastri as the epitome of governance. Athreya draws ten lessons from the collective experience of the 1958 batch for sound administration: sensitivity to stakeholders, coping with the changing environment, managing resources productively, emergence of a new vision of India, altering strategy of governance, restructuring government, system orientation, implementation thrust or mission approach, feedback openness. Sandeep Shastri evokes the traditional Indian ideal of yogakshema (the well-being of the people) as the aim of ruling and the concept of the philosopher-ruler for which he unnecessarily refers to Plato when we have our very own Rajarshi Janaka. Both leave unanswered the issue of accountability, which is the Indian people's ringmaster's whip for making their public servants (whether civil, uniformed, political or judicial) behave.

Bharat Ratna C.Subramaniam provides a stimulating Foreword where he makes two thought provoking points: there is no point in preserving an inefficient civil service-whatever the Sarkaria Commission might recommend and quarrelling with the tool of our own creation; what politicians have to say on the very points discussed would have provided valuable insights and their absence detracts from the usefulness of the attempt. One trusts that the LBSNAA will move forward to structure a follow-up workshop to bring together, on the same platform, the IAS, IPS, IFS and the politicians to evolve an action plan for restructuring Indian governance that lies in sad disarray. A word of caution from Sir Humphrey Appleby: 'Reorganising the civil service is like drawing a knife through a bowl of marbles.' In reinventing government the entrepreneurial civil servant is the tool of choice but he may very well bring about an expansion of the bureaucratic empire in the name of innovation and responsiveness, as Milton Esman warned, and go on to assume a political role twisting public preferences to suit his designs. In the context of the growing of economic reforms, this calls for close watch by the people's organisations on the public servant, be he bureaucrat or politician.


More by :  Dr. Pradip Bhattacharya

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