Perpetuation of Colonial Administrative System

Assessing Nehru’s Legacy - III

Continued from “Historical Blunder that We’ll Regret Forever”

Bureaucracies are designed to perform public business. But as soon as a bureaucracy is established, it develops an autonomous spiritual life and comes to regard the public as its enemy. —  Brooks Atkinson, Once Around the Sun

When the Minister is inundated with correspondence, the ever-ready assistant Bernard offers to take it off his hands by sending “official replies”.

Bernard: “I’ll just say, ‘The Minister has asked me to thank you for your letter’ and something like ‘The matter is under consideration’, or even ‘under active consideration’.”

Hacker: “What’s the difference?”

Bernard: “Well, ‘under consideration’ means we’ve lost the file, ‘under active consideration’ means we’re trying to find it.”

BBC Satire: Yes, Minister

Nothing brings out more tellingly Nehru’s failure to modernize Indian polity than the way he connived at — if not positively contributed to — the preservation of a colonial bureaucracy that the British rulers had devised to rule and exploit India. Also, during his Prime Ministership, something more insidious happened. The very worst of our medieval past — the high-handed exercise of authority and utter lack of accountability — coalesced into the existing colonial administrative system bequeathed by the Raj. Nehru was — like Laxman’s common man — a hapless, helpless spectator of this sordid drama. The result is the legacy of a hopelessly outdated system of civil service that has been hijacked by self-seekers, resorting to the most devious means of governance.

Critic Turned Supporter

During the heyday of independence movement, Nehru was — or at least gave the impression of being one-- a perceptive critic of the British administrative system. He was clear-eyed enough to see how obsolete it was to serve the needs of an independent India. He noted, for instance in his Autobiography : “... one thing I’m quite sure, that no new order can be built up in India as long as the spirit of the ICS pervades our administrative and our public services”. (Italics added)

My parents’ generation referred to the ICS as neither Indian nor civil nor service. The clichéd charge wasn’t without its reasons. About half of the ICS class consisted of Englishmen. They were never responsive to the needs of those whose destinies they presided over. Instead, they were highhandedly aloof. Nehru was sure in his mind that after India becomes independent “the ICS and similar services must disappear completely, as such, before we can start real work on a new order”.

And when Nehru took over as Vice Chairman of the Viceroy’s Executive Council — his first stint at public administration — he was appalled at the ways the bureaucracy worked, how Government functionaries delayed decisions if and when they took and, above all, how there was unconscionable delay in their implementation.

Why didn’t he, then, have the courage to immediately dismantle the administrative system that he was so deeply dissatisfied with? Perhaps there was the sobering influence of Sardar Patel after Independence. Patel realized the importance of civil service to hold the country together in the midst of the administrative chaos created by the partition of India. And this work, as Home Minister of free India, he performed with remarkable efficiency. Personally, he established an excellent equation with the ICS officers who carried out his policies with remarkable speed and efficiency. It was Patel who built the nucleus of the Indian version of the ICS and IP by creating new cadres of Indian Administrative Service and the Indian Police Service.

However, it is the Government of the day that devises the system within which the civil service operates and carries out its policies. Left to themselves, the civil servants will love to act as mini-monarchs. It is for the political leadership to provide the necessary orientation and, more importantly, direction to the system. Nehru perhaps didn’t completely agree with Patel’s perceptions of the need of administrative machinery inherited from the British. But after Patel’s death in December 50, Nehru had a free hand to put in place a new system for a new social order if he so wanted and deeply believed in. However, after making some bold gestures he quietly settled down to accept the system as it was.


In July 1947 i.e., just before independence, as Head of the interim government, Nehru set up the Secretariat Reorganization Committee. This was followed, as is inevitable in the world of bureaucracy, by several more committees. (If the first committee makes some recommendations, another committee must examine them and then another to re-examine till the situation changes enough to warrant the appointment of an altogether new committee to look at the problem afresh. The process goes on and on. That’s how bureaucrats establish their indispensability. If you don’t agree, watch afresh the BBC satire, Yes, Minister).

Nehru, in fact, did something very unusual. He invited — of all the people in the world — Paul Appleby, an American expert in public administration to advise the Government of India how to tone up its administrative structure and its functioning. (Appleby was perhaps the only American that Krishna Menon didn’t quarrel with). A report was prepared and circulated and then forgotten about as happens to all such reports. Why did Nehru allow the bureaucracy of the day to defeat the Prime Minister’s plan at reorganization? Explanations are aplenty. The real reason, however, was the man’s lack of will. A rhetorical outburst, he seemed to think, was good enough instead of hard-headed action that’s bound to hurt someone or the other—something that Nehru was incapable of.

File Culture

The first and foremost ingredient of the system is the file culture. That was England’s greatest contribution to the stagnation of Indian society. Should, for instance, a fire break out, the most important thing to do is to open a file and immediately give it a name and number e. g. GOI: E&C: 1957-1958: Fires (i) Viii. (Incidentally, E&C stands for Emergencies & Catastrophes which are aplenty in our society. And the longer the name of the file, the better! It shows how overworked you are). Then initiate something that looks like “action”, keeping the doors of all possible alibis flung wide open. And, if any financial outlay is involved in the proposal so mooted, never fail to have financial concurrence before taking any action. Lest anything should go awry, involve as many as possible to be hanged together. And since such a long rope to hang them all won’t be available, everyone will go scot-free.

The great British file system — painstakingly built in India for over a century — is based on the cardinal principle of avoiding responsibility. For that, the British created a multi-layered bureaucracy so that one man’s work is done by at least ten. The additional jobs that the system created were with a view to recruiting those who will extend undiluted loyalty to the Raj and also keep an eye on each other’s work.

Take a very simple example. A letter is received addressed to the Secretary, Ministry of Industry. In a couple of days, it is opened and “diarized”. (Our bureaucracy deserves special mention for its contribution to the enrichment of the English language by addition of verbal forms of nouns: e.g., hospitalize, diarize, coinize etc.) It is then sent by the Secretariat staff to someone who is supposed to deal with it. He takes his time to mark to someone else. Finally, it lands at the desk of the one who cannot push it any further — vertically or horizontally. He immediately marks it to someone to put up a draft. He takes a couple of days to work at it. Then the typist is on leave. Finally, when he shows up, the typed draft reaches the section head who makes suitable corrections, alterations and additions. The next downward-upward cycle takes another week. And at this stage the higher echelons of bureaucracy take over.

It lands on the desk of an Under Secretary to the Government of India. (And those who have dealt with one know how mighty this creature is in the system). He exercises his mind over the matter — or whatever is left of it after years of secretarial service. If he has risen from the ranks, he must show his mettle by raising half a dozen objections, citing precedents from the time he started his career some twenty years ago. He knows all the rules and sub-rules by heart. Meanwhile, the original draft undergoes many revisions. Then the file reaches the Deputy Secretary. He already has a huge pile on his desk. So, without reading a word, all he has to do to get rid of the file is to use formula number one, which is to write, ‘Please speak’. So, once again starts the downward journey of a bunch of papers called a file. The Under Secretary knows from years of experience that ‘Please speak’ means either of two things: the Deputy Secretary doesn’t have the time to study the case or if he has, he wants the whole presentation to be changed either to accept or torpedo the proposal.

One day when his boss is free, he takes the whole lot of “Please speak” files for discussion. The boss, in turn, either tells to narrate the whole case verbally — very indirect way of confessing that he didn’t read a word of the earlier note — or tell how to redraft the proposal. Don’t forget the British taught us the great art and craft of “noting” i.e. knowing what to say how to get the job done or have it turned down.

All the above procedure takes at least four weeks. Now the proposal is ready to be put up to the Joint Secretary, the real pillar of the bureaucratic edifice. He, in turn, resorts to the refined variation of formulae No.1 by saying ‘Please discuss’ and sends the file back. So, you can well imagine how the virtuous circle gets repeated. Should, meanwhile, a reminder arrive, a suitable reply is sent that says that the matter is “under consideration”.

The recipient of the reply y takes it to one of those practiced in the art and craft of deciphering coded messages. In plain English, he’s told, it means, “have patience; Government takes its own time to decide things; and if you’re in a tearing hurry, have the matter followed up through parallel channels”. Indian industrialists were quick to get the message: “right people should be put on the job of chasing the case”, and again “right people”, means who know what’s what and who’s who which, in turn, means who knows how much speed money is to be paid and to whom and how.

This is the Government machinery that British bequeathed to us. The multi-layered bureaucracy they created was based on the deep distrust. “Keep a watch on the devil” was the guiding philosophy. If X performed a job, Y and Z must supervise lest the rascal should take the Government for a ride. Again, the system provided a thick wall of collectivity to shelter individual accountability for decision-making. For every decision made, at least half a dozen functionaries were involved so that each could effortlessly pass the buck to someone else before it stopped — if ever.

Continued to “Outdated Colonial Administrative System” 


More by :  H.N. Bali

Top | Analysis

Views: 3351      Comments: 4

Comment 1. Babus ruled with the assistance of Netas.
2. System was made and everybody was comfortable in a cosy club. This resulted in corruption, degradation of character, etc. There was no bonus linked to objectives met.

29-Jul-2015 10:33 AM

Comment This brings up the question, who rules the country? The Babus or the Netas?

Prasad Rao
26-Jul-2015 11:20 AM

Comment My father worked for a while, as a civil contractor, with the Agra Development Authority sometime in the early / mid 70's. There was one Executive Engineer, SP Agarwal who was a classic example of the bureaucratic file pushing culture.

Each evening a bundle of files and papers etc were sent to his residence for the 'sahib' to attend to.

The next morning the bundle containing the files etc were brought back to office -

Loose sheets were disposed off with the comment - " Patrawali ke saath prastuth karein"
(Put up with file)

Files were returned with the noting - " Swyam baat karein" ( Please speak)

And Contractor MB's ( Measurement Books) with the comment - " Nireekshan Karaein" ( Needs Inspection )

Ravinder Malhotra
23-Jul-2015 00:38 AM

Comment This system suits anyone who comes to power. It is only when one is at the other side that idea of reforms seems the only plausible way.

Each one of our successive governments have taken advantage of a pliable, servile civil service to further their political as well as personal agenda. Some have been even awarded political post subsequent to retirement as a reward and to utilize their mastery of manipulation of the administrative system.

21-Jul-2015 09:50 AM

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