Book Reviews

The Salt Has Lost Its Savour!

Bureaucracy is a bad word. Nathaniel Hawthorne, in a marvellously perceptive passage on the Customs House officer in The Scarlet Letter , called salary drawn from the government "the Devil's wages." "Whoever touches it", he wrote, "should look well to himself, or he may find the bargain to go hard against him, involving, if not his soul, yet many of its better attributes; its sturdy force, its courage and constancy, its truth, its self- reliance, and all that gives the emphasis to manly character." There is, however, hope yet! Kalyani Chauduri, who pointed out this passage to me, is herself a secretary to government.

Das' book ( Civil Service Reforms, OUP ) is a scholarly investigation into what the World Bank studies have revealed regarding reforming this image of the bureaucracy in the context of short and long-term structural changes tried out by the governments in Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin American and Asian countries. Rohit Kathuria's striking cover design presents a grey haired pot-bellied cigar-chomping grumpy prototype in crumpled safari suit and the inevitable dog-chain that passes for high-security status, with one leg chained to a thick anchor-chain. That possibly sums up the author's findings: whatever the reforms, the civil service remains in shackles!

In the course of his study, he raises a seminal question: why did the aid-giving agencies limit the reforms to cost-cutting exercises? The reason he comes up with is a revelation for the common reader. The World Bank's lack of homework is astonishing: no systematic research was done in advance; the Bank was hamstrung by preconceptions that civil servants would be unable to adapt to retrenchment and that the political cost of reforming the bureaucracy would be unmanageable for governments. Consequently, the over-all impact has been limited: there has been no enhancement in efficiency or significant reductions in wage bills. On the other hand, wherever implementing reforms was a precondition to qualifying for aid and was insisted upon by the donor, there was significant pruning of the inflated bureaucracy. Despite the package of retirement, freezing recruitment, retrenchment and re-deployment, the much-feared political cost was discovered to be a paper tiger.

Half-hearted tinkering with reforms, therefore, is a waste of investment in such projects. That begs the question whether the bloated bureaucracy of the Bank is held accountable for such defectively formulated and ill monitored projects that end in frittering away scarce funds. Who, as Confucius asked, will watch the watchers? The rigidity of the Bank's operational mode does not even permit mid-term changes in strategies, which means that no value is attached to the learning accruing in the course of putting a project on the ground. Here, again, the very nature of bureaucracy inveterately sabotages from within the Bank the core aim of its reform package. One would have expected Das, a member of that select tribe, to have investigated this schizophrenic character of the civil service.

Another question: why does the donor agency not insist on having greater say in the modalities of implementation and emphasize bringing about sustainable qualitative change instead of checking merely in terms of statistical targets achieved? The Bank invests considerable funds in getting post-project evaluations carried out, yet seems to treat this as a mere formality, there being little evidence of the learning being applied in subsequent projects.

Das projects the reforms carried out in Singapore and Japan as models to emulate. In 40 years their bureaucracy increased by a factor of 2.2, with a statutory manpower ceiling and recruitment based upon merit that competed with the private sector. In Japan, close interface prevails between industry and government to the extent of legislation being drafted in consultation and even joint inspections of export items by chambers of commerce and bureaucrats to ensure that the image of the nation is maintained at a high level. To prevent favours being granted by civil servants in return for post-retirement employment in the private sector, Japan has a government committee overseeing placements after superannuation. To Das the Japanese civil servant is an ideal functionary who never abuses his authority to feather his own nest. In contrast, he draws a bleak picture of the sterile labours of several hundred commissions and committees on reforming administration in India. He describes them as "endorsement slips" of the existing system carried on from colonial times and cites as proof the careful avoidance of the Lok Pal and Lok Ayukta concepts whose authority will extend to the highest political as well as bureaucratic levels.

The author has not had the benefit of a deeper probe into the realities; otherwise, we would have had the benefit of insights that are more valid. Does that speak of his own profession as a civil servant? Facts that have come to light show an unholy nexus between corporate houses, banks and the bureaucrats in Japan's finance ministry, where favours are extended to industry precisely in order to ensure lucrative post-retirement appointments. Already in 1996, two years before Das' book came out, Japanese newspapers were replete with tales of financial scandals regarding bureaucrats, once the revered technicians who rebuilt Japan from the ashes of the World War, now viewed with disgust and distrust. The Economist's "The World in 1997" writes (page 64): "The Japanese people have had their fill of the 'iron triangle' that has allowed politicians, special interest groups and officials to feed voraciously at the same trough at public expense...Lately public officials have shown themselves to be every bit as bungling and venal as their partners in crime."

It is not a balanced view to compare the robotic efficiency of the Singapore government, administering what is virtually a city-state, with the incredibly complex and vast challenges the administration faces in India. What succeeds in a city-state because of the narrowness of ambit cannot be valid in a country of a billion people. For the same reason, the lessons sought to be drawn from the experiments, half-hearted or otherwise, by the World Bank in other countries provide little food for thought to the Indian policy maker.

For instance, Das severely criticises the governments of the countries he has studied for being compulsorily employers of the last resort. In a welfare state, this is an unavoidable and, indeed, a necessary function of the government. Where unemployment is rife, the state has to step in as employer. In some of the nations Das has studied as much as 7% of the government employees simply do not exist. He did not have to cross the Pacific and the Atlantic to be shocked by this phenomenon. In our own backyard, the municipalities are experts at maintaining rosters of ghost workers, and the rationing offices are no strangers to ghost ration cards. Once in a while, an intrepid bureaucrat with missionary zeal mounts an operation as ghost-buster. Soon he finds himself shifted elsewhere. The reports of the Comptroller and Auditor General are teeming with indictments of vast amount of public funds routed to Panchayat remaining unaccounted. The bureaucracy can hardly be faulted for elected bodies exercising their democratic mandate in this fashion. Nor can they lift a finger if the legislative assemblies and the Parliament take up casual scrutiny of public accounts years after the lapses have been committed and call none to book.

The issue that Das has failed to examine is the relationship between the policy maker and the policy implementer, which is the nub of the whole thing. Structural adjustment actually means precisely this and not the cosmetic touches of tinkering with the economic system. Any system that is sought to be foisted from without can, and has been, quite easily undone through this politician-administrator link-up. Das has failed to put his finger on the fatal flaw that undermines all within: the executive arm follows the diktat, said and unsaid, of the political head. Where the political head is committed to public welfare and takes to heart the oath he swears to uphold the provisions of the Constitution, the executive arm has no option but to follow suit. Where the signals are otherwise, as documented at length in T.N. Seshan's anguished speeches,rishvateva jayate replaces satyameva jayate . Over the last few years, scandal after scam has inundated the country, in each case the bureaucrat following closely the desires of the political executive. In the fiftieth year of Independence the special session of the Parliament was content merely to take note of the astonishing Vohra Committee Report which speaks of the mafia network "virtually running a parallel Government, pushing the State apparatus into irrelevance," of "a politician-bureaucrat- underworld nexus," and of even the judiciary falling prey to the mafia which has caused "a sense of despair and alienation among the people." The common man has no way of knowing whether the Supreme Court's directive for government to submit an action-taken report regarding this report has been complied with.

On the one hand, we have the Cabinet Secretary circulating the platitudes of the Mussoorie Resolution self-consciously and self-righteously adopted by officers of the 1961 batch of the Indian Administrative Service during what is termed, not very serendipitously and with revealing naiveté, "a retreat". It might have been instructive if, while retreating, they had taken a look at what a ruler merely twenty years old had to say when swearing in the principal secretary of state, if familiarity with Sardar Patel's advice had produced its usual consequence ("Today my Secretary can write a note opposed to my views. I have given that freedom to all my Secretaries. I have told them, 'If you do not give your honest opinion for fear that it will displease your Minister, please then you had better go'. I will never be displeased over a frank expression of opinion."). Queen Elizabeth I, swearing in Sir William Cecil, stated: "This judgement I have of you that you will not be corrupted by any manner of gift and that you will be faithful to the state and that without respect of my private will you will give me that counsel that you think best." [again, a gem discovered by an indefatigable scholar-civil servant, Kumudranjan Biswas-- there is hope yet!]. That probably says it all.

The 1996 conference of Chief Ministers initiated a change in policy stressing charters of citizens' rights, accountability of public servants, transparency in administration etc. This was followed by a workshop on effective and responsive administration in which all Chief Secretaries of states participated and decisions were taken which would have transformed the negative image of the bureaucracy on the jacket of Das' book. All have been forgotten with the change in government at the centre. The Bible puts the entire matter in a striking eidetic image without need of the buzz words "transparency, accountability" etc.: A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid...Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works.

On the other hand we read the Union Rural Development Secretary's straight-from- the-shoulder indictment, "Towards governance in Bihar" mincing no words about the chaos that is Bihar, and the Uttar Pradesh IAS Association voting the three most corrupt officers in the 50th year of Independence, against none of whom has any government, year after year, taken any step. What structural adjustment imposed by any donor agency can straighten out such a mess? P.S. Appu, a civil servant with rare qualities of head and heart, had identified the fatal flaw a quarter of a century ago while writing the report of the Land Reforms Commission: the lack of political will.

The danger signals are there for us to see, if we wish to. Unfortunately, history is, as ever, an unfashionable topic and those who rule-- all the three arms of the state, legislative, executive and judiciary-- have no time for such "ancient" matters. Gibbon, analysing the causes of the fall of the Roman Empire, had highlighted the following:

Concentration of power in the hands of one ruler for whom there was no constitutional form of election; a widening gap between rich and poor; a pampered soldiery; defence cuts and a run down of military forces in spite of massive taxation; a failure of this army to meet its commitments; suppression of the middle classes while the rich pursued a life of luxury and avoided shouldering the responsibilities of government; the alienation of a bureaucratic central government from the people; a breakdown of law and order.

These reduced Rome's resistance to external aggression. At least some obvious similarities with the Indian situation will, one hopes, raise a hint of discomfort if not of alarm! The three arms of the Indian State-- legislative, executive and judiciary-- are indeed the salt of the earth. "But if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted? It is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men." 


More by :  Dr. Pradip Bhattacharya

Top | Book Reviews

Views: 3398      Comments: 0

Name *

Email ID

Comment *
Verification Code*

Can't read? Reload

Please fill the above code for verification.