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Reforming the IAS requires reforming the system of governance

Author: Ashok Chowgule
Publication: Hindu Post.in
Date: September 17, 2018
URL:      https://www.hindupost.in/politics/reforming-ias-requires-reforming-system-governance/


Milan Vaishnav and Saksham Khosla have co-authored a paper entitled “The Indian Administrative Service Meets Big Data” where they discuss about the need for reforms in the service in a vague sort of way.  In fact, at one place they say: “Further research is needed to better understand the impact of local officers on development outcomes, to develop data on bureaucratic efficiency among officers in senior posts, and to systematically examine the workings of state-level bureaucracies.”

They also write: “When then Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh delivered his inaugural address to the nation in 2004, he called the reform of administrative and public institutions—including refurbishing the IAS—an “immediate priority” for his government.”  There is no mention about the contours of reform that the then prime minister had in mind.  However, what is known is that nothing was done about this ‘immediate priority’.  Was it due to lack of sincerity on part of the then prime minister, or did the system fight back?

The paper is dated September 01, 2016, and is available at:


The paper is supposed to be a call to Bharat’s government to ‘reshape recruitment and promotion processes for the Indian Administrative Service, improve performance-based assessment of individual officers, and adopt safeguards that promote accountability while protecting bureaucrats from political meddling.’  It narrates various studies, using what has now become a fashionable term ‘big data’, which are supposed to point out various factors that could improve the performance, and lead towards reforms in the IAS.

Both the authors are employed by Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a think-tank with headquarters in Washington, DC, in the USA.  Vaishnav is based in Washington, while Khosla is in the New Delhi office in Bharat.

The basic structure of governance

Without understanding why an organisation is the way it is, one cannot reform it.  In case of the IAS, it is the basic structure of governance that is in place that has determined it.  This structure is a political decision, and not decided by the bureaucrats.  The latter are supposed to implement it.  Over time, the structure of governance is accepted as given and hence very little discussion is held about it.  So, what happens is that the institutions under it are tinkered with and not really reformed.

The need of the colonialists was to control the people so that they do not rise up in revolt demanding freedom.  One of the most effective method to control is to keep the people in a state of poverty so that their attention is on day-to-day survival rather than on their future.  The system is also based on lack of trust in the people that are ruled, so that common populace is forced to take permission to do even mundane things. Seeking such permission vests a large amount of discretionary power on the authorities.  Favours can be granted to certain people who will help the colonial masters to control others of their community.  An aura of a local leadership is created – but the loyalty of this ‘leadership’ is to the colonial masters and not to their own people.

In their own country, the colonialists had a different system of governance.  There they have to seek the approval of the people to stay in power, and hence the system is based on trust.  Also, the home system will try to improve the lives of the people, and not keep them in poverty.  They will invest in infrastructure that benefits the needs of their own people.  In the colony, the investment is based on how the needs of the colonising country are met.

An example:-  Taxation policy depended on the needs of the colonisers.  Great Britain did not levy any duty on import of raw cotton (or even yarn) but had a heavy duty on fabric when it was imported from Bharat.  But they levied no duty on the British fabric when exported to Bharat.  The balance of trade was perverted to favour the coloniser.  It also prevented Bharat to move up the value chain, which was needed to reduce poverty.

Suspicious opponent or friendly adviser?

When the system of inspectorate was introduced in England in the mid-19th century, the principle followed was:

There are two modes of inspection. One is by a suspicious opponent, desirous of finding evil and ready to make the most of it. The other is a friendly adviser, who treats those whom he visits as gentlemen, desirous of doing right.

By its very nature, in the colony the inspectors (in the form of the administrators) took a role of suspicious opponent, and in their own country a role of friendly adviser.  Around 1995, when he was working in an industry organisation in Delhi, Dr Amit Mitra, the present finance minister in the West Bengal government, gave me an example of a friendly adviser in the USA.  While working in the USA, he visited a friend who had a shop where mostly food items were sold, but found that there were no refrigerated products.  His friend told him that there were many regulations that were involved in stocking and selling them, and he was not sure that it would be worthwhile.

Mitra happened to revisit his friend a couple of years later, and found that the shop had become larger and refrigerated products were now being stocked.  His friend told him that to increase his business he needed to sell such items as well.  So, he went to the office of the appropriate authority to find out what the regulations were.  The concerned officer gave him the literature where it was all stated what the shop-keeper had to do.  Just as he was leaving, the officer said to him that there are some five things that most shop-keepers do not take care of.  If these were attended to, the regulatory authority will have no problem with him.

This is a classical example of a friendly adviser.  In the process, not only did it help Mitra’s friend to increase his business, but also the customers to find most of the items at one place.

Continuing the colonial system

In carrying forward the colonial system for governance, the essential feature in it, namely lack of trust, was also continued.  While the political class at the time can be held responsible, part of the blame should also be shared by what can be called the intellectual class who did not suggest the changes required.  In fact, it can be said that the intellectual class endorsed the previous system of governance, since the starting point was that without centralized planning (and hence control) the members of society cannot be trusted to take holistic decisions that will lead to fast enough progress that was needed to deal with the inherited problems, especially relating to poverty alleviation.

However, I would like to contend that the real mistake is not what was done in 1947, but what was done (or not done) in 1960.  Many of the countries that were decolonised after the Second World War, as in the case of South Korea, or which wanted to rebuild after the destruction during the war, as in the case of Japan, did follow the control system of governance at the beginning.  However, by 1960 the failure to achieve the desired goals became apparent, and these countries changed the system, and took on the role of a friendly advisor and not of suspicious opponent.

In Bharat, instead of making the desired changes, there was a further tightening of the control system that had already proved unproductive.  In his 2003 budget speech, the then finance minister, Jaswant Singh, said: “Mr Speaker, Sir, this will be a move away from a suspicion-ridden, harassment generating, coercion-inclined regime to a trust-based, ‘green channel’ system. I do this entirely on the basis of my faith in my countrymen and women.”

As in previous cases, such supposedly bold announcements remained as announcements and no concrete steps were taken to change the system that were needed to reform the regime, of which the IAS is a part.  While we can legitimately talk about political interference, we should also legitimately talk about the instances where the bureaucrat has misused discretionary powers.  For example, in the recent case of 80:20 rule for gold imports, a scheme that was signed on the day of the counting of votes for the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the file moved through nine desks in a day before the final approval was given. The process may have been legal, but the ultra-fast movement does raise questions.

The master or the servant

The colonial system was that of the ruler being the master, and the ruled being the slaves.  In an independent country, the ruler should be the servant of the people.  The present prime minister, Narendra Modi, says he is the Pradhan Sevak (servant).  But how many other elected representatives, or the bureaucrats, genuinely think of themselves as sevaks (servants)?  This is something that most bureaucracies all over the world do not fully appreciate, and hence the lack of trust.  If the mind-set is changed then we can work out simple solutions to the problem.  For example, the evaluation of the performance of the public servant should be on the basis of whether the people being served think that he/she has done a good job.  The parameters on the basis of which the people could be evaluating are set out in the annexure to this article.

The nature of the regime in Bharat that has been described by Jaswant Singh above is not unique to Bharat.  Even in the Western democratic countries there are people who think of their own regime on similar terms – the scale may be different, and the problem may not be as acute as in Bharat.

One of the effect of a regime that Singh has described is that it opens up huge opportunities for corruption.  There is a view point that the very high expenses in elections is the cause of corruption, or that lack of prosecution encourages corruption.  However, China has no elections, and yet the present regime of Xi Jinping has found a need to tighten up the corruption watchdog mechanism more than before.  Furthermore, China executes people who have been proved to be corrupt (It is said that Xi is using the anti-corruption drive as a means to weed out his opponents from the governing structure.  But, the fact of the matter is that there IS corruption that has been happening on a large scale, before the drive started.) Thus, even the higherst level of punishment does not deter people from trying to exploit the opportunities for corruption.  It is not only to reform the IAS system that we need to look at the type of governance regime that exists, but also as a means to drastically reduce corruption.

Appropriate data and not big data

It has to be understood that the term ‘big data’ is not one that means large amount of data.  It is to sift the volume of data to understand what is happening and to get to the correct cause and effect.  There was a movie in the 1970s, where the heroine was unhappy and fat.  Her doctor said that she is unhappy because she is fat, and so asked her to go on a diet.  She did, but neither did she lose weight, nor was her unhappiness any less.  Some events happened in her life, and she fell in love with the hero, which was reciprocated.  Very soon afterwards she started to lose weight and she realised that she was fat because she was unhappy!

When one looks at a large amount of data, without having a proper starting hypothesis, then there is a tendency to come at a false equivalence, mistaking correlation for causation, interchanging the cause and the effect, being unable to dive deep enough in the mass of data to understand the underlying causes, etc.  Only when the starting hypothesis is proper, or there is a willingness to change it if the data so requires, that a proper solution will come to the fore.

Let me give an analogy of a bad road.  The solution is not to ask the commuters to buy a sturdy car, but to improve the quality of the road.  A sturdy car would cost more, require more maintenance, and will have a higher fuel bill.  The journey time will also be longer.  A better quality road would improve the efficiency in the society. The road will cost more, but increasing the efficiency will make the expenditure worthwhile. However, if the road building specifications are not robust enough, one cannot expect the quality of the road to be better.

In conclusion

Many people have talked about the need to reform the IAS, and many committees and commissions have given their report.  Nothing has happened – if anything the need to reform has become more and more acute.  What has been suggested is invariably tinkering with the system.  Without changing the system of governance to be based on trust, the IAS will remain what it is today.


How does a bureaucrat recognise that he has done a good job?

Bureaucrats are often called public servants.  It means that their job is to help the people, even as they follow laws that are required to have a proper order in a society.

How then can we measure the performance of a bureaucrat?  I would like to suggest that when the person finishes a particular assignment, if the people he has dealt with have a good feeling about him, and would have liked him to continue for more time, he can be considered to have done a good job.

I would like to suggest some parameters by which the people will judge the person.  While I list them out, the term ‘he’ could also mean ‘she’ as the case may be.

- He comes to the office at the time when the office is scheduled to open.

- He treated everyone with the same respect, irrespective of the income level of the person, the profession of the person, whether a politician or not, etc.

- He would be punctual for his appointments, even when he was to attend a public function.

- If for any reason, the appointment had to be cancelled, he would convey the message as early as possible, so that the members of the public had least amount of inconvenience.

- A cancelled appointment was rescheduled as early as possible.

- He would go out of the way to help the public find a solution.

- He would not hide behind rules to do something that was of benefit to the public.

- When the rules were found to be outdated, or inappropriate, he would make serious effort to get them changed.

- He had a positive attitude to the work he was doing.

- He would understand genuine difficulties of the public, and work hard to resolve them, even by personally taking it up to the higher authorities.

- If any person with social or political power tried to do something against the interests of the public, he would stand up for the public.

- He never allowed his family or friends to misuse the facilities of the state.

- Even on issues that were not his direct responsibility, in case of urgent need of the public, he would intervene so that the public is least inconvenienced.

- He would work with his colleagues in a positive way to fulfil the needs of the public
- He would be courteous to his subordinates.

- If his superior asked him to do some extra work, he would not shirk from the responsibility.

I think you get the trend of my thought.  I have deliberately not included any negative points in this list.
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