The Culpability of Bureaucracy

We have a system in place, a system that is well-defined, and (seemingly) robust. Besides the central and state governments, which have undeniably failed the country in the handling of Covid-19 crisis, the bureaucracy at every level has failed us too.

Not a single Indian can claim that s/he did not face avoidable hurdles, pains during the pandemic. Rules at the ground level and their implementation have been botched up resulting in uncertainty and panic. The first wave, which was not as deadly as the second, exposed the mismanagement, incompetence of our district administrations. Millions hit the road to return to their hometown, panic buying was widespread, calls on emergency numbers went unanswered, and from banks to fair price shops, every public office added to the misery of the common man.

Even today, police are meting out corporal punishment to alleged violators. Agreed, people violate the law, but the law of the land also mandates fair trial before punishing anyone. Secondly, punishment has to be proportionate to the violation committed, but cops thrashing people brutally over trivial violations are now a common sight. Where are police chiefs? They were recruited through one of the toughest exams designed to judge not just their knowledge but also their ability to cope with unexpected situations.

There are shortages of almost everything, from critical health infrastructure to funeral sites. A day or two of shortages could have been justifiable. But it’s been more than a year, and the administrations haven’t been able to bring normalcy back. Besides the shortage of vaccines, the sites where they are being administered are a mess. One books slots, but doesn’t get inoculated. One needs some medicine that can only be procured via a state department, but the delay caused by cumbersome formalities and indifference of officials results in patient’s (preventable) death.

We have so many officials from the Indian Administrative Services (IAS) in every single district. What are they for if they cannot manage things at such critical times? Aspirants spend years to ‘crack’ the civil services exam, but when it comes to delivery, they either lack will or competence or both.

The system has collapsed. Even small things like timings when the market will remain open are uncertain. Barring a few places, there is no special provision for elderly, physically challenged and other vulnerable groups. Does the administration assume that every Indian is financially capable, tech-savvy to order medicines and grocery over the internet? What is the rationale behind allowing the vegetable market to remain open for just a few hours every day? Will that control crowding? No, it will rather contribute to unnecessary crowding since the window has been shortened but household needs cannot be cut on the whims of someone.

The bureaucracy at every level stands accountable for this disorder. Government officials had the onus to prove their utility when time demanded. Now the time demands we rethink the bureaucratic arrangement of the country, and also the recruitment process used to fill these positions of power. Just think how many Indians are capable to book vaccine slots online, others just don’t exist in the eyes of the bureaucrats.

improving administration in india

most failures, whether more than 30 percent of population below the poverty line or rampant corruption in public services, can be attributed to poor administration. here we need to know that administration is not governance, which involves policy actions and legislative tasks, and it is the liability of civil servants, not politicians. thus, the salaried employees of the state, with fixed jobs and perks, are answerable for misadministration and implementation lapses.

the constitution talks of all-india services, the personnel for which are hired through competitive exams conducted by upsc. an ias acts as the topmost functionary in the area under her jurisdiction, an ips heads the police department and so on.

isn’t it then reasonable to hold these heads of different departments accountable for any lapse in services? indian bureaucracy is, time and again, regarded as red tape and the only task they are hired for – implementation of government policies and schemes and overall administration – still awaits their perusal.

it is time that radical reforms such as de-notification of higher currency notes and roll-out of new indirect tax regime are accompanied with remaking of our administrative wing, the most crucial department which if underperforms in implementing the proposed idea or plan leads to failure of the entire exercise. here are a few measures to initiate with.

one, set a deadline. a deadline to deliver on social aspects, to illustrate, 1 month time to get all the inhabitants in the region registered under the aadhar scheme, 1 month time to assure all sewage blockages are made a thing of the past, 1 month time to fill potholes on roads and so on. the government needs to oversee that these deadlines are met and have a mechanism in place where under-achievers are penalized, by way of demotions in both position as well as payout.

the best plan is to send all ias and ips officers to their home districts for 6 months and rank them after this period on measurable deliveries. it is time we name them, make them part of a popular competition so as to infuse in them the spirit to deliver on their liabilities. with these officials performing their part, the subordinates would themselves fall in line.

the exercise needs political will, alliance by all 3 tiers of government; the result will surely be excellent.