Dhaka, Bangladesh
Elephantine govt

Elephantine govt

Files do not get cleared and decisions are not taken if even one subordinate is missing. Moreover, as noted even by the Central Information Commission, files have a tendency of getting lost at the recordkeepers convenience. In a real-life situation, one's work does not get done if X babu is missing or the relevant file is locked up in Y babu's cupboard, writes Devendra Saksena The relentless rise in Coronavirus infections has brought the Western world to its knees. Despite state-of-the-art healthcare systems, the death toll keeps mounting in countries like the US and UK, which has placed their economies in deep-freeze. Taking a cue from the West, India too imposed a sixty-eight-day lockdown. Whether the lockdown had any effect on the burgeoning Coronavirus infections is a moot question, but restarting our economy after the lockdowns is proving difficult, due in part, to governance issues that dog the Indian bureaucracy. Government offices are open but with little output, affecting businesses and citizens adversely. Probably, Government offices are not equipped to function in emergencies, which is sad because the role of the Government becomes crucial in an emergent situation. The fault lies in our governance style, which is more fitted for a colonial administration, rather than for a modern, progressive nation. For example, the Government of India is a firm believer in the law of threes. Typically, a Government office has three persons reporting to an officer with three of the officers reporting to a more senior bureaucrat. All three subordinates have watertight roles. Files do not get cleared and decisions are not taken if even one subordinate is missing. Moreover, as noted even by the Central Information Commission, files have a tendency of getting lost at the recordkeepers' convenience. In a real-life situation, one's work does not get done if X babu is missing or the relevant file is locked up in Y babu's cupboard. Naturally, in the present scenario, with Government offices operating at half strength, not much work gets done. Making the bureaucracy perform is the greatest challenge for any Government. Aspirations of the common man and the agenda of the Government can never be fulfilled till all levels of the bureaucracy deliver what is expected of them. But good governance in India is a scarce commodity. A number of malaise ail the Government machinery; chiefly lack of devotion to duty by public servants, non-adherence to or absence of standard operating procedures and a humongous lack of foresight coupled with an unmatched capacity for blame shifting. Additionally, bureaucrats at lower levels are taught to deny any request for service and instinctively distrust anyone who approaches them. Raising 'objections' is a matter of pride for such minions, never mind if bulky files are created for routine matters. The result is that the common citizen dreads people in authority. No one, except the well connected, relishes the prospect of any interaction with Government authorities because Government rules are such that even a genuine person is reduced to a supplicant before the mighty bureaucrat. Governments and administrations come and go but the public, which deals with grassroots level officials, hardly perceives any change in governance. The much-reviled Emergency was the last occasion when the lower bureaucracy performed its assigned role e.g. of running trains on time and of being on time in office. Clearly, governance is bound to suffer till the time senior officers can make their juniors work. Most Government schemes fail because Government employees believe that their role is restricted to writing notes on files and making some moolah on the side. This is particularly true of lower level functionaries who in addition to service rules are protected by their Unions, which come out with all guns blazing when one of their members feels threatened. Inability to act against trouble mongers has forced the Government to outsource ministerial functions or to shift responsibility upwards for lower level functions. A small beginning for ensuring a responsive and responsible administration could be made by getting rid of the convoluted procedures which make all bureaucrats virtually unaccountable. The Government has tried to leverage technology, mostly computerisation, to make up for the lack of performance of its employees. The Government has not succeeded because employees who do not do Job A, would not do Job B also. Additionally, the untried and untested Version 1 computer programmes as also the casual workers operating these programmes are not up to the mark. The death of subsidised ration beneficiaries who could not purchase foodgrains because of Aadhaar mismatch highlights the ill effects of badly implemented technological solutions. In many cases, technology has compounded operational problems because most Government departments have failed to formulate SOPs for the new technology enabled environment. Much of the antediluvian practices followed by bureaucracy emanate from lack of training in modern management. At the lower level, the bureaucracy is almost fully untrained. The problem is further compounded by the lack of clear guidelines and standard operating procedures (SOPs). At present, anyone questioning government functioning is bombarded with rules, sub-rules, instructions and circulars which are pressed in service to prove that no one is responsible when things go wrong. At the most a junior functionary is made the scapegoat. Some years ago, when biometric authentication of municipal staff was done in Delhi, almost 23,000 employees were found to be non-existent. (The writer is a retired Principal Chief Commissioner of Income-Tax)

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