New Delhi: Among all the governance crises unleashed by the Covid-19 pandemic in India, there is a less talked about but widely felt problem — that of administrative communication.
As India imposed the strictest lockdown in the world to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus, there came a flurry of government communications every day — from specifying what one could buy or sell, determining the number of people who could attend a funeral, or whether one could even step out of the house to feed a stray dog.
According to a database maintained by the PRS Legislative Research, in the last four months, the central and state governments together have issued a staggering 4,057 orders, notifications and guidelines. Of these, almost 600 were issued by the central government, while the remaining 3,400 or so were issued by state governments.
Fifty-six per cent of these orders and notifications, or 2,277 in total, were meant for direct communication with citizens, while the remaining were either the government’s internal communications, or its orders and correspondence with businesses.
ThePrint approached Kuldeep Singh Dhatwalia, Director-General, Press Information Bureau, the government’s communications arm, for a comment on this flurry of communications, but there was no response.
One of Dhatwalia’s predecessors, who did not wish to be named, however, said the deluge of communications was the need of the hour, and the government had been “clear and straightforward” in its communications.
Penchant for paperwork
While some believe the unprecedented nature of the situation warranted the administration going into a communication overdrive, others argue that the sheer volume of correspondence is symptomatic of the Indian state’s antiquated and Victorian penchant for endless paperwork and red-tape.
“This situation is unprecedented, and has needed a day-to-day basis assessment and communication of strategies by the government. But it has surely exposed the deep inefficiencies with which the Indian bureaucracy operates,” said T.R. Raghunandan, a former IAS officer and author of the book, Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Bureaucracy But Were Afraid To Ask.
The bureaucracy, Raghunandan said, has always had this obsession with excessive regulation, permits, rules, etc. “The only difference is that the bureaucracy has not had the need or chance to interact so closely and frequently with the public before… So its deficiencies are just now becoming obvious to the public,” he said.
He added, however, that it’s not just the bulk of paperwork that constitutes the deep-rooted problem of administrative communication, but also the inaccessibility and unintelligibility of it to laypersons. Raghunandan, despite being a former IAS officer, claimed he had had to spend several hours trying to interpret government communications in this lockdown.
“Government language is designed to be unmindful of the need for effective communication,” he said.
The cycle of orders and clarifications
Consider a few examples of documents which were meant for direct communication with the public.
“Due dates for issue of notice, intimation, notification, approval order, sanction order, filing of appeal, furnishing of return, statements, applications, reports, any other documents and time limit for completion of proceedings by the authority and any compliance by the taxpayer including investment in saving instruments or investments for roll over benefit of capital gains under Income Tax Act, Wealth Tax Act, Prohibition of Benami Property Transaction Act, Black Money Act, STT law, CTT Law, Equalization Levy law, Vivad Se Vishwas law where the time limit is expiring between 20th March 2020 to 29th June 2020 shall be extended to 30th June 2020,” said a document drafted by the PIB regarding the relief measures in view of the lockdown announced by the government on 24 March.
Guidelines for the enforcement of the lockdown by the Ministry of Home Affairs on 24 March said: “Whoever being entrusted with any money or materials, or otherwise being in custody of, or dominion over, any money or goods, meant for providing relief in any threatening disaster situation or disaster, misappropriates or appropriates for his own use or disposes of such money or materials or any part thereof or willfully compels any other person so to do, shall on conviction be punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to two years, and also with fine.”
On 1 May, when the government issued revised guidelines for further extension of the lockdown from 4 to 17 May, there was severe confusion over what kind of shops could remain open under the extended lockdown.
“All malls, market complexes and markets shall remain closed in urban areas, i.e., areas within the limits of municipal corporations and municipalities. However, shops selling essential goods in markets and market complexes are permitted. All standalone (single) shops, neighbourhood (colony) shops and shops in residential complexes are permitted to remain open in urban areas without any distinction of essential and non-essentials,” the guidelines stated.
The MHA has also had to issue a clarification on an order it issued on 29 April allowing stranded migrants, pilgrims and students to go back to their hometowns.
On 3 May, Home Secretary Ajay Bhalla wrote a letter to states clarifying that the “facilitation envisaged in the order is meant for such distressed persons” and doesn’t extend to that category of persons who are “residing normally at places other than native places for purposes of work etc. and who wish to visit their native places in normal course”.
Language of, for and by civil servants
These are not one-off cases. Through the lockdown, the government has issued order after order, followed by several addenda and clarifications, both written and verbal.
According to Yamini Aiyar, president of the Centre for Policy Research (CPR), there are two reasons for this seemingly endless cycle of issuance of orders and clarifications.
First, she said it is evidence that enough forethought and planning is not being given before issuing these public orders. And second, it is because the Indian government communication remains steeped in colonial bureaucratese and legalese that makes it absolutely inaccessible to the layperson.
“It tells you that it is a bureaucracy designed to speak to itself, and not to ordinary people. Their grammar, their instruments of communication are extremely antiquated,” Aiyar said.
“The PM keeps talking about how we are trying to resolve 21st century problems with 19th century administration… This is the biggest evidence of that, and there is an urgent need to reform,” she added.
A logistical problem
According to Raghunandan, while the obsession with bureaucratese and red-tape is part of the problem, there is another, more logistical reason, about why a lot of government communication suffers from a quality problem.
“There is a hierarchy of officials who make policy, and those who write it down,” he said. “People at higher levels — joint secretaries and above — feel it is not their job to communicate and write…They leave it to the lower rung officials to do it, and the quality deteriorates.”
However, a young IAS officer who did not want to be named said while “bureaucratese” might make government language inaccessible to laypersons, it is a language that minimises the scope of error and goes into the fine details of every aspect of administration.
“Administrative communication is boring because that is how it is supposed to be — detailed, exhaustive and one that leaves nothing to imagination,” he said. “It is something we learn over time, and whose value we realise over time… Especially in a time like this, when the government has to go into the finest details of every aspect of life, how can it be blamed for communicating too much and in as much detail as possible?”