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Experts are leading Covid fight globally. But not in India, the bureaucrats won’t allow it

In their fight against ‘vested interests’ of experts, Indian bureaucrats are losing fight against reality during the coronavirus crisis.

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Lord Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of India, flew in Cyril Radcliffe, a lawyer who knew nothing about the country, to draw the boundaries between India and Pakistan. When asked why Radcliffe, Mountbatten said that because Radcliffe didn’t know anything or anyone, he was likely to be objective. Anyone who has read the book Dominique Lapierre and Larry Collins’Freedom at Midnight will recall how Radcliffe’s ignorance compounded the horrors of Partition that witnessed the greatest migration of the 20th century. The subcontinent has been paying a huge price for that “objectivity” ever since.

The Indian bureaucracy rarely likes to seek expert viewpoint – for there is a deep belief that these “experts” may have vested interests of their own. Across the world, experts from the medical field are putting out the official statement of their countries during the coronavirus pandemic. For example, Lothar Wieler, the head of Robert Koch Institute in Germany, or Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, in the US are doing almost daily briefings on the situation. India, while it likes to pat itself on the back for its scientific prowess and the skill of its technical workforce, has turned to its bureaucracy to address public health challenges posed by Covid-19.

The Indian state’s response to the crisis has made it clear that the bureaucracy wields enormous power. In its view, the bureaucracy represents the national interest, whereas other actors – politicians, scientists, bankers, economists, academics, etc. – favour particular interests. It is the bureaucracy that can see through the vested interests of the other actors in society and propose and implement solutions that are objective and address the national concern. To ensure that other ‘self-interested’ actors do not undermine any aspect of its policy, the bureaucracy tries to work out every detail of policy while ensuring that it retains control over almost every aspect of its implementation.

Also read: 4,057 orders in 4 months: Covid crisis shows how much Indian officials love making rules

Of orders and clarifications

Take the case of Covid-19. The Narendra Modi government and the states have given more than 4,000 orders in the past few months. Through the lockdown, the government has issued order after order, followed by several addenda and clarifications, both written and verbal. While some back and forth is eventual given the dynamic nature of the situation, the seemingly endless cycle of orders and clarifications is evidence that India’s elite bureaucrats lack forethought. As Yamini Aiyar noted, “The bureaucracy is designed to speak to itself, and not to ordinary people.”

The bureaucrats seek a technocratic solution to every problem, and when their solution doesn’t work, they fire another technocratic salvo, and keep on repeating it. In many cases, the solutions offered become part of the problem. A young IAS officer told ThePrint, “Administrative communication is supposed to be detailed, exhaustive, and one that leaves nothing to imagination. It is a language that minimises the scope of error and goes into the fine details of every aspect of administration.” Never mind that the fiasco around the opening of liquor shops in Delhi was a comedy of errors of the ever-changing rules. 

The logic is simple: these rules and regulations ensure that the “good-intentioned” bureaucracy remains in charge to prevent bad things from happening.

Also read: IAS has emerged as India’s steel frame of resistance against coronavirus

Darts in the dark

If it was just the coronavirus crisis, one could attribute bureaucratic intervention as a best effort response to a real crisis and finding solutions for problems for which there is no template. But, sadly, that is not the case. One of us during a conversation with a bureaucrat handling the rollout of GST remarked that if the decision-making team could have included just one practicing chartered accountant (CA), the Narendra Modi government may have avoided the needless complexity that overwhelmed the initial rollout of GST. The senior official’s reaction was instructive. “But the CA would have vested interests,” he said.

We recently came across a news article that the Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion – the venerable department entrusted with the success of Start-Up India programme — intends to hire a Big Four consulting company to advise the department on how to help entrepreneurs. What does this mean in plain English? A bunch of bureaucrats (government) is hiring another bunch of bureaucrats (consultants) to come up with policies that seek to help those who hate bureaucrats (entrepreneurs).

We can understand that an Indian bureaucrat does not know what an entrepreneur needs. So, what does a bureaucrat choose? A consulting company. Why? Because the consulting company has no vested interests (sic!) — it can give objective advice. What are the interests of a consulting company? To get more business consulting. Can you get more business as a consultant if you undermine the interests of your principal? If you do, who will give you the next contract? Also, what does anyone in theBig Four — Ernst & Young, Deloitte, KPMG, and PricewaterhouseCoopers — know anything about entrepreneurship? They have chosen a career path that pays monthly salaries with a well laid-out path to bigger salaries and zero risks. This sounds like another bureaucracy to us. You can predict the outcome – after months and months and crores of rupees, one of the Big Four will prepare a report, which will ensure that the bureaucracy retains a role in developing entrepreneurs. In the best of all possible worlds, the report will gather dust….

Also read: The other Covid crisis — India caught between a charismatic PM and servile bureaucrats

The evil ‘vested interest’

Why don’t the Indian bureaucrats do the obvious? Why won’t they just ask entrepreneurs, and actors who have skin in the game how to improve the investment climate for startups in India? The venture capitalists, their attorneys, and CAs immersed in the entrepreneurial ecosystem will gladly work with the government to develop policies on what is holding them back. The bureaucrats will not set up a committee of experts from the investment community because the entrepreneurs, the VCs, the corporate law attorneys, the CAs have vested interests.

Similarly, with Covid, public health experts have lamented to us their inability to be heard during this moment of crisis, especially when the current phase of managing the virus requires classic epidemiology – policies catering to specific locations and populations. It is not only public health experts, even civil society’s input is not valued. A senior bureaucrat reportedly told a gathering of experts not to share health data with NGOs, presumably because NGOs have vested interests.

So, here is where we are. Whether it is Covid or economic policy, self-interest and vested interest have to be avoided like the coronavirus. The government can make sub-optimal decisions or make no decision at all but, god forbid, if we get influenced by “vested interest”. The bureaucracy, of course, likes to believe that it has no vested self-interest and only serves in the national interest. The national interest is best protected when the bureaucracy has a hand in everything.

Pradeep Chhibber is a Professor of Political Science and Indo-American Community Chair in India Studies at UC Berkeley, US. Venktesh Shukla is  General Partner of Monta Vista Capital and former Chairman of TiE, Global. Rahul Verma is a Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research. Views are personal.

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  1. IAS Imperial Arrogant Services. they are experts in General know every thing from handicraft to space craft is the reason they swarm every where curating pieces of scrap to assemble policy which cannot be implemented unless every one keeps of coming to them.. rules end with executive discretion other wise it does not work

  2. It is ill informed and prejudiced article. Have the authors seen the IAS officers going from house to house in containment areas in Chennai.
    The entire fight against Covid is guided by the medical experts including on lockdown. But the police and the DMs have to decide how to implement measures.
    If the authors can write and not read no one can help them
    TN Govt consults a group of experts before they change lock down conditions.
    GOI has the ICMR and the AIIMS to advise them.
    Do they think that the elected reps who run the govt are fools and not interested in their people who elected them.

  3. This is a slightly superficial view.
    PM Modi is more comfortable with bureaucrats.
    This is a result of his long stint as a CM. In states all action is driven by the Chief Secretary and the DMs whose response is obedient and immediate.
    This government is run from the PMO which in turn is run by retired bureaucrats.

  4. Nice write up.
    The Indian civil service and the its descendant the IAS formed the backbone of early phases of
    country’s economic development ,growth and governance. we owe it to the dedicated cadre of civil servants up the fifth five year plan in the years up to early 1980s whatever has been the country’s growth
    in Industry,Agriculture etc.Some where along the line ,the bureaucracy had to give way the ministers and political bosses who took over the reins of development and associated power , began to manipulate the set up to achieving their ends. Honest officers were shunted to posts of insignificance or transferred
    out.Much of the Administrative reforms talked about during Morarji Desai times did not take place,resulting in the deterioration of the quality of the civil service.
    while certain services in the Govt. were professionalized like IRSE,,Foreign service,Auditing &Accounts.Economic service ,attempts to professionalize administration services and Medical and
    Educational services have not been done in time and they are overdue, as these have become complex
    presently and need the services of Professional experts. We need to move in this direction to deliver
    better quality governance to the people.

  5. What the article says is very true. Our fight against Climate Change is undergoing the same he type of trauma because it is handled by Indian Forest Service Officer with an ignoramus at the top. That is why we are not meeting a single target but our bureaucrats are great in making reports that look like we are about to meet our targets any time and our PM buys that kind of stuff.

  6. You said it. Bureaucrats and economists are prescribing on a daily basis what to do with the pandemic. Public health specialists are nowhere in the picture. Specialists be damned. True of all spheres. Irony is world over it seems public health specialists are more concerned with economic consequences of lockdown etc than the politicians and economists probably because they are more aware that it is lives Vs lives.

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