Barack Obama’s comments on Rahul Gandhi in his recently released book made headlines. But there’s another indictment that should be a cause for discussion in India. Obama writes of the country’s bureaucracy as an impediment in its progress: “Despite its genuine economic progress, though, India remained a chaotic and impoverished place: largely divided by religion and caste, captive to the whims of corrupt local officials and power brokers, hamstrung by a parochial bureaucracy that was resistant to change.”
This assessment of governance in India is shared by others who get to take a peep into our system. A foreign diplomat recently told me he was hassled to see how difficult it was to sell his car in Delhi. Another foreign diplomat told me about the paperwork harassment at the airport due to Covid: “I had to fill forms affirming that I had filled forms, which affirmed that I had an RT-PCR a negative test.”
Nobody, not even a strongman leader like Narendra Modi, is able to make the Indian bureaucracy reform its ways — reduce the number of needless steps in their perfect SOPs, and make people’s lives easier. The bureaucracy seems to exist to make people’s lives tougher, because each cog in the wheel is only trying to be faithful to its own desk. Nobody looks at the larger picture and there is little accountability.
The Goods and Services Tax (GST) was supposed to make indirect taxation easier and simpler. That is what it has done in many countries. Why wouldn’t it achieve the same result in India? Enter Indian bureaucracy. The complaint about GST, especially in its initial roll-out, was that it was too complex. Only the Indian bureaucracy can complicate a measure meant to ease something.
The Covid opportunity for command and control
The worst of the Indian bureaucracy was brought out in the pandemic. Covid vaccination has begun but across India, swimming pools are still not allowed to function under the orders of the Ministry of Home Affairs. You can take a dip in the Ganga along with millions of people at the Kumbh but you can’t swim in a pool. Nobody told the MHA that Covid is not a waterborne disease. Gyms are open — enclosed spaces that are more likely to spread Covid than an open air pool. The excuse for pools has been overcrowding. In which case, how about allowing pools to at least open in the winters in north India? And if overcrowding is an issue, have our bureaucrats considered visiting a market lately?
The ban on swimming pools has hurt the careers of professional swimmers. Even when the MHA allowed pools to be used only for athletes, not all states opened them. The high-handed pen-wielding bureaucrats make these decisions in their silos hurting the lives, livelihoods and health of millions of people.
The Indian bureaucracy fought an infectious disease with red tape, as The Economist memorably put it. The confusion in Delhi NCR traffic movement was a good example, with one state opening its borders and the other closing, showing total lack of coordination. Then there have been these night curfews, forcing people to do their socialising in the crowded day time, further increasing the possibility of the spread of the virus. In many cities, the traffic police was fining people for not wearing a mask even while driving solo in a closed car. It took the intervention of the courts to stop this bizarre harassment of citizens to relieve them of their money.
There was an app. Aarogya Setu, like similar apps abroad, was supposed to alert users if they had come near anyone who was later found infected with Covid. Nobody was ever alerted. Aarogya Setu was so useless that even airport security stopped asking for it after a few weeks. The government, of course, claims the app helped it identify clusters of Covid spread. We have no choice but to believe them.
Airlines even now have to make people fill a health declaration form. There isn’t a sillier form possible. If someone with fever is going to take a paracetamol and fly, do you expect them to say they have fever in a government declaration form? There is no logic to the form-filling madness.
Don’t talk to cattle
When the lockdown was imposed, the police was beating up people to stay indoors, including those trying to eke out a livelihood amid a complete shutdown. We could blame ruling politicians but the bureaucracy gets away with no questioning. If the bureaucracy existed to serve people rather than just implement rules, it would have involved people to make the lockdown successful. That would mean a lot of good communication and persuasion. But then what will the police lathi do?
Visiting Guwahati a few weeks ago, I didn’t know the state of Assam was testing all visitors with a compulsory RT-PCR test. My bad, I should have looked it up. Other passengers were taken aback as I was. We were made to fill forms, stand in crowded queues and shoved into an uncomfortable bus, taken to a stadium, made to take tests — and not a single human being told us anything about the process, our options, nothing. We felt like we were being treated like animals. You don’t talk to cattle, you just shepherd them around. Nobody treated us like human beings enough to tell us we could pay up for an instant result, thus escaping the compulsory quarantine. My hand stamped with the date, I protested. That’s when they said I could pay up and avoid quarantine. But what about the stamp? Oh just use some Colin, they said.
Incidentally, no RT-PCR test needed if you enter Assam by road!
The trouble here is not politicians. Nobody can say it is a bad idea for Assam to prevent the spread of Covid by testing visitors. It is the bureaucracy which has to implement programmes. It wouldn’t strike any bureaucrat, for example, to make airlines send the latest rules to passengers as soon as they book tickets, or are booking tickets. Technology will allow this easily. But why should bureaucrats care about people’s ease of living? Their job is to implement rules, not improve quality of life.
Shivam Vij is a contributing editor at ThePrint. Views are personal.