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.
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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.
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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.
Excellent writing. Politicians, irrespective of their ideology must come ahead and read this.
Young men and women graduates are happy to get a government or public sector job nowadays, because there is scarcity of such jobs today. Once they get in they are motivated to work. They are also more educated and action oriented. Not so the older employees they started as employees in 70’s, 80’s or 90’s – these older employees found it easy then to get into a government or PSU job, so they continue to think like old socialists and resist change in the way they look at the public.
In one of the Southern states, passing a course in the local language is compulsory to get an engineering degree. If a student fails in the language course, he/she cannot be promoted to the next year. While it is a good idea for non-locals to study and familiarise with the local language, why should a student be penalised such when he/she has joined a college in that state to graduate as an engineer. Instead the government of the state should be happy that the student is contributing to the state’s education economy and make rules that are pragmatic.
Trust only bureaucracy in Indian states to come up with a scheme like this. This is just one instance, there are many such rules from the bureaucrats in every department be it Central or State level. They will even bite the hand that feeds them ( income tax payers)!
Bureaucracy is everyone’s favourite flogging horse, little do people know that they themselves vote with vested interest in mind putting their group (religious/caste/agrarian/linguistic) before individual liberty. Individual liberty is a joke in India with scant regard for individual rights.
Recent back down by the government in front of nuisance creating so called farmer protests is symptomatic of frailties of our democratic system – mob rule over law and order.
The lathicharge was effective in locking down people early. Did this kind of beating happen in the West or East Asian countries? I guess not, because in the West it is an infringement of liberty for police to wield their batons unecessarily while in the East teamwork and self-discipline come naturally. India is neither. Here in an uncivilised democracy as ours, rules are for fools, and Indian “people-cattle” only understand the language of the lathi.
Universal franchise was accepted, basically to ensure that power was not cornered by a few with the support of law. Surely it was known that the power would be and did get captured by a few but that could not be in perpetuity.
The new set of rulers after independence inherited Babus who could easily manipulate them because of the lack of experience. A lot of the new rulers were of questionable integrity willing to tango with the Babus for personal gains or consolidation of power, and freely allowed the Babus to tighten their grip.
In democracy thing move slowly and painfully the key to long term success is to ensure continuance of the democratic system which has a self-correcting mechanism.
The Rulers and Babus are evolving, not fair to blame one or the other. It is price we have to pay, other systems tried out had worst costs to pay including total distruction.
Control freaks enjoy a socialist state rather than in a capitalist state. A socialist state rules over fearful people. A capitalist society tries to enable a free people. It also recognises people’s potential to decide for themselves.
Finally a well written article by the author that includes facts and not just opinions. Truly India’s bureaucracy exists to make life difficult for the ordinary man. Whether it is the sarkari offices, judicial courts, government run educational institutions, companies, airlines, banks etc all revel in making things as difficult as possible. Only those who move out of the country realise the difference. However even they are fully unable to escape the tentacles of India’s bureaucracy, needing to interact with the embassies overseas.
Why do you have such writers peddle this kind of half truths, falsehoods and disaffection ?
We arrived from the US in September-20 with an RTPCR negative test report. Immigration clearance was efficient till we reached Customs – every piece of baggage of every passenger had to be scanned at the Delhi airport – not the random piece of baggage but every single piece of every incoming passenger. This meant that everyone stood in a line of about 200-300 persons standing at distance of barely 6 inches from each other.
When I asked the Customs officer why not the random check ? His reply : This is the COVID-19 protocol. Its been four months since then and I have still not figured out as to how does one bring a virus in his luggage and how will an X-Ray machine detect it?
God help this country.
Whichever political party is voted to power, bureaucracy attitude towards public remains the same. They feel the public are pests wasting their time. They have no interest in being transparent. You can observe this when you visit a medical hospital or government office. On the other hand politicians go about selling dreams to the public. The citizens are suckers for the jaadu
spun by politicians. Blame the citizens for not being able to see through this game.
Bureaucracy knows how to create rules. By creating more rules, they feel relevant and important. Rules are also created so that the frustrated citizen is forced to bribe rather than go through all the approvals to get his or her job done.
Unfortunately, the so-called “4th Estate” i.e. Media has been equally responsible , not raising a single time the apathy, corruption, selfish & kingly attitude of the bureaucrats. Let Media including your’s “THE PRINT” run a campaign to expose these do-nothing Babus.
Common-on THE PRINT be the torch-bearer.
India’s bureaucracy is often rated Asia’s worst. However, there are wide variations in quality of governance across states, despite the elite services coming from a common pool. Some of the most highly regarded mandarins serving at the Centre are from the cadres of the dismally governed states. Similarly, if one considers economic growth, the record has been uneven across decades with pretty much the same set of civil servants serving in Delhi. The enlightened policies that can make India progress can be framed only after political choices are made. What is new though are counterproductive approaches being taken on foundational issues, which are now translating into the outcomes we see unfolding all around us.
Next time this country has some huge protest, protest against the bureaucrats, not the statespersons.
Some states are better at governance than others.
In the South, Tamilnadu and Kerala are much better in public services than Karnataka. Karnataka is the UP of South India as far as governance goes. without Bangalore, Karnataka would be a hell-hole.
Agreed totally. These pampered Babus need to be given a reality check just like their peers in pri ate companies. Frequent Carreer assessment should be the norm. But who does it? The top dog is himself corrupt.
all nexus between politicians and beaurucrats.
A govt which was voted into office saying “Minimum government and maximum governance” has in reality delivered an East German Stasi style state. WE DO NOT NEED TO BE CONTROLLED, SIR – WE NEED FACILITATION. Unfortunately this govt has done only 2 things in the name of governance- a. Blame JNehru or R Gandhi for everything b. Help Adani and Co. get richer and richer. Democracy RSS style – govt of the rich, for the rich and (elected) by all those Indians who can be fooled again and again.
What nonsense this man writes?
Is bureaucracy not subordinate to the political bosses?
Does it not work efficiently for making lives easy for itself and its political bosses?
It can mistreat people like cattle because the political bosses are not bothered about such treatment.
However, ultimately the voter is to blame for electing such political masters.
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