Thursday, January 12, 2012

India’s Curse: Bureaucracy

There is this little thing about Bihar that even Nitish Kumar will find difficult to change. You will find many ‘scholars’ from Bihar in the campus of JNU pursuing degrees in history, or economics or international relations. Many come from humble backgrounds. Almost all have a stock reply when you ask them what they are doing: preparing for Civil Services. Some lucky souls do manage to crack it. And then they are literally besieged by agents fronting for parents of to be brides from Bihar. In this marriage market, a dowry of even Rs 1 criore is possible if you have cracked the civil services exam.

This nugget neatly sums up the state of bureaucracy in India. And it is the reason why a Hong Kong based consultancy firm has rated Indian bureaucracy as the worst in Asia. Indian bureaucrats get 9.21 out of 10 while their counterparts in Singapore get 2.25 out of 10. Even China, which faces its own version of a billion mutinies against corrupt officials, manages a score of 7.11 for its bureaucracy. If anyone were to ask me to name the single most important reason for India remaining a poor country despite more than 60 years of independence, I would not, like most followers of Team Anna, blame politicians for it. I would unhesitatingly point out India’s so called ‘steel frame’ as the key reason. Indian bureaucracy is a parasite; a leech that has been literally sucking the life force out of Indian society and economy.

Why are more than 300 million Indians still illiterate, totally incapable of reaping any benefits of globalization? Why are more than 40% of Indian children malnourished? Why is infant and maternal mortality in India one of the highest in the world? Why do more than 700 million Indians do not have access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation? It is easy to caricature the greedy politician and blame him as Team Anna has been doing. The real culprits are Indian bureaucrats.

And this is one of the abiding paradoxes of India. Each year, close to 200,000 Indians sit for the Civil Service exams. It is one of the most competitive and toughest in the world only about 1000 make the grade. There is little doubt that they represent the brightest and best that India has to offer. And yet, once these often idealistic youngsters become bureaucrats, it is a matter of time before they actively participate in looting India; or keeping their counsel. Do remember, the civil servants in India occupy a unique position because only the President of India can fire them. And yet, they crawl if politicians ask them to bend. In any other country, can you imagine hordes of youngsters passing out of IITs and IIMs and then forsaking million Rupees salary packages to become a bureaucrat with a starting salary of just about Rs 35,000 a month? If someone says he or she is doing all this to ‘serve’ India, that statement is as hollow as the one made by a crooked politician who claims to serve India. The fact is: Indian bureaucrats are the real ‘power’ behind the throne. And unlike politicians who do have to face the electorate every now and then, Indian bureaucrats are completely and totally unaccountable.

They know it. And that is, despite numerous individual bureaucrats being sensitive and honest, the bureaucracy is cruel, thoughtless and obscenely corrupt . Travel to poor districts in states like Chattisgarh, Orissa, Jharkhand, Maharashtra (the Vidharba region) to name just a few and what do you find? District collectors usually are in a race to have their districts (fiefdoms is more like it) declared drought affected or a victim of some calamity or other. If that happens, relief funds pour in from state capitals as well as Delhi. No need to guess where most of that ‘emergency relief’ money goes. In 2004, the Time magazine declared the District Magistrate of Patna Gautam Goswami as an Asian Hero for his outstanding work in flood relief. Subsequent investigations found that he allegedly siphoned off about Rs 18 crores of funds sent for flood relief. And what about the star bureaucrat couple, the Joshis in Madhya Pradesh who had allegedly amassed more than Rs 200 crore in ill gotten wealth? There are literally hundreds of such instances and the worst case scenario for these bureaucrats is just some time in jail, a suspension and then interminable delays in their cases. As with the so called ‘higher bureaucracy’, so it is with bureaucrats at lower rungs.

Why have China’s bureaucrats got a much better rating than India’s when everybody knows they are as corrupt? Well, they have delivered 96% literacy and other human development indicators that Indians can only dream about.


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