Bureaucracy is the foundation of a stable state. It is what made Mauryas a great Empire, helped Mughals expand and also helped British maintain their iron grip on the country. All three pioneered a bureaucracy that was clear in its goals and loyal to the rulers. In fact, the British bureaucracy was called the “iron frame of British rule” in Bharat. The Bharatiya republic, rather than creating its own national goals and a bureaucracy geared towards those goals, retained the British bureaucracy.
Stately, solemn, sure and slow
Lord Curzon, the Viceroy of Bharat in late ninteenth and early twentieth century had this to say about the working of bureaucracy in Bharat :
“Thousands of pages, occupying hundreds of hours of valuable time, are written every year by score upon score of officers, to the obfuscation of their own intellects and the detriment of their official work, and are then sent up to the Local Governments to be annotated , criticised and reported on by other officers who are similarly neglecting their duty in deference to this absurd tyranny ; while finally this conglomeration of unassimilated matter comes up here to us again to be noted on in the Departments of the Government of India.”
The Viceroy had seen the effects of this lethargic bureaucracy on the administration and with frustration written about how speeding things up is impossible despite his best efforts. The slow moving files and voluminous notings on the same by a string of clerks and officers buried the issue deep and procedure took riority over everything else. According to Curzon, “Nothing has been done hitherto under six months. When I suggest six weeks, the attitude is one of pained surprise ; if six days, one of pathetic protest ; if six hours, one of stupefied resignation”
About a century and a quarter later, the situation is hardly better, if not worse. The majority of the work of an average government servant is to write letters on minor issues, prepare reports which no one reads and file random letters with comments on them. The partial digitisation in recent years has helped to speed up some portion of the work, but now the same inane work is being done twice- first in digital, secondly in hard copy. This is because the older bureaucrats, who are actually in charge, don’t trust technology.
The whole system is so geared that writing reports, letters and notings is prioritised over actual work. The best officer is someone who knows how to write letters in “bureaucratic English” and maintain a clean file.
The rampant corruption in the civil services is also a British legacy. The officers of the East India Company, who had served in Bharat usually returned to England with riches illegally looted from Bharat and were dubbed as Nabobs. Sometimes, there were enquiries, but hardly anyone was ever punished for corruption. That inglorious tradition continues and the civil services in Bharat witness high levels of corruption.
A report last year estimated that citizens of Bharat lost around $ 1 trillion annually to corruption. Even if the quantum is only 10% of this amount, $100 billion is a huge amount, specially for a country like Bharat. Naturally, a large part of this flows to the pockets of our bureaucrats.
Infact, many civil service aspirants choose to join civil services partially because it provides a way to make quick money without much risk. The bureaucratic solution to this was to include an examination paper on “Ethics” in the process. Needless to say, there has been no change in attitudes after inclusion of that paper.
We do routinely hear news of raids on corrupt civil servants. However, the conviction rates are abysmal and hover around 20% on average. This is due to shoddy investigation, corruption, reluctance of governments to grant sanction for prosecution and our famously tardy judicial process.
A colonial system
The reason the system protects the corrupt is because it is designed to protect its own. During the British rule, Sir Charles Wood, the second Secretary of State(from 1859-1866), used a the phrase “a despotism controlled from home” to describe the Government of Bharat, which essentially meant the civil service. The civil service showed its loyalty to the British right up till the independence. In return, the civil servant’s could be forgiven for even murders of “natives”.
Even after independence, it had so much power that it managed to include article 314 in the new constitution that guaranteed them same power and perks as during British rule. This continued until 28th amendment Act was enacted in May, 1972. It must be noted that the last British ICS officer retired in March, 1972.
It is well known that the civil service was created to keep the Bharatiya population in control of British and to extract maximum revenue from “natives”. This powerful service was criticised by freedom fighters of all hues due to its oppressive record as well as due to its very foreign character. Even a person as enthralled to British as Nehru wanted to completely abolish the ICS after the independence. However, soon he came to realise how useful it was to maintain the authority. It helped that civil service was composed of a thoroughly anglicised elite, that Nehru loved.
Even a casual observer will agree that from “despotism controlled from home” civil service, we now have a civil service despotically controlled from national and state capitals. In many cases when political stability is in jeopardy or political leadership is weak, it is uncontrollable as many political leaders, even ministers, will readily testify.
The constitutional protection to civil services means that its misdemeanours go unpunished and there is a system that rewards incompetence and corruption. In facts, it punishes the honest members by transfers, shunting and even pushes them out of the system.
The feudalism of today
Civil service is the feudalism of today’s Bharat. It is unsuitable to the times, exploitative and has done more harm than good. Constitutional changes after independence might have changed the veneer of the civil service, but the spirit remains the same.
In recent times we have seen multiple examples of civil servants acting like medieval lords, having power without responsibility and being rewarded for their misdeeds. Civil service is the biggest hurdle in the way of a meaningful democracy in Bharat; it is what stops Bharat from being a superpower. It is time we look at some alternative models of bureaucracy for our country. It is an imperative if we wish to live up to our true potential.
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