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The feudals of quasi-modern India

A rotten system

The perfect bureaucrat everywhere is the man who manages to make no decisions and escape all responsibility.  ~ Brooks Atkinson

Ever been to a Tehsildar’s office? The recent sighting of a Black Panther in Karnataka’s Kabini forest as rare as it is, is actually a more frequent occurrence than the sighting of your local Tehsildar! These mysterious creatures sneak in and out of their offices so furtively that it is impossible even for the most seasoned of trackers to spot them. So you somehow ‘navigated’ your way through the labyrinthine Babudom (no less a jungle!) that is the Tehsildar’s office and were able to secure an audience with ‘Saar’! Your final act of obeisance to the system that clinched it for you was your stellar grovelling act in front of the peon who pretends to be the gatekeeper to heaven (hell actually).  The moment you enter the room you are greeted by the sight of his/her highness (the centre of the universe) perched on their throne flanked by sycophantic ‘interlocutors’ and a veritable menagerie encircling the desk. The heart sinks. How are you even going to get a word in let alone discuss your issue in detail with all those people already vying for his/her attention?! That said, you summon the hustler within you and manoeuvre (brush and grind) your way to the front to bring the matter to his attention. You aren’t sure if he is listening to you as he doesn’t care to make eye contact with you. His sycophants all this while are badgering you to ‘get to the point’! One wonders how to do that without setting the proper context of a complicated issue! Even before you are done setting the context, he without even a cursory glance of the documents that you have set down in front of him dismissively instructs you to take your grievance to the area Revenue Inspector. The same guy whose ineptitude forced you to seek redressal with his superior in the first place! Before you can lodge your protestation, other petitioners, sensing an opening, have swiftly moved in to annex the sphere of his attention hitherto occupied by you (and a couple others). And with that the Black Panther has yet again given you the slip. You think this is frustrating? Wait till I describe the scene at the Revenue Inspector’s office!

I won’t bore you with the distressing details of the scene at the Revenue Inspectors office. I think you already get my drift. This is unfortunately the story that repeats itself pretty much every single time you set foot inside a government office in India. Your patience is tested, your ethics are called into question and your dignity is assaulted. It all starts with the lack of access to the concerned official and even when you do get face time he/she is least inclined toward addressing your issue. If by a stroke of luck, he/she does uncharacteristically indulge you and subsequently entrusts the matter with an ‘interlocutor’ for ‘further processing’ you can rest assured that you have jumped straight from the frying pan into the fire! The interlocutor deliberately gives you the run around till he has softened you up enough for you to capitulate to his demand of greasing his palm. If you have held out on paying the bribe (no such thing really) then it means you have made further trips to the office and wasted a ton of your precious time following-up to no avail. If you have yielded, then you have not only suffered the indignity of becoming a briber (a percentage of which is duly funnelled to every part of an intricate system) but also have plumbed to a depth of wretchedness where a pimp now has power over you. Btw, did I mention the fact that you are never offered a chair at these offices? Gravy aside you must stand in front of these self-important fools to give them an ego-high.

The never ending trail of damage these corrupt custodians of land records have wreaked on the common man can be recounted in the tales of misery and absolute horror of those that have been deliberately wronged at the hands of these unscrupulous creatures.

The ruling elite

That said, believe it or not, the aforementioned officials are merely the small fry (the pilot fish if you will). The real feudals presiding over their personal fiefdoms are the blue eyed boys and gals of Indian society. Those who self-quarantined (even before that was a thing!) in waves over the years  for one or more years during which time they have devoted themselves to cramming up volumes and volumes of study material (primarily question banks from the last few decades) culminating in a dramatic unloading of all that mental cargo onto the answer paper of the Indian Civil Services examinations. A mechanical act some would sneer but one that requires great memorisation powers, determination, discipline and mental fortitude nonetheless. The elite clique to have made the cut after the interview round is then put through a year long training programme/finishing school (a Hogwarts of sorts!) in the idyllic setting of the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration, Mussoorie (IPS officers have a stint at the Indian Police Academy in Hyderabad, Indian Forest Service Officers at the Indira Gandhi National Forest academy in Dehradun etc.). That done and over with, they are unleashed on a populace that urgently needs rescuing by these wizards with magic wands. They cut their ‘administrative’ teeth in the capacities of Sub-divisional Magistrates, Assistant Commissioners of Police (ACP), District Additional Superintendent of Police (ASP), Assistant Conservator of Forests and so on and so forth. This makes for great practice to hone their skills in the art of ruling. This is also the phase when these kings and queens in waiting apprentice and learn from the seniors (read the deep state) the art of managing the commoner and massaging (read sucking up to) the politico. The sole objective of this endeavour in my humble opinion is to train these fledgling overlords in the ‘management‘ of stakeholders, consolidation of power and extension of their sphere of influence.  The metamorphosis of the idealistic Plebeian into the rapacious Patrician is now complete.

Let’s talk perquisites now. These officials are provided with sprawling quarters which often times are located in the poshest part of the city/town/DHQ they are posted in. This area of bungalows despite being in the heart of the city are segregated from chaotic existence of the ‘Jan Sadharan’. These bungalows boast huge manicured gardens (a rarity for even well-heeled city dwellers). These homes also come with a small regiment of cooks, orderlies/peons, drivers, gardeners, guards etc. so that these modern day royals do not have to worry about the mundane things and instead are able to focus all their energies on vitally important task of ruling over their populace. The utilities are paid for too. The government also provides them with a chauffeured vehicle (gone are the days of the Ambassador). Last but not least, they are recipients of a lifetime pension as well as other retirement benefits. Of course, all of the aforesaid expenditure incurred is borne by the government. This is the money the government collects from you and me in the form of taxes.

It is often argued that the civil services attract the best talent in the country only because it offers the kind of perks and power it does. Therefore, taking away the appealing perks and the unrestrained power will render it unattractive. I disagree. I think young people who strive to make the cut do it because a) they truly want to contribute and be part of the development story of the nation b) because of the prestige and sense of pride associated with becoming a civil servant. If that is not the case in reality, then so be it. Would we not rather have a person a notch below the best and brightest join who is sincere and who has their heart in the right place than the most competent bloke who wants to join for all the wrong reasons?

Expectation Vs Reality

So what is the return on our substantial investment you ask? That my friends is the million dollar question.

We the people expect a team of  uber-smart, incredibly efficient and highly ethical ‘civil servants’ (oh, the bloody irony in that phrase!) who will become the ‘conscience-keepers’ of this nation.  A group of ‘exalted’ individuals who we have been told will formulate, inform and implement government policies, advise and counsel the polity and uphold all the laws of the land while at it. They have been sold to us as agents of change who shall deliver us to promised land where stability, prosperity, security and freedom reign supreme. The architects of modern India if you will who shall use their wisdom and training to exhibit thought-leadership to find innovative ways of removing socio-economic obstacles which stand in the way of India’s march toward a just and prosperous society(and to be fair there have been a few outliers who have indeed contributed handsomely to the idea of a modern, progressive and flourishing India). They are supposed to be officers of the government who are expected to become both the bullhorns and the sounding boards of a population that is either voiceless or suppressed. They are expected to understand our issues, empathise with us, take hard decisions on our behalf and ultimately work to eradicate those issues.

What we really get though is a gang of self-absorbed elitists who live, ‘work’ and play at a level in our stratified society that is invisible and hence inaccessible to the common man/woman. They reside in enclaves of privilege, in sprawling bungalows with high walls dotting creaseless tree-lined streets with sparse traffic the medians of which are perennially in bloom and are maintained in impeccable condition, where power outages and water shortages are urban legends, where traffic is sparse and guards and sentries ensure ironclad security and privacy. Their offices too are veritable fortresses where the common citizen is welcomed by the frustrating spectre of passes, PA’s and pushback but where the rich and the powerful hold court. We get officers who when not busy burnishing their social media profiles and collecting followers on Twitter are either off on a government sponsored sabbatical abroad to further their ‘education’ at the tax payers expense, or are away attending trainings and seminars again on government dime. We are told these trainings (read jaunts) will ultimately be beneficial to the public as they augment the skill-sets of these officers who shall in-turn leverage this newly acquired knowledge to ‘serve’ us better! We get officers whose remaining time (if there is any left) is spent on ‘maintaining the status quo’. That is to ensure the rich become richer and the poor poorer! Did I already mention the fact that these officers frequently get themselves deputations to bigger cities where their children are pursuing their higher studies?

So you see, they don’t feel our day-to-day pain as they don’t live amongst us, they don’t mingle with us and their motivation most definitely isn’t our ‘service’. The sole motivation is self-enrichment and aggrandisement. Graft, quid pro quo and amassing of disproportionate assets is rampant within the ranks. This brazenness is born out of the fact that these civil servants ordinarily enjoy near-immunity from dismissal from service. They can be prosecuted though if there are findings that establish grave misconduct, dereliction of duty, acts of corruption etc. The problem is, to initiate any such investigation the state government has to explicitly allow for such inquiry to be conducted. This almost never happens owing to the politician-bureaucrat nexus!

Let’s also look back on a few things to get us a clearer picture:

  • Why does India languish at the bottom of the ease of doing business index, why have government infrastructure and development projects been missed deadline after deadline,
  • Why have social welfare programmes designed to lift the masses out of poverty have been abject failures,
  • Why have our sports programmes and allied infrastructure have not been able produce a steady stream of world class sportspersons,
  • Why is there scant respect for the laws of the land across the country and absolute lawlessness in many parts,
  • Why have social-political agitations snowballed into full-blown extremist movements,
  • Why is there tax evasion on such a humongous scale,
  • Why is our forest cover almost depleted (illegal logging), much of our wildlife in danger of extinction (poached) and increased human-animal conflict (habitat has been gifted to industry),
  • Why are the sand, stone, earth and mafias of every conceivable variety looting our mineral resources in broad daylight,
  • Last but not least, why does the common citizenry of this country not trust the government apparatus to deliver anything!

I hope you will now realise what your IAS, IPS, IFS, IRS et.al. have delivered to you! You can very well point a finger at the politicians but the people that enable this thievery and/or look the other way (for gain of course) are our dear civil servants. They are at the very least equally complicit in this crime if not more for not standing up to the politician-criminal nexus. This is actually a ‘confederacy’ that is a part of a well-oiled system which watches each others backs, scratches each other backs, pats each others backs but does not give back what it takes from society!

Therefore, our collective development and well-being continues to be held hostage to the whims, fancies and malfeasance of this grossly unethical system which takes in competent, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed youth and turns them into a reprobate lot.

This maleficent system must go if we as a nation have any hope of leaving behind a liveable country for our children.

Upending the Status Quo

 

It all must start with the breaking down of the vice like grip this cabal of mandarins wields on society at large today and instituting in its place a structure which is purely transactional with accountability as its cornerstone. This new contract should focus on challenging and effacing the extant practices and enforcing measures including but not limited to the following to restore the balance of power in the relationship between citizens and the functionaries that serve them:

  • The government should endeavour to earmark and make available housing for these officers inside of various  residential colonies/apartment complexes by way of long term lease of properties (to ensure these officers are spread out across the city/town/SDHQ etc. and do not ghettoise again). The officers will be responsible for the payment of the rent of the said property (and utility bills) which shall be supported by way of the the house rent allowance payout (paid out according to the grade of town/city). This will be in conformance to the benefits of any other public or private sector employee.  Note: In fact, all government quarters should be done away with especially after the pay revisions of the 7th pay commission. These huge parcels of prime real estate that these bungalows sit on can then be reclaimed to construct reimagined city centres complete with museums, libraries, centres for performing arts, parks, aquariums etc. This will not only serve to revitalise the cities but also allow the city dwellers avenues for relaxation and entertainment. It will also serve to enhance the tourism potential of cities.
  • The system of providing staff to take care of the household should be banned forthwith. The officers must hire their own drivers and domestic staff and pay the salaries out of their own pockets if they so desire. Drivers and office staff should be strictly used for official work i.e. the driver cannot even drop the officer off at their residence. Office help numbers should be should be strictly limited and responsibilities strictly defined to prevent abuse of staff for personal tasks. All existing norms for sabbaticals and sponsorships of education/training should be updated to mirror existing standards in the private sector.
  • The system of deputations from state cadres to central positions should be made into a competitive opening (and not cadre authorities nominating eligible officers for deputation) wherein all interested officers can apply and then selections are done by a multi-member panel based on the merit of the candidate and their suitability/fit for the advertised opening.
  • There have been some steps taken of late by the central government to introduce more transparency and accountability into the workings of civil servants by way of introducing additional parameters in performance reviews. Punitive action has also been initiated against a few errant officers to get the seriousness across. That said, these token punitive measures against a few is far from sufficient to exorcise the well-entrenched evils and purge the system. The removal of deadwood (read underperforming officers), resection of malignant tumours (read corrupt officers) and a blood transfusion (read cleaning the swamp) must be carried out in a systematic and sustained manner. How about this for an idea? Since they are ‘civil servants’ i.e. they serve the public would it not be fitting and fair that they serve at the pleasure of the public that pays their salaries? Therefore, the best way to gauge the performance of these officers besides the panel performance reviews would be to publish a list of goals/targets/SLAs for these officers (departments or functions they are leading) at the beginning of a year in the public domain and then have the public review the performances against these goals on a biannual basis. This can be done by way of an e-poll pushed out to the mobile device of every taxpayer within the officers area of jurisdiction which also clearly shows the goals against which the public is expected to measure the performance. This would allow for any course correction by the concerned official/department mid-year based on the public opinion.
  • The offices of these civil servants and the procedures of visitation around them must be revisited to make both the office and the official completely accessible.
  • e-governance implementations should be given a major push across departments to utilise technology to obviate the need of human intervention as much as possible as well as usher in more transparency, audits and accountability. A grievance logging and redressal system (with watertight privacy protections) should also be made available to the public to ensure they have an avenue of last resort which allows them to lodge a complaint against any perceived inaction or injustice faced at the hands of any government official. This platform shall feed into an independent panel that draws its members from different sections of civil society ( who are remunerated) and which shall be tasked with assessing, escalating the complaint (all electronically as part of a workflow to preserve an audit trail) and following-up with the appropriate department for remedial action in a time-bound manner.
  • Last but not least, it’s high time we have visitor chairs in front of every government desk. If anybody must stand, it better be the officer of the government!

Image Credits:

ID 133202280 © Evgenyi Gromov | Dreamstime.com

ID 123452249 © Zdenek Sasek | Dreamstime.com

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