The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, October 13, 2002

Bureaucrats' role in reforms
V. Eshwar Anand

Administrative Reforms in India
by S. R. Maheshwari.
Macmillian, New Delhi. Pages 344. Rs 345.

ADMINISTRATIVE reforms as a subject has been engaging the attention of both students and practitioners of public administration for quite some time. It is the growth sector of the discipline of political science. By its very definition, it seeks to apply new ideas to administration and thus entails values.

However, a major drawback of this area is the administrative system’s overdependence on value orientation and goal achievement. The author, considered an eminent authority on public administration, has admitted that in the absence of initiative, commitment and "total support" of the national political leadership, administrative reforms could not make much headway. Even for the little amount of success it has achieved over the years, the credit should necessarily go to the bureaucracy rather than the legislature and political parties. Unfortunately, the politicisation of the civil service has affected the pace of administrative reforms. A growing sense of insecurity has fostered the cult of each one for himself. It has killed team spirit, initiative and enterprise. Self-confidence has become the next casualty. The workload has increased phenomenally, cluttering the tables of secretaries to the Government of India because the buck stops there.


The prime causes of the decline of the civil service and subsequent threat to administrative reforms appear to be the tendency to play safe and a lack of trust between the minister or the political boss and the bureaucrat. Apparently, the IAS officer’s relationship with the villagers today has snapped. The culture of conferences and committees has eroded the system of tours, spot inspection and assessment. As a result, IAS officers seems vulnerable to the politician who makes full use of this to malign the ones who do not play ball.

The change in the civil service is not accidental. It is part of a design to isolate and break up its homogenous character. This has been largely due to the qualitative change in the character of the Indian politician. He started strengthening his power base not by effective leadership or social service, but by canvassing unreasonable causes. Friction with the civil service began here.

Sadly, under the pretext of specialisation, alternate focal points of authority were created, eroding the role of the Collector (or Deputy Commissioner) and the District Magistrate. Under the garb of separation of powers, his judicial functions were taken away. The District Magistrate, though acknowledged as the nodal authority of district administration, is no more than a puppet today. The chain of command has been broken because of the emergence of Trojan Horses in the revenue hierarchy. If politicians have bent the steel frame and manipulated the system, civil servants, too, have played havoc with it. To serve their own interests and in anticipation of plum postings, some of them readily kowtow to the wishes of politicians, negating the doctrine of neutrality and eroding the image and credibility of the civil service.

Despite all these vicissitudes, there is still reason for hope. The revised edition of Dr Maheshwari’s book is timely. The author’s observations on the conduct of today’s politicians and administrators are free and frank. While blaming the politician for the present mess, he doesn’t exonerate the administrator. He observes, for instance, that if the politician has developed a vested interest in the existing system and thus, is not "pro-change", the civil servants, who benefit from the status quo, are as a class "hostile" to administrative reforms.

The author acknowledges the fact that implementation of administrative reforms has been "unimpressive" and "sluggish" because of the antipathy on the part of the career bureaucracy. Not that our administrators are short of fresh ideas. But the bane of administrative reforms is the general tendency on their part to take up the task with "fixed notions" and indulge in "overselling" a "pet model" for reasons best known to them. Dr Maheshwari rightly observes that this overcommitment to pre-selected techniques, philosophies or viewpoints has affected the reform process. Another reason for the slow pace of administrative reforms is the lack of meticulous planning, monitoring, reporting and evaluating mechanisms. Surely, unless these aspects are taken care of and strengthened in tune with the fast occurring advances by both the political leadership and the bureaucracy, the future appears to be bleak.

The book is, certainly, an asset for every student and administrator. While it is expected to make a significant contribution to the study of political science and public administration, the author’s efforts would bear fruit if the various suggestions he has made in the book are pursued in the right direction and implemented by the powers that be.