Ensuring democracy
H.K. DUA, Editor-in-Chief
Reform of Parliament
Subhash C. Kashyap
Parties in disarray
Pratap Bhanu Mehta
Judicial independence
Fali S. Nariman
Responsive governance
N. N. Vohra

Fighting corruption
N. Vittal

Criminalisation of politics
B.G. Verghese
Strategic vision
K. Subrahmanyam
India’s global role
M.K. Rasgotra
Neighbours and friends
S.D. Muni
Economic roadmap
Pranjoy Guha Thakurta
Energy for progress
S. K. Sharma
New agriculture
S. S. Johl
Save the cities
Water use and waste
Ramaswamy R. Iyer
Science in the 21st century
R. A. Mashelkar
Lessons in education
K. N. Pathak
Empowering women
Mrinal Pande
Problem of numbers
Ashish Bose
How to protect environment
Darryl D’Monte
Health of the nation
Usha Rai

Make the system responsive

N.N. VohraN.N. Vohra

THE British ruled India to further their imperial interests. They left behind a seriously impoverished economy — a feudal agrarian sector and a fragile industrial base which contributed to large-scale unemployment, abysmally low incomes, widespread poverty and illiteracy. Since Independence our country has achieved significant successes on several fronts. Following the colossal upheaval caused by Partition, the government, despite severe constraints, worked devotedly to restore public order and resettle millions of refugees.

Faced with a near famine situation, the administrative apparatus effectively managed thousands of ration depots to distribute essential supplies.

PRIME ISSUE: The emergence of coalition governments has had an adverse impact on governance.
PRIME ISSUE: The emergence of coalition governments has had an adverse impact on governance

Post-1947, India was faced with an acute financial crisis and grave challenges on varied fronts. Nonetheless, in the early years, serious problems were tackled and fair progress was achieved in addressing the complex tasks of nation-building.

There was realisation that orderly change and sustained stability would act as a shield against social unrest and violence. This led to the high emphasis on people’s participation and implementation of community development projects to reduce poverty and unemployment and lay the foundations for achieving equitable growth.

This period witnessed the expansion of education and health facilities; enforcement of land reforms; establishment of universities and centres of scientific, technological and agricultural learning and research; expansion of roads and railways and public transport networks; construction of huge dams and extension of irrigation systems which paved the way for the success of the Green Revolution and attainment of self-sufficiency in the production of foodgrain, perhaps the most outstanding achievement, worldwide, in the last century.

Sustained progress

Attention was also devoted to increasing production of steel, cement and power and launching initiatives to generate nuclear energy. During this period, the country faced four external aggressions and our Armed Forces performed valiantly, except in the Sino-Indian conflict. In short, while serious gaps remained on several fronts, our country was, overall, well set on the path of sustained progress.

This article cannot go into details of the reasons why and when we started failing. Briefly, it can be said that governance had far fewer failures in the early decades, essentially because our first generation political leaders, who had made large personal sacrifices during the freedom struggle, were persons of proven integrity, committed to higher values and national perspectives. Enjoying the trust of the people and respect of the public services they were able to effectively direct the affairs of the state.

In subsequent years, even before the enforcement of Emergency (1975-77), internal feuds and power politics had overtaken commitment to the vital tasks of governance. This period also saw the emergence of a new breed of "committed" civil servants and coteries of extra-constitutional elements joining the political bandwagon, causing severe damage to Rule by Law and the Constitution.

The failure of national-level political parties and the mushrooming of regional and sub-regional groupings led to splintered electoral outcomes. The consequent emergence of coalition governments, in the states and later at the Centre, generated political instability which had an adverse impact on governance. The new commitment to seize and hold political power at any cost saw the emergence of a frightening nexus between corrupt politicians and public servants and unlawful elements in society.

From around the 1990s there were a series of exposures of scandals relating to large-scale defalcations, embezzlements and cases of corruption among which were the fodder scam, the hawala case and the Bofors and submarine deals. These scams involved serious allegations against chief ministers and their ministers, ministers at the Centre and even prime ministers, besides serving and retired senior functionaries.

In the recent years, a growing number of IPS and IAS officers, including several director-generals of police (DGPs) and chief secretaries (CSs), have also been prosecuted in cases involving gross abuse of authority, corruption and criminal offences. Even the Armed Forces have been infected, as witnessed by the Tehelka scandal.

Tainted set-up

Governance has suffered because of the progressive deterioration in the functioning of the executive, the state legislatures and Parliament; the subordinate judiciary has long been tainted and malfunctioning; recently, fingers have begun to be raised even at the higher judicial echelons.

Despite the enveloping gloom, the country has been achieving progress on several fronts. However, our serious failure to achieve human development goals and equitable growth has vitiated the pace of our national advancement and, after nearly six decades of freedom, we still have around 25 per cent of our population subsisting below the poverty line.

The endless debates on the failures in our governance have, interalia, pointed to: a fractured polity and multi-party governments being incapable of enforcing the much-needed measures to provide good governance; deficiencies in the electoral system, which permit entry of corrupt/criminal elements; appalling inefficiency and unaccountability of the administrative apparatus all over the country; and widespread corruption at the political and administrative levels.

There have been continuing demands for urgent reforms being enforced on all fronts, particularly in regard to the role and responsibility of the police and public services.

Our Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, architect of economic reforms in the early 1990s, is most seriously concerned about the crucial connectivity between the quality of governance and the pace at which human and economic development can be attained. He has already established an Administrative Reforms Commission and the process is underway for establishing a new Centre-State Commission.

The Prime Minister has taken the exceptional initiative of holding separate meetings to meet and hear all the district magistrates and superintendents of police in the country. Action is also being taken to introduce the required electoral reforms and to enact the Lok Pal Bill, which has been pending for well over three decades now.

While, hopefully, the aforesaid and other initiatives being meditated by the Prime Minister would engender a fruitful outcome, the most urgent attention would need to be given to improving governance in the states as they have the fundamental responsibility for promoting the welfare of our billion plus people, the vast majority of whom live in villages.

In this context, it is relevant to particularly focus on the state of affairs in the districts where hundreds of functionaries, representing different departments and agencies, are deployed, village-level upwards, to deliver developmental and regulatory services.

Public services

In discussing the vital importance of effective district administration it may be recalled that, not long ago, the entire band of employees were totally answerable to their district heads, and the deputy commissioner (DC) or district magistrate (DM) exercised effective supervisory control over the entire district establishment. The district superintendent of police (SP) also worked in close coordination with the DC/DM, while being unfettered in his day-to-day management of law and order.

It is a matter of serious concern that, over the years, the aforesaid situation has changed beyond recognition. In most states the CSs and DGPs do not have any say even in recommending the officers to be posted as DCs/SPs; likewise the secretaries and their heads of departments have limited say, if at all, in the appointment of district and regional heads of their departments. Almost as a rule, all postings and transfers of DCs, SPs and district-level departmental officers are decided in the chief minister’s secretariat which is perennially engaged in dealing with the unending requests received from local MLAs, MPs, influential business elements and others who claim to be supporters of the political parties in office.

In such a scenario, when even patwaris and constables are transferred by the state revenue and home ministers, respectively, and likewise for all other employees, the very basis of holding the district-level officers, particularly the DC/DM and SP, accountable, has been totally shattered. Employees, at all levels, who enjoy patronage and direct links with the political hierarchy, owe loyalty only to their political masters. This has contributed to the much-lamented spread of indiscipline, non-performance, unaccountability and corruption.

A consequence of this situation is the daily transfer of scores of functionaries, particularly DCs and SPs, for having failed to deliver on the political behests conveyed to them, in many cases by the very person who seeks an unauthorised or even an unlawful decision to further his interests. This is not all.

Large-scale transfers also take place, at all levels, throughout the year and particularly during a change in government when, besides "loyalty", high consideration is given to the caste or community and even the political affiliation of the favoured functionary! This unending spate of transfers has a most damaging effect on the timely implementation of crucial developmental schemes and, equally worrying, the sudden shifts of SPs virtually ensures against the effective maintenance of public order.

In this alarming state of affairs an ever-increasing number of young, talented and professionally motivated officers, including those who join the All-India Services, are realising that they have limited options. Such among them who chose to adhere to the rulebook are soon categorised as "inept" and "unsuitable" for responsible assignments, particularly in the districts where "flexibility" is the essence of survival.

Being sidelined, frequently transferred, publicly humiliated and even made to face charges of one or the other kind, a certain percentage of such officers shed their idealism, become cynical and join the bandwagon.

In this scenario outlined above it is a moot question whether the rot which has set in can, at this stage, be stemmed from within. The short answer is that such an eventuality is unthinkable. Essentially so because the public services comprising the state administrative machinery — which delivers governance — is no longer a cohesive body. The erstwhile apparatus stands liquidated.

The various service cadres are no longer guided, advised and led by their superior administrative authorities, who used to be looked upon as role models. The CSs and DGPs are no longer in a position to protect their flocks who are left to seek their own solutions which, in most cases, involve the development of extra-constitutional loyalties and consequential irrevocable damage to administrative functioning as per established rules, policies and the law.

Irrespective of the high success which may be secured in attracting foreign investments and speeding up the pace of our economic growth, the country will continue to lag behind till we achieve near full success in the efficient and time-bound implementation of vital human development programmes to promote literacy, health, housing, safe drinking water etc. and, side by side, employment generation and rapid reduction in the existing poverty levels.

Thus, briefly, while due attention continues to be devoted to macro issues we just cannot afford to any longer delay fully restoring efficient and honest functioning in the districts, where our people live and where all the vital development progammes concerning their welfare are executed.

Internal security

Sustained development cannot be achieved in a disturbed environment. It is, therefore, of extreme importance that law and order is effectively maintained across the length and breadth of our country. The maintenance of internal security is also vital to attracting increased investments from external sources.

While various well-considered measures would be required to improve governance on all fronts, we cannot, as the very first step, lose any more time in ensuring that the entire band of the over 20 million functionaries, comprising the public services in our country, discharge their duties efficiently and honestly and, side by side, the police organisations in the states are enabled and allowed, without any interference whatsoever, to effectively maintain law and order.

This is not an easy task. It cannot be tackled unless the political hierarchies in the states are educated, persuaded and, if necessary, even coerced to urgently reorient their functioning to speedily commence delivering good governance. Among many other problems, it is this political challenge which our Prime Minister must face and resolve. There is no more time to be lost.

— The writer is a former Union Home and Defence Secretary and Principal Secretary
to Prime Minister.