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Indian Bureaucracy - Lateral Entry - Avoidable storm over mere jharokha of Reform!


TIOL - COB( WEB) - 611
JUNE 14, 2018

By Shailendra Kumar, Founder Editor

IN the past few years, the elements of polarisation in the Indian polity have leapfrogged by several notches! As a consequence, one may see deepening fissures in the macro governance framework. And a good example of such an undesirable trend is the widespread fury-oozing reaction to an innocuous public administration move to throw open certain Joint Secretary-level posts to lateral entrants, having either private sector or MNCs or public corporation lineage. It was so amusing to see that our political leaders of all pedigrees have run so acutely short of ground-level issues that a good number of them grabbed this subject for their special broadcast through multi-lingual channels. A noted stake-holder from Uttar Pradesh went to the extent of describing it as "a dangerous trend" as it may enhance the influence of big capitalists in the policy-making. Though such remarks were made quite seriously but I am yet to find out a distinguished member of that segment of aam aadmi (the mango man) which was zeroed in, for befooling! Do our politicians still believe that the common man does not know about the symbiotic relationship between the 'corporatocracy' and that genre of democracy which rules India!

Being a close ally of the ruling party, the Bihar Chief Minister did see merit in such a move but NOT the one most public administration experts would see. His version of defence was that such an experiment was entailed due to paucity of IAS and IPS officers. Oomph!! Even the architects of this change may not have thought of it!! The Hon'ble Chief Minister was perhaps not told that if there is truly a dearth of officers, all that needs to be done is to send more vacancies to the UPSC to recruit more in the annual exams. The solution does not really lie in lateral entry recruitment, particularly when a beginning is to be made and only limited number of posts can be offered on a pilot basis. All the ills of our 'Steel Frame' which are being debated over, can certainly not be treated by a harmless measure like permitting lateral entry for 10 posts, which may not size up even to a 'mini jharokha' (small window) to the prevailing size of our top-layer bureaucracy.

On the hindsight if I strain my eyeballs to look for major failures of the NDA Government, of course amidst many countable successes, what emerges on top of my tally is the reluctance to act on a slew of recommendations made by various Administrative Reform Commissions in the past. It is public knowledge that over 90 per cent of recommendations of these expert groups are often destined to be guillotined and no political party in power has ever attempted any comprehensive overhaul of our public delivery system. Like all other governments in the past, even Modi Government overlooked the basic necessity of strengthening the apparatus which is mandated to implement the welfare or other policies and meet the expectations of the common man through efficient day-to-day government services. And one reason which I tend to list out for doing so, is the over-reliance on pervasive technology to bridge the woefully large gaps in such citizen-centric services. And it has worked to an extent! But, no technology can be a matching substitute for the man behind the machine. The Modi Government or even some State Governments have undoubtedly bettered some of the services which touch the regular life of the common man but its efficiency cannot be expected to go beyond its inherent limitation.

The most dominant thought in the mind of the Prime Minister, when he took over the reigns of power, was to deliver some tangible change by making best possible use of the existing bureaucratic system. And he visibly leaned on the creamy layer, dominated by the IAS. It would be wrong to say that there is dearth of talented IAS officers but it would equally be wrong to presume that all IAS officers who reach the pinnacle of their career by becoming Secretary in one of the Central Government Ministries, are talented and policy innovators. A good number of them are career bureaucrats. More than any other skill sets, they are known for having accumulated experiences to hone the art of survival at the top! They had long buried the Darwinian theory of 'survival of the fittest' as no political master ever welcomed the 'fittest' to come up with 'fit ideas'! But Mr Modi is different. He would certainly go down in the history as one of the most eloquently technology-acquainted Prime Ministers of India. Right from installing the biometric machines at the entrance of government offices to third party payments only through NEFT to forcing each field outfit of a government department to create a Twitter Handle, is indeed no mean achievement. All such activities may appear to be mundane affairs to a private sector gentleman but getting all the layers of the 50-lakh-strong bureaucracy to make use of technology not only for personal interests but also for their employer and key official functions, was by all standards a gigantic assignment. And it has happened only because of a marked shift in the prevailing mindset of the government servants.

Thanks to regular infusion of technology and also social media, one may see remarkable improvement in the transparency of the working of the government. Making policy decisions public through government websites or egazette portal for all notifications of all the Ministries was an unheard of event in the past. Today, it has become such a habit for all the Departments that even if a GST Notification is to be issued at 9.30 PM, it has to be uploaded online before it is emailed to authorised recipients. And all such changes have become possible because the IAS-dominated creamy layer has also undergone a major change. History teaches us that a change is inevitable if survival is doubtful! Though one may view an IAS officer as a glorious toy wrapped in golden clothes of powers with no accountability but the rules of the game have changed - many have not survived and 'couriered back' to their parent cadres; many have undergone rigorous training and a few have earned respect in the eyes of their political master(s)! Let's give due credit to the devil as a noticeable number of them have adapted to a new political dispensation. Though all the ills of the Central Government bureaucracy have not been removed as the IAS continues to retain the iron-like grip over 95% of the Joint Secretary-level posts (about 445) but credit goes to the NDA Government for coming up with 10 such posts for the lateral entry category. Though it is a little late for Modi to run such a pilot in the fourth year of his 'tenure posting' but this is what he is - unconventional and doing things when none expects him to do it!

Though it is equally true and widely known that inducting 10 domain experts from the non-public sectors may not make much difference to the measurable parameters of our governance system but it is an experiment worth doing. For various countries like the USA and the UK, it is a regular affair and has done well for them. For India, it is an unseen window which is opening a little late. More than the civil service, this window is an acknowledgement of the talent which has piloted the Indian companies to a new high on the global corporate map. A large number of Indian corporate entities have become MNCs, and in the years to come, Indian companies would be occupying the numero uno position on the global tally of maximum number of MNCs from a country. Constant innovation and creation of new ideas are the survival or excelling mantras for the private sector entities. All such domain experts if they join the policy-making teams in the Government, would undoubtedly have teething problems initially but their chances of survival and success are perhaps highest today as even the middle-level bureaucracy can now be seen open to new ideas and new experiments. Whether the lateral entrants would succeed or fail, may be known only after three or five years but if they join the civil service and get assimilated in the sub-culture of their offices, they would be not only contributing to the policy-making but also may become a catalyst for complete-mindset-change. Judging them and predicting their failure because of stifling environment in the Government offices even before they join, is not just and fair. There are many government offices such as DGGST and GST Council Secretariat, which are more corporate-like not only in terms of open cabin culture but also their working style.

Some experts have predicted that no domain expert having 15 years of experience and in the middle of one's career would like to join the Indian bureaucracy. And the two reasons could be - poor salary and an uncertain future after three or five years. Though it may be true for many but certainly not for all Indians. For the lateral entrants worth their salt, policy-making for such a large nation is going to be a Himalayan opportunity. Getting a chance for a limited period to do something meaningful and tangible for 130 crore people is certainly an attraction for many, especially those who may have missed the UPSC bus at some point of time and would now like to grab the second chance without UPSC. Secondly, a salary of about Rs two lakh with various other perks is no mean remuneration to be scoffed at. Thirdly, once one completes one's three year or five year tenure, just too many opportunities in terms of private sector or multilateral agencies assignments would open up. One can see today a virtual rush of global agencies setting up offices in India and they prefer candidates having government background. So, it would be wrong to say that having worked in a government setup one may not be welcome back in the private sector. Even today, one may find many career bureaucrats leaving or resigning too early and being lapped up by the private sector. GSTN CEO is a good example.

However, the success of this pilot would largely depend on the transparency adopted in the recruitment of lateral entrants. The Modi Govt would do well for itself if it publicises the names of the members of the Selection Committee. If possible, the Selection Committee should also accommodate a couple of names from outside the civil services - some academicians or corporate honchos or even senior journalists. Above all, even if the lateral entry experiment succeeds, a large-scale overhaul of our bureaucracy is overdue and whoever forms the Government in 2019, its first priority should be to upgrade the apparatus which is going to deliver and improve the governance system in the country.