In January 2001, a couple of friends and I attended the Mahakumbh Mela in Allahabad. It was in fact the Mahakumbh of Mahakumbhs—apparently, the stars align in this manner only once every 144 years. I happened to be there on the day of the holiest bath of the festival. It was an astounding spectacle, and I will never be able to forget the line of millions of people as they walked from the city and through the entirely new town that had been created on the banks of the Ganga for the occasion, in search of succour and salvation. Days later, I calculated that if all the people who had attended the Kumbh that night stood in single file, separated from one another by one foot, the queue would have stretched from the Prayag to Miami (assuming there were no seas in between).
However, the most amazing aspect of what we witnessed was the perfect organisation of the entire event that had stretched for more than a month. Everything was done utterly efficiently, from security to lost-and-found services to managing the swelling crowds to the cleanliness of the thousands of temporary toilets that had been built. Obviously, the Indian bureaucratic system worked superbly when served with a massive challenge, and when the stakes were almost immeasurably high (Last year, Uttar Pradesh CM Akhilesh Yadav was invited to Harvard Business School to present a case study on managing the Kumbh).
Prime Minister Narendra Modi wants a paradigm shift in how government works in India, and he has chosen the bureaucracy as his weapon. He ran Gujarat for 13 years through a tight group of loyal and competent officials who reported directly to the chief minister, often bypassing the relevant minister. He wants to do the same at a central level, and the question is: Can he?
For Modi is not only trying to create a wholly new way of how India is run, but also doing it at a time when the bureaucracy is perhaps at its most demoralised and risk-averse. The last five years have seen an astonishing drift in government, a debilitating lethargy in governance and a host of scams that convinced bureaucrats that the only correct decision was to take no decision at all. Files accumulated dust, stasis set in. The process had begun a long time ago—the slow degeneration of babudom—but over the last five years, the system seemed to have become ossified.
As far back as 1964, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who had once called the civil services “the steel frame of India”, confessed to friends that what he considered his greatest failure was his inability to “change the administration, it is still a colonial administration”. He then went on to elaborate his belief that the continuation of that colonial administration “was one of the main causes of India’s inability to solve the problem of poverty” (quoted in the introduction to the Second Administrative Reforms Commission report of 2008 by chairman Veerappa Moily). In March 1966, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi said in Parliament: “What India needed today, was a revolution in the administrative system without which no enduring change could be brought about in any field”.
An incredible 600 committees and commissions have looked into different aspects of public administration in the country since Independence, but nothing much has changed. Moily goes on to write: “The common experience… is that (bureaucrats) resist changes as they are wedded to their privileges and prospects and thereby, have become ends in themselves… It will not be an exaggeration to say that the civil service in India… believes that its authority and legitimacy is derived not from the mandate of the people but from an immutable corpus of rules that it has prescribed for itself, without any correspondence to the needs and aspirations of the people it serves and the democratic ethos. That is why the functioning of the civil service is characterised by a great deal of negativity, lack of responsiveness to what the people want and the dictates of democracy.”
The need to have 12 signatories to a file has been reduced to four. There is a two-week time limit to every decision process. Everyone through whose hands a file passes has to make a comment and cannot pass it upwards with a “Pls advice”. All files have to be kept under lock and key.
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Correction: This article has been updated. Sandipan attended the Mahakumbh Mela in 2001 and not 2011 as stated earlier.
(This story appears in the 22 August, 2014 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)
Politicians, majority of them come and go. They do not know the nitty gritty of administration and try to impose their will. Sometimes they are in a hurry after having spent a lot on elections. However, the bureaucrats have a long tenure. They know the basics. For any country to do well, this so called steel frame should be honest and patriotic. The fact remains that the manipulative sycophants of bureaucracy align and misinterpret rules for personal gains and rule the roost. On seeing their success, fence sitters also follow suit ,even if not whole-heartedly. The principled, hardworking ones are not even given a chance to work in places which matter. After some time they realise that there are no takers for such virtues and keep to themselves. If the PM really means business then he should shoo away these sycophants...which he is perhaps doing...ensure accountability, punish manipulators and identify hard working bureaucrats for posts which are important.on Aug 20, 2014
The author has put the Indian beaurocrats\' life style in a nut shell. If for 65 years the elite beurocrats had been dodging hard work and used to a corrupt, leisurely, happy-go-lucky life, is the summary of the article. At the same time the scenario also depicts the lack of honesty, looting in the name of service, by the politicians. No doubt Indian poverty has taken a deep root in India and politicians are merrily thriving on the fertile soil\"poverty\" and invoking \" secularism\"and \" communal\" whenever occasions demand to divert the attention from burning issues like \"inflation\", rising cost of living, cost of education etc. At the same time it cannot be said that a COMMITTED, DEVOTED, SELFLESS, SIMPLE H\' ble Prme Minister Shri Narendra Modi will not be successful in his endeavor to turn round the Ministers and Beaurocrats to be responsive to the public. If Gujarat was a small state and so was not a challenge for his success as a CM does not hold water, since he has the potential to manage people.if three times successful CM is doubted to have capability as PM, how is it Rahul Ghandi was projected as PM candidate when he was not a delivering as an MP even? Incidentally, these apprehensions which did not surface for 65 years are being raised nowon Aug 20, 2014
Bureaucrats in India are the smartest. They get all benefits...no matter who comes to power. Babus usually have the colonial mindset. They know how to keep their \'masters\' in good humor and do nothing for the people. Manmohan worked with the same officials that Namo is; so how could there be any real change?on Aug 19, 2014
The first statement is factually incorrect. The writer says he visited Mahakumbh Mela in Allahabad in January 2011. However, the fact is that Mahakumbh in Allahabad happened in 2013 (I attended) and Akhilesh Yadav was made Chief Minister only in 2012. Please check basic facts before writing an important articleon Aug 19, 2014
Dear Deepak, Completely my mistake. I attended the Mahakumbh in 2001, and while writing, keyed in 2011, a slip of the finger. It\'s a serious typing error, and thank you for pointing this out. Regards, Sandipanon Aug 19, 2014
Thanks Sandipan! Appreciate your honesty. However, mentioning 2001 (which is 13 years back) and relating it to Akhilesh Yadav and today's situation does not really make much sense. Don't you think so? It would have been apt if you had just mentioned 2013 Mahakumh Mela for which Akhilesh and his government were highly applauded. Regards, Deepakon Aug 19, 2014