India @75: Need to preserve balance between growth and freedom

The early days were characterised by the “steel frame” hangover of pre-independence days, when the duty of the civil service was clearly defined as law and order, collection of revenue and facilitate such economic activity as was necessary for the prosperity of the colonial regime.

The greatest example, of course, is the reform of economic policy in 1991. Many of us, used to a predominantly leftist mindset, had difficulties in adapting to the new thinking, but ultimately we did, and contributed heavily.
The greatest example, of course, is the reform of economic policy in 1991. Many of us, used to a predominantly leftist mindset, had difficulties in adapting to the new thinking, but ultimately we did, and contributed heavily.

By K M Chandrasekhar

My life roughly corresponds to the history of independent India. I was born twenty days after the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi at a time when the nation was still savouring the delights of being free after centuries of thraldom, when the atmosphere was redolent with the spirit of sacrifice and love for the nation that had suffused the independence movement, notwithstanding the pains and travails of partition. A couple of decades later, I had joined the civil service and remained associated with public administration for nearly half a century thereafter.

Not long ago, when I was addressing trainees in an important institution in Bengaluru, I was asked the question why we had not grown despite so many years of freedom. A wrong question, obviously, particularly to a person who had seen the nation transform itself miraculously.

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Average life expectancy at the moment of the nation’s birth was 37; it is now over seventy — indeed, in my state, Kerala, it is over 75. From abysmal levels, our income per capita has increased to well over $2,000. Almost the entire nation is electrified. National highways bring the country closer and closer together. While in the pre- independence era, the country was struck repeatedly by famines, decimating the population at periodic intervals, we can now boast of self sufficiency, even surpluses, in most agricultural products. Schools and hospitals have sprouted in all parts of the country.

Successive governments of all denominations have played a role in this growth story. Each builds on the legacy of the past. Public administration,too, has evolved. The early days were characterised by the “steel frame” hangover of pre-independence days, when the duty of the civil service was clearly defined as law and order, collection of revenue and facilitate such economic activity as was necessary for the prosperity of the colonial regime.

The political decision to run the government on the basis of a Constitution and through a democratic process changed the ethos of administration. There was no more need for a steel frame but for a system of administration that is nimble, flexible and cognisant of policies laid down by democratically elected governments. The greatest example, of course, is the reform of economic policy in 1991. Many of us, used to a predominantly leftist mindset, had difficulties in adapting to the new thinking, but ultimately we did, and contributed heavily.

In public administration, changing governments bring in different streams of thought, different policies. This is the single most important factor that distinguishes public administration from corporate management. There is nothing that is fixed and unchanging in public administration, while goals are clearly defined at all times in the corporate sector. It is, therefore, easier to create a goal oriented system in the corporate sector. In public administration, we have still not succeeded in putting in place a results oriented system, although attempts have been made – and abandoned – at different times.

The lack of a cohesive system, however, did not prevent individuals and organisations from achieving results, understanding issues facing the people, initiating reforms, taking the economy to great heights. The fact that we are where we are today and that we look to the future with hope and confidence is owing largely to the collective push for change by political forces and the civil services. Perhaps, we could have achieved more, as certain rigidly oriented systems like China have, but we chose instead, right at the inception of the nation, to enjoy our freedom too.

As we go into the future, it is important that the balance between freedom and growth and respect for the diversity of the nation, which is the foundation on which our Constitution was built, remain intact. Using public administration as a device to further political interests, whether by state or central governments, can create chaos in the long run.

As Revenue Secretary, I was one of the architects of the PMLA Act of 2003, where we strove to achieve a balance betweenthe requirements of dealing with the humongous black money problem and the avoidance of bureaucratic overreach. Subsequent amendments have broken this balance and armed officials in the Enforcement Directorate (ED) with immense powers. This facilitates both political misuse and corruption and high handedness at lower levels of the hierarchy. Earlier, when there were complaints regarding electronic surveillance, the Supreme Court (SC) had ordered the constitution of committees both at the Centre and in the states to monitor all cases on a regular basis. This may not have prevented all misuse, but did serve as a check.

In its recent judgment, the SC has clearly defined the boundaries within which the ED must operate by stating explicitly once more that its investigative authority commences only after a predicate offence is seen to have taken place and an FIR has been filed or court proceedings have started and is limited only to the proceeds of crime, not to the crime per se. This distinction is blurred in actual implementation. To provide balanced implementation, perhaps it is time to install a system of judicial monitoring of such investigative agencies in the Centre and the states. Regulation, too, poses a challenge, particularly to the economy.

As James Madison put it in the Federalist Papers, “ In framing a government, which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty is this: You must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place, oblige it to control itself.”

The author is Former Union Cabinet Secretary

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