India badly needs administrative reforms

By: |
New Delhi | Published: October 29, 2018 5:06:14 AM

The CBI crisis shows you cannot have an institution fighting corruption when it remains under a political system that has been corrupt for ages

If the BJP repeats its success
in 2019, Narendra
Modi may get the chance to overhaul
the system.
But it will be hard work. (File photo)

There is no doubt that whoever is in the right or wrong, the events at CBI last week bring out a serious crisis in the State. India inherited its administrative structure from the British. Indeed,the East India Company realised soon after its possession of Bengal that its system of trading agents would not do. These agents, for their personal greed, misused power and looted Bengal, causing one of the worst famines. There was a reform. Civil servants to India were to be recruited differently and trained in a college the Haileybury College where Malthus taught them. India became the country with a trained civil service second only to China, even before Britain had trained civil servants. The Indian system was imported into Britain in the 1850s. There were the Indian Civil Service, the Indian Police Service and others. Civil servants were supposed to be law-abiding, non-corrupt and efficient. No more than 5,000 personnel ruled India.

When India became independent, this system was retained. The Indian Civil Service—the Steel Frame—was renamed the Indian Administrative Service. Over the years, the numbers grew as the responsibilities of the State grew. Then, in the interest of affirmative action, the system relaxed its recruiting norms on age of entry. Examinations became easier.
But, soon, political influence overwhelmed the previously neutral civil service. Civil servants had to bow before politicians. The structure remained the same. Procedural rules were elaborately followed. The length of service was inflexible, but the conduct became corrupt. But, if the ruling order was happy with the corrupt civil service, there was no complaint. Read Jairam Ramesh’s excellent book, Intertwined Lives, about Indira Gandhi and PN Haksar. Haksar, as a top civil servant working in the PMO, broke every norm of proper behaviour. He interfered in the Congress’s political affairs, wrote Indira Gandhi’s political speeches and advised her on tactics to defeat her opponents. Ramesh reports all this without any censure that this was a serious breach of the norms. The reason is simple. The personnel of the IAS/IFS then was from the same class as the leader. Haksar had known Indira since their London days. Congress was hegemonic. Rules did
not apply.

This long preface is designed to argue that the system India inherited has broken down. There are the same procedural rules of recruitment and retirement. But the quality has deteriorated enormously. Administrative reform has been looked at by many governments—UPA being the most recent, in the Veerappa Moilly report—but nothing has been done. As in politics, so in administration. Corruption is rampant.

Thus, the dilemma of CBI. You cannot have an institution fighting corruption when the political system has been corrupt for ages. The prime minister is the first in many years since Nehru to take corruption seriously. The CBI, ‘the caged parrot’ during the days of the UPA, was supposed to have been reformed. But, personal rivalry took such a vicious form that there was a meltdown at the top. The matter being sub-judice, it is not possible to say who is right, Alok Verma or Rakesh Asthana. But, both had to go because you cannot have an anti-corruption system where the number one accuses the number two of corruption and vice-versa.

Even before this happened, I have argued that the administrative system needs drastic reform. The British have reformed their system at least twice in the last 50 years. But, there is an ethos of honest, rule abiding behaviour in British public life. Even Parliamentarians are scrutinised by a Commissioner for dishonest claims of
expenditure or non-disclosure of private patronage.

It would be too utopian to think that politics could ever be made non-corrupt in India. Narendra Modi is dedicated to the task, but while he is personally above suspicion (except, Rahul Gandhi repeats Rafale endlessly), the task of cleaning up the administrative system is overwhelming.

One simple reason is that cleaning up requires political cooperation. While the Congress was in power, it never did reform the system and never needed to. Since 1989, no party has been hegemonic. If the BJP repeats its success in 2019, Narendra Modi may get the chance to overhaul the system. But it will be hard work. The administrative system is deeply entrenched. It will fight reform tooth and nail. Opposition political parries will raise a hue and cry. But even so, it is a job worth doing. Who knows, whether it will ever be done.

In the meantime, the apex judiciary is the only institution trusted by everyone. It is overburdened by people rushing to it for any and every purpose. If care is not taken, it may itself succumb. The demonstration last January by four SC judges of a political nature was worrisome. India needs at least one institution to be above suspicion.

  • The author is a prominent economist and Labour peer

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