Every government since 1947, irrespective of political affiliation, has expressed frustration at the inefficiency of India’s vast bureaucracy and the maze of rules and red-tape. Hundreds of committees and commissions have provided recommendations over the decades on how to change things but the basic structure of public administration has remained unaltered. Therefore, it is no small matter that the central government has embarked on a very ambitious effort in recent weeks to reform the administration from its roots. A careful observer would have noticed that some of its key elements have already been introduced.
Just a few weeks before he passed away in May 1964, Prime Minister Nehru was asked about his greatest regret. He replied, “I could not change the administration, it is still a colonial administration”. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi expressed similar sentiments in a Parliamentary debate in 1966, “What India needs today is a revolution in the administrative system without which no enduring change could be brought about in any field”.
The first Administrative Reform Commission was consequently set up in 1966 under Morarji Desai but itself became a prime example of bureaucratic sloth. Its report of 20 volumes and 537 recommendations would be placed in Parliament in 1977. Although Desai had become Prime Minister by then, he was unable to implement the recommendations.
The reforms of 1991 did free many parts of the economy from direct government control, but the functioning of the bureaucracy went though only a few changes (for instance, the increased use of independent regulators). Therefore, a second Administrative Reform Commission was set up in 2005 under Veerapan Moily. In the preface of its 10th report tabled in 2008, Moily had this to say of the bureaucracy, “It 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”.
This brief historical background is important in order to appreciate what is now being attempted. Prime Minister Modi’s government has been experimenting with a number of changes since 2014 ranging from lateral entry to digitization. However, the new effort has a totally different level of ambition. Here are some of the measures recently introduced:
Common national platform for central government recruitment: Almost all the discussion around government recruitment tends to focus on that of the higher bureaucracy through UPSC examinations. The reality is that this thin layer of gazetted officers accounts for a tiny fraction of the civil service. The rest of the recruitment is done through a bewildering network of agencies, examinations and processes. The lack of transparency not only makes it difficult to navigate for candidates but has led frequently to accusations of manipulation. The government, therefore, has announced the establishment of a National Recruitment Agency that would conduct a Common Eligibility Test across the country. For now, it will be a standardized first level filter that would enable candidates to take things forward for final selection. The scores will be shared, so state governments, public sector and even private sector can use them as they deem fit.
Compulsory retirement as a means to weed out the unfit and inefficient: The health of any organization is dependent on systematically weeding out dead wood. This is rarely done in the Indian civil service. Thus, entry into the civil service is seen as a ticket to guaranteed employment till retirement irrespective of performance. Interestingly, service rules have long included provisions that allow for civil servants to be compulsorily retired after he/she has completed 30 years of service and crossed the age of fifty (or age of 55 even if less than 30 years of service). This can be done under the Fundamental Rule 56(j)/(l) and Rule 48 of CCS (Pension) Rules 1972. Around 320 senior officers have already been retired through this route since 2014, but the government re-issued the guidelines on 28th of August along with supporting Supreme Court judgements. It also provided basic criteria and procedures for using these provisions to remove officials “whose integrity is doubtful” or “found to be ineffective”.
Rationalization of autonomous bodies: The central government alone has hundreds of autonomous bodies of various description – think-tanks, educational institutes, specialized industry agencies, laboratories, advisory boards and so on. These bodies play an important role in the delivery of public services but, inevitably, there is also a large amount of duplication and redundancy that has built up over the decades. It is very rare that a government body, once established, will be wound up even if it no longer serves a purpose. For the first time, the central government is carrying out a comprehensive initiative to review the functioning of these bodies. In August, the Ministry of Textiles alone abolished the All India Handicrafts Board, Cotton Advisory Board, Jute Advisory Board, and the All India Handloom Board. Their duties have been transferred to other existing bodies for better delivery. Other ministries are also carrying out a similar exercise.
Taxpayer’s charter and faceless assessment: An important aspect of administrative reform is to improve the interface with the common citizen. The tax department is an obvious place to start and several efforts have been made recently to improve the experience. In August, the Prime Minister personally announced a Taxpayer’s Charter that includes fourteen rights. This is the first time that the rights of the Indian taxpayer have been clearly laid out. The announcement of the charter accompanied a shift to a system of faceless assessment where cases are to be assigned by an automated system. Together, it is hoped that the measures will significantly reduce persistent complaints of harassment and rent-seeking.
The above reforms are a examples of major administrative reforms that have been introduced in just the last two months. The overall direction should be clear – to upgrade the inflow/ outflow of personnel, rationalize processes, weed out redundant bodies and improve the interface with the common citizen.
(Sanjeev Sanyal is Principal Economic Adviser, Government of India. All opinions are personal)