A stadium to walk the dog and other privileges
(Illustrations: Saurabh Singh)
WITHIN HOURS OF receiving a report from the Delhi chief secretary, a Union home ministry notice was slapped on the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) couple who had held the government-run Thyagaraj Sports Complex to ransom every evening for months, turning out all the athletes more than an hour before closing time just to walk their dog. Their activities were first reported by The Indian Express. While senior IAS officer Sanjeev Khirwar was transferred to Ladakh, his wife and fellow IAS officer Rinku Dugga was posted out of the capital to Arunachal Pradesh. The news took social media by storm. One Rekha Patil tweeted under #kutta: “Great decision. Now, people will understand not to take government facilities for granted.” Pakchikpak Raja Babu tweeted: “Do IAS ke beech ek good doggo fass gaya,” taking a dig at how the couple, aiming at mollycoddling their pet, had actually done it a disservice. While most hailed the swift action as a fitting message to the entire clan of entitled ‘Babus’ of the Indian bureaucracy, others demanded suspension to tackle the persisting malaise. Then there were those who took umbrage at the errant couple being posted to Leh and the Northeast, as if these were dumping grounds for the rotten apples of Babudom. All agreed, though, that stern and speedy action of the kind demonstrated was long overdue to let those who feel so entitled know that the cesspool of self-importance they swam in was, in fact, made of quicksand.
The Khirwar-Dugga couple is by no means unique in self-proclaimed privileges. Bureaucrats, particularly those in the national capital, for decades have mimicked their colonial predecessors and those from the erstwhile Indian (officially Imperial) Civil Service (ICS) that went extinct post-Independence. That genetic imprint of the Raj-era ICS was passed on to the administrative structure of independent India. Sprawling Lutyens’ bungalows in Delhi—these were later converted to accommodate members of Parliament (MPs) before a housing crisis made it imperative to construct smaller, multi-storeyed accommodation and hostels for parliamentarians—were a hallmark of the senior bureaucracy. The elitist trappings of office continued to persist for decades, apart from the recruitments of the newly free India, even in a more democratised environment where the educated middle class was aspiring to be part of the administrative machinery. One bureaucrat of 1980s vintage posted as district magistrate in a Hindi-belt state recalled how he moved into a bungalow sitting in the middle of a three-acre verdant campus designed more to distance and alienate him from ordinary people and accentuate his ‘status’ than facilitate the ease of efficient administration and services delivery to the public. When his family of two moved in with a few suitcases and many books, they were presented with a support staff of 15 employees meant to embellish that status, including a cook, batman, gardener, house help, cleaner, and so on. He described it as “obscenely decadent and slothful”.
The Lutyens’ bureaucrat was a special breed even among this pampered lot of the top rank of administrators, the IAS. His life, for the most part, was defined by leisurely, extended lunches at the Gymkhana and the India International Centre, the evenings spent either at tennis or golf at exclusive clubs in Delhi or in their distinctive Nehru jackets at the Taj Hotel’s Chambers or the Oberoi’s Belvedere with friends, or rubbing shoulders with allies from corporate houses. IAS wives were ferried by chauffeurs to Khan Market in government vehicles for grocery shopping. Another fixture was the self-effacing chauffeur carrying the shopping bags for the memsahib, consciously pacing himself five feet behind the boss’ wife at upscale shopping centres of the time, after dropping the boss off at his watering hole. A huge row of government vehicles lined the bylanes outside the posh private schools, waiting to take the children of bureaucrats home or to cricket practice or swimming and music lessons after school. Practically every form of entertainment in the capital was showered on them gratis: cricket matches, cinema, music concerts, etc.
The ‘perks’ just got better as the years of Indian bureaucracy wore on from the initial decades of passionate nation-building and socio-economic development. As the decades passed, it became an entitled lifestyle that began to smother efficiency in public service rather than energise it. By the end of the 1970s, and more so in the 1980s and 1990s, it was a well-known fact that by 6PM Lutyens’ senior bureaucrats, with the exception of the most hard working, would be out of office and headed for the preferred watering hole to heatedly debate the “Idea of India”, gender discrimination and neo-capitalism, and to rub shoulders with politicians. They also had a pronounced snigger aimed at those from the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs). This became part of an institutionalised ritual, making a senior bureaucrat remark laconically that if lack of punctuality were a virtue, the IAS suffered from a terminal affliction.
That leisurely and imperious work culture of the IAS, however, changed substantially with the arrival of Narendra Modi on the scene in 2014. Ministers were directed to be present in office well on time and, when circumstances demanded, till late, setting an example for the bureaucrats and the entire platoon of administrative staff. Suddenly, bureaucrats of all ranks were being made accountable for their work time and forced to clock in at both the entry and exit points while the dog tag ID card became a tell-tale gauge of work ethic and efficiency rather than a mere status showpiece. Secretaries, ditching their lazy morning schedules and evening entertainment timetables, were forced to set an example that even ministers followed. All of a sudden, tabs were being kept on the performance of the civil servant, with a premium on innovative and speedy, smooth delivery of solutions to issues of public concern. The Group of Ministers (GoM), set up under the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) for resolving issues, was dismantled and a committee of secretaries was set up for finding solutions under the direct oversight of the prime minister. When Manmohan Singh had a 10AM-5PM work schedule, the bureaucracy retreated early to wring out self-served perks. Modi’s work culture put an end to all the ambling lunches and early evening tipples.
But even Modi must have been aware of how difficult changing this entrenched attitude among bureaucrats would prove to be, given the long chain of privileges, power and pelf, and the heightened sense of entitlement that the subcontinent’s administrators enjoyed through history well before the advent of the Mughals and the British. In June 2014, days after he took over in an entitled and cliquish Lutyens’ Delhi environment, Narendra Modi—sensing the imperative to reboot the bureaucracy and inject fresh rigor, vibrancy, new ideas and quick, sensitive responses to a multitude of complex challenges—had summoned the 77 secretaries of the various Union ministries for a direct interaction with him, a first for many of them. He had a solid plan: to revamp, energise and rework the relevance of the ‘Great Indian Bureaucracy’ by making it a vibrant part of service delivery to citizens in a new environment of a rapidly transforming India, socio-economically, politically and in information access. The unprecedented growth and participation of the private sector, non-government sectors and civil society in services delivery to citizens, in tandem with economic liberalisation, had rung in a very complex matrix that had forced the bureaucracy more into the role of a facilitator than a core citizen services delivery machinery—a role it had performed in earlier decades. It needed a significant reset in the administrative service based on a rapidly evolving situation, locally, nationally and globally. In other words, no more venal, knee-jerk responses like “reply in triplicate” or “come back after lunch time” to key issues of citizens’ concern, prolonging resolutions through decades. The action taken over the Thyagaraj stadium episode is a clear indication that there has been a reset. And a decisive one.
THE NATIONALISTS OF the pre-Independence era did not have any special affinity for the ICS or the civil servants who administered it. Most saw them as high-maintenance and a necessary evil. Jawaharlal Nehru wrote in his autobiography: “The American economist Veblen has called the privileged classes the ‘kept classes’. I think it would be equally true to call the ICS the ‘kept services’. They are a very expensive luxury.” Veteran ICS official CS Venkatachar, who served in Sardar Patel’s office and lived in Lutyens’ Delhi, traces the antecedents of the entitled administrative class to the Mauryan empire in his book Witness to the Century, arguing that the British had maintained a continuity of sorts. Mauryan kings divided their kingdom into provinces and districts and appointed officials to ensure efficient administration of these subdivisions. Venkatachar writes: “In the Ashokan inscriptions, there are references to officials charged with the welfare of Janapadas and Paradeshas; Mahamatras or higher officers charged with administration of cities, and a host of minor officials including clerks, scribes and reporters. The territorial division of the Mughal period—the Sircars, the Subas and the Mahals—were continued by the British in the form of provinces, divisions and districts”. Venkatachar holds that the British tweaked the administrative machinery to imprint some of their own character on it while keeping intact the involvement of the lower rungs of the administrative machinery in tax collection and so on.
The sense of entitlement that came to be associated with the bureaucrats who served the Raj continued to manifest itself post-Independence and translated into the “mai-baap sarkar”. “Sarkar” came to be the very honorific by which ordinary folks struggling to get government documents that pinned their lives—including for wills, property documents, personal relations, deaths, births and marriages—addressed the bureaucrats. The British themselves only began using the word bureaucracy in the 19th century, long after it was first coined by Vincent de Gournay in 1745. The French economist used it to refer to the administrative structure. The British Raj in India, however, remains among the best examples of how legions of bureaucrats, appointed under Section XXXII of the Government of India Act of 1858, were designed, nurtured and evolved to preserve and protect their own interests until 1947. A recent essay on the ICS describes the recruits thus: “…the strength of the Service was restricted to the number ‘absolutely necessary to fill the supervising and controlling offices’ of the governing structure. The lower ranks of the administration were populated by a vast army of subordinate clerks and provincial staff, recruited in India to do the more humdrum tasks. But the hierarchy was headed and guided by the well-controlled hand of carefully selected ICS officers. These officers held all the key posts: they surrounded the Viceroy. They dominated the provincial governments and they were ultimately responsible for overseeing all government activity in the two hundred and fifty districts that comprised British India.”
Nayantara Pothen detailed the rigidly hierarchical creation of the imperial capital by the British in her book Glittering Decades: New Delhi in Love and War. The book, which closely examines the role of social ritual, interaction and behaviour in the shaping of the city and its elite groups, tells the story of New Delhi—a capital meant to showcase the pomp and glory of the British Raj but came, instead, to represent its paper castles and rapid decline—and its privileged between 1931 and 1952. The book describes the inbuilt socio-political hierarchy thus: “The design principle of embedding authority and hierarchy into the design of the imperial capital… was reflected in the way in which space was organized in New Delhi. Residential areas were allocated according to race, occupational rank and socio-economic status. A report put forward by the Imperial Delhi Committee, Geoffrey de Montmorency, reinforced the inherent hierarchy that was to be built into the ‘city of civil servants’. First, it argued that the distance between the Secretariat buildings and the residences of its officials should be based on official ranks. Thus, the residences of the high officials were to be located as close as possible to the Secretariat buildings. Fanning out from these residences were those in comparatively subordinate positions, secretaries and heads of departments, deputy secretaries and undersecretaries and so on until one reaches the petty clerks and menials, who were segregated racially and located the farthest from the inner sanctum of power.”
Pothen offers a deep insight into the very DNA of the socio-political hierarchy built into the Delhi of the Raj and its power-related pecking order. According to her, Anthony D King, in his study of colonial cities, “plotted the residential allocation against the ranks listed in the Warrant of Precedence and this provides some insight into the social status of residential roads in the new imperial capital. The most high-ranking roads were York Place, Hastings Road, King George’s Avenue and Dupleix Road. These were followed by Clive Road, Akbar Road, Aurangzeb Road, Kushak Road and the Queensway.”
It wasn’t just a blueprint for hierarchy in Delhi. That map was replicated in the district headquarters, too. The collector and the police chief both occupied prime British bungalows with huge tracts of land in the district headquarters. This segregated them, both physically and figuratively, from the underlings and junior staffers. It also elevated their power status among the ordinary folk they were supposed to be administering. The established socio-economic and power pecking order continued in the districts well after independence. Sample this: in Varanasi, the commissioner, a senior IAS officer, lives in the heart of the city in a bungalow set in a seven-acre campus in the prime district court complex area; the district magistrate lives in a similar seven-acre plot in the Cantonment area, the commissioner of police, inspector general of police, and deputy inspector general all occupy large plots. A back-of-the-envelope calculation on the land parcels being locked for these eminences shows a value of a whopping `1,000 crore. Is this cost worth it when cities are going vertical, land is scarce and desperately needed for urban development?
THE PROBLEMS WITH the Indian bureaucracy were not unique to the subcontinent but they may have been the worst case of a terminal affliction in the form of a sense of entitlement, hampering development through independent thinking and initiative. Back in the late 1970s, Allen Brownfield wrote of the burgeoning bills for the growing, and correspondingly inefficient, American bureaucracy: “From 1952 to 1972, the cost of the public payroll multiplied more than four fold, from $35 billion to $150 billion. The 330 per cent increase over that period exceeds the 247 per cent growth of employee compensation in private industries ($161 billion to $557 billion).”
In 2012, before Narendra Modi took over as prime minister with a focused agenda of not just exponentially increasing the efficiency of the Great Indian Bureaucracy but also of radically restructuring its key work priorities, it was ranked the worst in Asia with a 9.21 rating of 10, according to a report by a prestigious consulting firm based in Hong Kong (Political and Economic Risk Consultancy Ltd), coming in behind Vietnam (8.54), Indonesia (8.37), Philippines (7.57) and China (7.11). Singapore remained the best with a rating of 2.25, followed by Hong Kong (3.53), Thailand (5.25) Taiwan (5.57), Japan (5.77), South Korea (5.87) and Malaysia (5.89). The report said India’s inefficient bureaucracy was largely responsible for most of the biggest complaints that business executives have about the country, mainly related to inadequate infrastructure and corruption, where officials were willing to accept under-the-table payments and companies were tempted to pay to overcome bureaucratic inertia and gain government favours. It also highlighted onerous and fickle tax, environmental and other regulations that could make business in India “so frustrating and expensive”.
In a 2018 article in The Hindu, Pradeep S Mehta had referred to a seminal paper titled ‘Bureaucracy and Growth: A Cross-National Analysis of the Effects of “Weberian” State Structures on Economic Growth’ by Peter Evans and James Rauch that found that among 35 developing countries, those with more competent bureaucracies enjoy higher levels of economic growth and prosperity. This analysis was supplemented by several case studies, Mehta maintained, including the World Bank’s ‘East Asian Miracle’, which attributes the rise of Japan, Korea and other ‘Asian Tigers’ to a motivated and competent bureaucracy. In contrast, India’s has always been characterised as a growth retardant.
To be fair, the importance of a well-functioning bureaucracy has been well understood. Several administrative reform initiatives have been taken since Independence, and the commissions formed for the purpose have submitted voluminous reports on making the bureaucracy more responsive to public needs, with the latest being the Second Administrative Reforms Commission.
“Given that historically, the recommendations of these commissions have rarely been implemented, the challenge of reforming the bureaucracy has been growing by the day,” Mehta maintained. Arguing for proactively incentivising bureaucrats from the top down rather than relying solely on procedural density, he added, “A key shortcoming of their recommendations has been that they have focused largely on the IAS, the topmost echelon of the bureaucratic pyramid. With their focus on an elite sliver of administrators, these reports have ignored the welfare ramifications of millions of daily interactions between the public and other government employees. Moreover, most have been centred on minor changes to staffing rules, such as lateral entry of experienced professionals, which is likely to have only a limited impact on the overall bureaucratic edifice. Another shortcoming is an excessive reliance on monitoring mechanisms to tackle corruption. Besides the fact that most of these measures have been ineffective, extra monitoring also leads to procedural excesses that result in greater friction and inefficiency in the bureaucracy.” While tackling corruption and attacking self-accorded privileges should continue to be the goal, this should not heighten procedural density, he maintained. There was little or no “procedural density” in the manner in which the Modi government dealt with the Khirwar-Dugga couple.
Modi is not the first head of the Indian executive to sense how imperative it was to reboot the bureaucracy and inject rigor and new ideas for quick and sensitive responses. But he may be the only one who has turned his single-minded focus and political resolve to the issues plaguing the administrative machinery. The idea of rejuvenating it was attempted, but only in fits and starts, in both the 1980s and 1990s. In other years, a revolving door enabled lateral recruitment to induct technocrats such as Manmohan Singh, Vijay Kelkar, Bimal Jalan, Rakesh Mohan, Montek Singh Ahluwalia and Arvind Virmani. Rajiv Gandhi attempted bringing in lateral entrants to the government but faced much blowback from an entrenched administrative army at a time when the popular view of the bureaucrat was fired by the English political satire Yes Minister and its sequel Yes, Prime Minister. A well-known dialogue in the former, referring to the self-serving, static trajectory in policy implementation indulged in regularly by senior bureaucrats, went something like this: “When we ask the minister, he says policy is an administrative question for you and when we ask you, you say policy is a political question for the minister.” The secretary’s reply is a pointed exercise in civil service jargon demonstrating wheels within wheels. Modi, himself hailing from a socio-economically backward background, was already acutely aware, when he moved to New Delhi in 2014, of the challenges and the task cut out for him in reforming the bureaucracy that monitored the execution of government policies on the ground for those eligible, as well as its addiction to status and entitlement. Modi, however, successfully navigated the disgruntlement of the bureaucracy by hiring laterally the likes of Parameswaran Iyer to ensure the spread and delivery of key government programmes, including toilets and drinking water, down to the last mile, sending out a strong signal that focused, result-oriented work was a priority among administrators.
The growth trajectory of the IAS officer as an entitlement parasite is interesting. That s/he becomes a district magistrate in their late twenties itself tells an eloquent story of how, in technology-driven modern India, the bureaucrat is, for decades through their career, still considered the fount of all favour-distribution to ordinary citizens—instead of being the prime conduit for delivery of basic government services—and mired in hidebound, status-driven exclusivity and whimsical exercise of what should actually be the fundamental right of every citizen. This, despite the incontrovertible and exponential growth and spread of both information technology and the private sector in facilitating most of these essential services, including health, education, finance and property. The residential property and staff allotted to a district magistrate or a collector is nothing less than the privileges assigned to a jagirdar or zamindar allied to their ‘bosses’ in the British Raj or the Mughal empire. Allegiance (measured by the ability to bully, cajole and threaten citizens on the lower rungs of society or subjugate the most rebellious) and servility were key criteria to determine whether someone was worthy of being given ‘privileges’. The district collector’s status was much more forbidding and apparent to the ordinary citizen than that of the bureaucrat in Lutyens’ Delhi because of the huge territory that he wielded power over in the name of the government elected by the ‘governed’ people themselves, the very large workforce that he had to oversee (both at home where the staff, no matter what their qualification, had to walk dogs, babysit, organise house staff, even grow wheat and vegetables within the large compounds, and at work, with the power to draft and sack people in various departments that s/he controlled), and so on. That apart, in many cases, the growth trajectory of the young IAS officer came with, reinforced and carried forward, covertly if not overtly, the class, caste, gender, community and other biases established through decades at the village and block levels. And the village strongman or head became a representative extension of the very formidable power and pelf wielded by the ‘sarkar’ at the grassroots level.
TWITTER AND OTHER social media platforms recently went viral with pictures of a lady in an ordinary sari hitched up above her ankles, walking barefoot in the far villages of flood-ravaged Cachar district in Assam, accompanied by local women detailing their woes to her. Keerthi Jalli, born in 1989 in today’s Telangana, became an IAS officer in 2012. Jalli took over as the first woman district deputy commissioner in Hailakandi district of Assam’s Barak Valley. In 2020, she was awarded the “Best Administrative Officer” title for resolving various issues in her district and in ensuring public service. Based on her performance and dedication to her work, she was transferred to the flood ravaged Cachar district. Ideally, Jalli’s dedication and work as an administrative officer should not have gone viral on social media or elicited the immense praise from ordinary people that it did—it should have been the norm for all young bureaucrats. That it is not, even today, is a matter of shame and concern. Three of the toppers in the IAS exams this year are women. In sharp contrast to the likes of Rinku Dugga, Jalli has become an icon, a standard by which the dedication of women bureaucrats in particular, and of the younger, more driven recruits of both sexes to the bureaucracy, is being measured and monitored by ordinary citizens in an age of technology and information dispensation.
Khirwar and Dugga and their ilk, unlike Jalli, seem to have forgotten their core duty to citizens, feeding for decades on privileges and luxuries that separated them from the very citizens they were supposed to deliver essential services to and implement government programmes and policies for. Their abrupt transfer is evidence of how the Modi government at the Centre views such fundamental lapses and that it is determined to deal with them.