Thursday, January 12, 2012

The A to Z of Indian Bureaucracy

[Twenty six ways in which Indian babus are making a mockery of governance, ethics and   public service]

For months, the media in Delhi screamed hoarse that the planned ‘BRT corridor’ scheme dreamt up by a few babus of the transport department is a disaster. The bureaucrats blithely went about imposing this nightmare on citizens of Delhi with traffic jams becoming the norm. Now the babus arrogantly blame citizens of Delhi for choosing cars over murderous buses for commuting to office! A babu without arrogance would be like a dodo... Extinct

Like all bullies, the babu rides roughshod over those below him and fawns obsequiously on his masters. You only have to watch the rude and callous manner in which a bureaucrat behaves with a citizen who has gone to his office for some work. And then compare his behaviour in front of a politician in power. The ‘public servant’ is actually the ‘master’ of the public and the ‘servant of the ‘master’ – usually a minister, and sometimes a mafia don!

This is synonymous with Indian babudom. Whether you are the aam aadmi or a billionaire, your file won’t move an inch unless cash changes hands under the table. In the 1980s, the Octroi department in then Bombay went on a strike & army officials manned the check posts. The strike was withdrawn after the media reported that Octroi collections had gone up by more than 500%.

Delay & denial
Perhaps except the Konkan Railway and the Delhi Metro, no project ever undertaken by an Indian babu ever finishes on time. There are some irrigation projects that are in the process of completion for the last 30 years! Delays are always deliberate because they throw open more opportunities for ‘money on the side’. And of course, whenever the media or the judiciary highlights the delay, the Pavlovian reflex of the Indian bureaucrat is to deny, and then deny some more.

Enquiry & extension
If corruption and sordid acts are the dirt, the omnipresent ‘Enquiry Committee’ is the proverbial carpet under which the dirt has been carefully hidden. The principal purpose of the Enquiry committee is to delay, and then deny in the hope that the media and the public will eventually forget about the case. In English, enquiry rhymes with another interesting word called bury!Bureaucrats never ever retire; they just keep getting those ‘extensions’!

That one word can neatly sum up the history of the Indian bureaucracy after independence in 1947. Worse, babus find it difficult to digest the fact that entrepreneurs can usually do a better job. So you will see bureaucrats banning ‘private’ bus operators and forcing citizens to take state run buses that don’t run. So you will see envious bureaucrats ‘de-recognising’ or not recognising world class centres of higher education. Perhaps their biggest failure till date has been their total inability to kill the great Indian spirit!

There is a saying about the Emergency: they crawled when they were asked to bend. That can neatly sum up the behaviour and attitude of most bureaucrats in independent India. It is virtually impossible for a minister to get a babu sacked; and yet bureaucrats crawl before netas and justify their behaviour by whining that they are otherwise harassed.

You would associate this term usually with dealers in a casino. But Indian babus have become masters of the game. Just look at how Sudhir Goswami hustled his way into the cover of Time Magazine as one of the Indian heroes. It is only much later that dumb struck Indians found out that Goswami was lining his pockets and bank accounts with money meant for flood relief! And does any one remember Ashok Agarwal, the Enforcement Directorate official who turned black mailing into a fine art!

Impose inefficiently
When corruption, delays, denials and hustling don’t work, the Indian babu resorts to ‘imposing’ rules and regulations. It is a different matter that the bureaucrat performs even this destructive act very inefficiently! Impose price controls if inflation hurts people so that they are hurt even more. Impose quotas at the behest of political masters. Impose rules which entrepreneurs have to break if they want to run a successful business.

The Indian bureaucrat has acquired and mastered the legendary act of justifying anything and everything. File a request under the Right to Information Act and the babu will deny access to it. He will then justify his cussed behaviour because it involves something termed as ‘national security’. Ask a bureaucrat about delays in construction of national highways and you will get simply no response, He will justify his stonewalling in the name of ‘public interest’!

If Franz Kafka had encountered Indian babus, his novels would have been even more depressing and disturbing. Analysts are sadly mistaken when they call Kafka’s writings surreal; they perhaps meant the Indian bureaucracy. A Kafkaesque bureaucracy is “marked by a senseless, disorienting, often menacing complexity”. B&E challenges entrepreneurs and citizens to say confidently that they understand the frighteningly complex jargon that is used by babus.

Arguably the third most favourite sport of the bureaucrats after corruption and delays.When denials and stone walling don’t work, just resort to outright lies. The Indian babu will lie about files, projects, public interest, national security, corruption, delays, hustling and any other act that might embarrass the bureaucrat individually or the bureaucracy collectively. Thanks to judicial activism and some bureaucrats being sent behind bars for contempt of court, babus are now wary of using this weapon.

If Jack Welch would watch an Indian babu ‘manage’ something, he might just end up committing suicide. With extremely rare and honourable exceptions, almost every thing that a bureaucrat touches turns into dust. When babus announce a grand new plan to increase electricity and water supply to citizens, the taps dry up and the lights go out. When they announce a plan to tackle monsoon in Bombay, even Dalal Street virtually shuts down because no one can reach office! And of course, they then justify it in public interest!

Like the courtiers of the Mughal era, Indian babus-thanks to their access to the new kings and queens of India (Ministers, MPs and MLAs)-are perpetually trying to curry a favour or two for themselves and their family members. The best overseas scholarships are thus ‘reserved’ for children of bureaucrats. Some of the best jobs in the private sector are thus ‘reserved’ for the children of bureaucrats. And some of the best college seats in India are thus ‘reserved’ for the blessed progeny of these new age courtiers!

Quite mysteriously, the ‘If they don’t have bread, let them eat cake’ persona of the French Revolution has been transplanted into Indian bureaucracy. Cocooned in their bungalows and VIP areas, the Indian babu is utterly oblivious to what is happening in the rest of the country. The babu is oblivious of the fact that 300 million Indians are starving; that roads don’t exist in much of India, that water and electricity are mirages for the aam aadmi, that…The only thing they are not oblivious to is their ‘status’.

Like bacteria and termites, Indian babus have proliferated and invaded virtually every sphere of activity in the country. No wonder businessmen and citizens say that our system is rotten to the core. Indian babus run companies, they manage climate control, they run the Railways, they operate fleets of buses and aircraft, they run duty free shops, they run anti-poverty programs, they run schools and colleges and hospitals… They might start running modelling agencies and spas too. In short, proliferating bureaucrats have run India to the ground!

When the first bureaucrat in the history of mankind had a fantasy, he saw a long and winding queue of forlorn, dejected and frustrated people. That day, God was perhaps in a bad mood and condemned mankind to a life time of queuing up. For Indian babus, the ultimate high is making citizens stand in never ending queues-for money, for ration, for tickets, for liquor, for passports and even for death certificates. Of course, queues are meant only for the public, not for ‘public servants’!

Red tape
The ubiquitous file tied up in red thread is the ultimate symbol of the corrosive and destructive powers of Indian bureaucracy. It is as dangerous as the Swastika of Nazis; as devastating as the Red Star of Stalin and Mao and as vainglorious as the Eagle of theUnited States. The Indian babu starts getting withdrawal symptoms if he is not surrounded by musty files; many of which have perhaps not been opened for decades. Red Tape is the Bramhastra that is used by babus to systematically throttle India Inc.

Many at B&E suggested socialism & sadistic as a better option than sycophancy.Eventually, the consensus was that arrogance coupled with sycophancy is the Yin & Yang of Indian bureaucracy. The sycophancy is reserved only for the powers that be-for the criminal turned neta who has become a minister, for superiors who can gift plum postings and assignments and for very rich entrepreneurs who lavish money on the bureaucrats.

Indian bureaucrats are always feverishly praying for natural and man made tragedies and disasters to strike India. A minor flood is welcome; a drought is even better and a disaster like an earthquake or a super cyclone is heaven sent. A tragedy means ‘relief’ money from government coffers and an opportunity to make enough to build another house or two. Now you know why sincere and dedicated babus fight to have their districts declared ‘drought prone’!

Hare brained ideas and schemes have become the monopoly of Indian bureaucracy. One day, you will have the Lt. Governor of Delhi thinking aloud that I-cards for people from U.P. andBihar might be a good idea. The other day, you will have another babu stipulate that a homeless destitute must provide proof of residence before he gets free food. Soon, expect a bunch of sycophantic babus kowtowing to a neta and drawing up legislation for reservations in the private sector.

This term just about pipped the word vindictive to the post. Whether it is the annual function of a school or college or a gathering of India’s top businessmen, the Indian bureaucrat is in his element when he gets a chance to deliver a ‘lecture’. Hypocritical words tumble out of his mouth like honey laced with arsenic. Children & businessmen have no choice but to suffer in silence for a vindictive bureaucrat is worse than a verbose one!

Four synonyms for the term wanton are-uncalled for, needless, meaningless and reckless. But wait, the wanton behaviour of the Indian babu is on display on selective occasions. Over cautious bureaucrats suddenly turn decisively over zealous when it comes to squandering tax payers’ money on fancy schemes that only line up their pockets and that of politicians.
When all else – including corruption, delays, denials, hustling, nepotism, red tapism and sycophancy – fails, the Indian babu resorts to the good old pass the buck game and starts blaming ‘foreign powers’ for all the ills that bedevil India. The foreign power could be the CIA, it could be terrorists from Pakistan, it could be illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, it could be the insidious designs of China and it could be a conspiracy of developed countries to deny prosperity to India.

 Yes minister
Most readers of B&E must be familiar with this hilarious and yet poignant book and British TV series. Just in case you are not, it is a series of episodes where bumbling but clubby bureaucrats make fools out of vainglorious politicians in the U.K. In India, it is difficult to say who is making a fool of whom. But one thing is for sure, both bureaucrats and ministers are sure making fools of Indian citizens. Not just some of the people some of the time. But all the people, all the time!

Zero sum game
In this game, one of the two participants has to necessarily lose. More importantly, the quantum of gains that are made by the winner is exactly the same as the quantum of losses. In India, the bureaucrat and the citizen have been playing a zero sum game right since 1947; perhaps even before that, when the British had ruled India through a civil service structure. No prizes for guessing who the decisive winner is when the opponents are the citizen and the bureaucrat. Unlike those classic zero sum games, the politician is the joker in the pack in this case!

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