Can administration change?
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The recent cover story on India in The Economist considered what was holding us back from realising the true growth potential. It concluded that the tardiness of officialdom was the big constraint and prescribed the need for downsizing and meaningful administrative reforms.
Interestingly, the article depicts a day in the lives of two district magistrates, one in Uttar Pradesh and the other in Kerala. Both are examples of harassed human beings overburdened by complex problems. The mammoth bureaucracy is perceived as impeding progress. However, field officers are overstretched looking at the enormity of local problems, a growing backlog of public grievances and meaningful monitoring of public outlays.
The issue of administrative reforms is scarcely new, considering the number of commissions and committees that have made innumerable and sensible recommendations. The implementation of some of their recommendations have made a difference but overall action remains grossly inadequate.
Action on devolution of administrative and financial powers to Panchayati Raj institutions, reforming local self-government, depoliticisation in matters of placement, promotion and seeking continuity of tenure has been ad hoc and half-hearted. However, consider the following:
First, in a democratic fabric how genuinely can we depoliticise administration? Important administrative decisions have political overtones. In the higher echelons of administration, the distinction between politics and administration gets increasingly blurred. Elected political representatives at multiple levels, particularly to state legislatures and Parliament seek to serve the electorate. This may be at variance with the compulsions of a neutral bureaucracy. Excessive political interference detracts from overall public good. The rationale of permanent civil servants showing total neutrality and remaining outside the fabric of political decision is bit of a myth. Combining political necessities with good governance and adhering to best practices in managing the bureaucracy offer difficult options. There is a need to adopt a differentiated approach, given the vast differences in governance quality and levels of economic developments. A lot also depends on the milieu, the nature of the coalition and avoiding the danger of letting the best become an enemy of the good.
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