Lazy babus hold up India’s march

Joginder Singh ji
(Former Director – CBI)

The Hong Kong-based Political & Economic Risk Consultancy, which conducted a survey of 12 Asian economies recently, says that Singapore’s civil servants are the most efficient among their Asian peers, but they tend to clam up unhelpfully when things go wrong.

It has ranked India’s “suffocating bureaucracy”, as the least-efficient. The survey says that working with Indian civil servants is a “slow and painful” process and that these bureaucrats are a power centre in their own right, both at the national and the State levels, and extremely resistant to reforms that affect them or the way they go about their duties. According to the survey, the ranking of the economies from the most efficient to the least efficient is as follows: Singapore, Hong Kong, Thailand, South Korea, Japan, Malaysia, Taiwan, Vietnam, China, Philippines, Indonesia and India.

This is in conformity with the Corruption Perceptions Index, 2008, prepared by Transparency International, which has ranked India as the 74th most corrupt country among 180 in the world.

Those who do not get justice or do not want to pay bribes have to approach the courts for redressal of their grievances. An individual has to spend his own money for this, whereas the other party, that is the Government, is a faceless respondent. The Government is by far the biggest litigant and is responsible in a large measure for the staggering backlog of civil suits — over 10 million at last count — that are clogging the courts. The Centre, the States and the public sector companies determinedly appeal every adverse verdict, despite eventually winning only a small minority of them.

The extent of Government involvement in litigation was acknowledged by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at a conference of Chief Ministers and Chief Justices in 2004. He revealed that a sample survey conducted in Karnataka found that in 65 per cent of the civil cases, the Government was a litigant, sometimes on both sides, and so Government litigation “crowds out the private citizen from the court system”.

The Prime Minister, on the same occasion, also confirmed that the Karnataka survey found much of the Government litigation to be in the form of appeals, and that 95 per cent of such appeals fail. He observed, “In a way, they are appeals that shouldn’t have been made in the first place.”

There is little reason to assume that things have changed since then. Several Chief Justices of India themselves have drawn attention to the Government’s litigiousness on numerous occasions. One might even say that after his first term as the Prime Minister, there has been no change in Mr Manmohan Singh’s Government insofar as reducing the huge volume of Government litigation is concerned.

Incidentally, the Law Commission too had observed nearly three decades ago that there was much avoidable litigation by the state. It exposed many instances where the judges found that citizens were compelled to litigate because of the “utter indifference” of the Government, where the latter pursued litigation on “frivolous” grounds as a “matter of prestige” with an attitude of “vengeance” or “callousness bordering on vendetta”, displaying “arrogance and a superiority complex”.

About the officials responsible for avoidable litigation, the Law Commission was of the opinion that “the lack of accountability of the officer in whom the power vests to initiate litigation or perpetuate the same by preferring appeals, is largely responsible for mounting litigation … cases are not unknown where corrupt motives may be at the root of the tendency to continue litigation so as to exhaust the other side in the fond hope that he/she/it may, out of exasperation, be willing to grease the palms. There is a third independent cause generating this tendency to initiate or perpetuate litigation and that is to avoid taking decisions”.

But regrettably, even after such an incisive report, there does not seem to have been any change in the proliferation of Government litigation. India has witnessed major transformations in many areas during these years. But few of these changes have been in the Government itself, and the colonial mindset that set the bureaucracy apart from, and above, ordinary citizens, still survives.

The Second Administrative Reforms Commission, headed by the present Law Minister, observed that bureaucracy in India is generally perceived to be “unresponsive, insensitive and corrupt” and a common complaint against it pertains to “excessive red-tapism”. It noted that during its visits to the States, it interacted with a large number of people and most of them complained of the poor quality of services provided by the Government, as well as the indifferent attitude of Government servants, corruption and abuse of authority and the lack of accountability.

It is not that there is a lack of ideas as to how to make the bureaucracy more effective and responsive. The problem is that our laws are so over-protective of the accused that we seem to have reached a dead end. It is not that the Government does not know how to deal with this. The Government has the absolute power to sack anybody for reasons to be recorded in writing.

There is not a single case where an inefficient or a corrupt official has been shown the door. In fact, this is the reason why everybody wants a Government job as it gives you ‘life-long job security’ whether you work or not. And once you retire you get pension for the rest of your life. This is apart from the wealth that you will accumulate indulging in corruption.

As per statistics, 24,130 cases under the Prevention of Corruption Act were pending in trial courts across India at the end of 2007. A large number of them were 15 to 20 years old.

Incidentally, 153 of the newly-elected MPs in the 15th Lok Sabha have criminal cases pending against them. The BJP has 43 tainted MPs, while the Congress has 41. Rajiv Gandhi once said, “Only Re 1 out of Rs 10 allocated to the poor is reaching them”.

His son, Mr Rahul Gandhi, just before the 2009 election, said that only 10 paise out of Rs 10 allocated to the poor was reaching them. No amount of big schemes is going to ameliorate the lot of the poor if all this money is to end up with middlemen and bureaucrats in nexus with corrupt politicians.

There is also the strange practice of the Government using inefficient and dull bureaucrats as its advisers after their retirement. Actually there are far too many people in Government with practically no work to do. To say that the Government is using their ‘talent’ is a shame. The Government should put its own house in order before it can put the country in order. It should end the reign of corruption and substitute it with development.