Reforming the State

A recent study suggests an imaginative range of administrative reforms. How many are actually workable?

India’s higher civil services are today in conditions of grave decline, both in public estimation and in its outcomes of tangible public service. In an engaging recent study for the National Social Watch, scholar-administrator N.C. Saxena suggests an imaginative but eclectic range of solutions for administrative reforms, including a greater focus on policy outcomes; linking transfers of funds with performance by state governments; and enhancing accountability outward to society and citizens, rather than inward and upward within the government. In this and a later column, I will look at some of his more important suggestions in his monograph, especially ways to make it more responsive and accountable to disadvantaged populations.

Saxena often stresses that it is not the size of public expenditure on pro-poor services, but the effectiveness with which it is ‘translated into public goods and services that reach the poor’ that creates impacts on poverty and social outcomes. He does a simple back-of-the-envelope calculation: “Government of India transfers close to Rs.6.5 lakh rupees every year to the States. If even half of it was to be sent to the seven crore poor families directly by money order, they would receive more than Rs.130 a day!”

Saxena suggests first that the central government uses fiscal transfers, which he estimates (excluding major subsidies) to be currently around Rs.6 lakh crore, to pressurise states to undertake governance reforms. He proposes a “good governance index” based on ‘infant mortality rate, extent of immunisation, literacy rate for women, sex ratio, feeding programmes for children, availability of safe drinking water supply, electrification of rural households, rural and urban unemployment, percentage of girls married below 18 years, percentage of villages not connected by all weather roads, number of class I government officials prosecuted and convicted for corruption, and so on”. Fiscal transfers to States should be based on their performance on this governance index.

The difficulties for me with this suggestion are two-fold: one is that it presumes that governance is better in the Centre compared to states, for which there is little consistent evidence. Some states like Tamil Nadu and Kerala have consistently outpaced central governments in pro-poor governance. And I find it doubly unjust to punish people living in poorly governed states with lower allocations, because of the sub-optimal performance of their governments for which they cannot be blamed. However, his related suggestions, of expanding allocations for the social sector, and improving budgetary processes to ensure timely and transparent budget and fund flows are unexceptionable.

He further suggests the simplifications of laws and policies which affect the poor. “It is a sad commentary on our laws,” he points out, “that the informal sector, which provides maximum employment, is mostly declared as illegal and subject to the whims of law enforcing agencies. Almost all occupations in the urban informal sector, such as hawking and small manufacturing in residential areas are illegal!” He further observes that “de-regulation has made almost no impact at the State level”, on buying and selling land, getting a ration card, renting one’s house, all need a thorough revision. “One can set up an industry worth billions of rupees in India without any license today, but a farmer can neither set up a brick kiln unit, nor a rice shelling plant, and not even cut a tree standing on his own private field without bribing several officials. A simple operation of converting prosopis (a shrub occurring everywhere in states like Gujarat and Tamil Nadu, the more you cut it the more it grows) into charcoal, which can give employment to thousands of people requires four different permissions!”

Saxena lists a large menu for civil service reforms. There are many redundant positions, especially at senior levels, which should be eliminated, and “only such posts where people can contribute” retained. In addition, key public services — education, healthcare, police and judiciary — are starved of people, whereas many wings are overstaffed: about 70 per cent of all government employees are support staff unrelated to public service — drivers, peons and clerks. He suggests that efforts should be made to identify surplus staff, set up an effective re-deployment and skill up-gradation plan, and devise a liberal system for exit.

He suggests many other personnel reforms. One which would be politically resisted, but is critical for the morale and protection of upright officers, is ensuring stability of tenure and a committee system to decide transfers. The perks attached to all postings should be the same, and preferably monetised, so people do not cling to some positions even at the expense of their conscience. Officers are also tempted by post-retirement sinecures, which he suggests should be severely curtailed. Many departments are fragmented and should be rationalised. The number of officers at higher levels should be reduced by encouraging lateral deputations to NGOs, educational and research institutions.

There is also need to reduce official discretion, in matters such as awarding contracts. Where discretion is necessary, this should be accompanied by strong systems of transparency and social audit. Technology can be deployed to improve transparency and predictability, such as by computerising land reforms.

Saxena also proposes institutional measures to encourage greater professionalism and career-long learning of civil servants. In the absence of this, there is “exponential growth in both, his (or her) ignorance and arrogance”. He adds with wry humour: “It is said that in the house of an IAS officer one would find only three books — the railway timetable because he is always being shunted from one post to the other, a film magazine because that is his level of interest, and of course, the civil list that describes the service hierarchy!”