Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Apr 16, 2016
Moving the centre's shackled steel frame

Is Prime Minister Modi losing the war on the well entrenched steel frame in Delhi? Despite repeated bureaucratic reshuffles, has he found himself being stymied by the bureaucracy? Senior bureaucrat and coal secretary Anil Swarup spoke about the spectre of the five Cs that dominate the bureaucracy's mindset. We knew of only three, and Mr. Swarup has added a new dimension by giving us two more new Cs. In Facebook posts, Mr. Swarup said that five institutions or "5Cs" — CBI, CVC, CAG, CIC and the Courts — create an "inhibiting environment" that impacts "quick and effective decision making".

"Pace of development is not as much impacted by the dishonest as by the inhibiting factors that prevent the honest from taking decisions," Mr. Swaroop wrote, adding "some individuals are incorrigibly committed" and hence they would perform irrespective of the objective conditions. This is not the rule.

"We very conveniently blame politicians for all the ills. However, isn't it true that the 5 Cs (namely CBI, CVC, CAG, CIC and Courts) contribute substantially in creating an inhibiting environment for quick and effective decision making that impact development? Ironically, all these institutions are not occupied by politicians but by civil servants." In not signing off on files and thereby sending them into a tailspin deep into the very heart of the bureaucratic maze, India is the only loser.

In many ways, these inhibiting factors have signalled the collective mindset of the bureaucracy. After telecom secretary Siddharth Behura was jailed even without trial in the 2G spectrum case and an earlier telecom secretary Shyamal Ghosh was vilified in the excess spectrum case, nine years after he had retired (the Supreme Court later lashed out at the CBI nailing it for its selective and incompetent investigation), the main frame has been shaken up. In the preferential and discretionary coal allocation cases, several former coal secretaries have similarly been targeted by the agencies — P. C. Parakh and H. C. Gupta to name a couple. Others like Joint Secretary K. S. Kropha and Director K. C. Samaria too have been tarred. Towards the latter part of UPA–II, bureaucrats refused to put pen to paper for being investigated post facto for decision making. I remember chief economic adviser Kaushik Basu clearly articulating this in a conversation with me saying that the overhang of being embroiled in probes 5 or 10 years later was a clear and future danger.

Decision making went into deep freeze. But this worked to the detriment of the economy as it was acting in concert with what I have described as the J–virus. A creeping virus which laid waste to industry and the economy — ministers Mr. Jairam Ramesh, Mr. C. P. Joshi, Mr. Sriprakash Jaiswal and Mr. Jayanti Natarajan — who took refuge behind the Forest Rights Act and Environment Protection Act Rules to thwart development and progress. To Mr. Jaiswal's credit, he did take on environment ministers on 'No Go' areas. As coal minister, Mr. Sriprakash Jaiswal pushed for doing away with the "no go" classification introduced for coal mining projects by the ministry of environment and forests and sought a 150-day deadline for environmental clearance for all mining projects. The environment ministry had identified about 35 per cent of forest area in nine major coal mining zones as "no go" zones. But these feeble attempts were few and far between for as the Congress with 206 seats went deeper and deeper into its socialist moorings, one of the pillars of welfare economics was the use of 'environment' as an instrumentality to defeat development.

Equally, the shabby treatment meted out to frontline secretaries like finance secretary Arvind Mayaram or home secretary L. C. Goyal, who were shunted out unceremoniously for different reasons, rattled the cage of the bureaucracy. Every government has its favourites, preferring to appoint those who are either ideologically or intellectually inclined or come from a particular cadre because they have worked with new ministers in the past in their respective states, but the repeated shuffling by the Modi Government has shaken the steel frame. Use of Rule 56J of the Fundamental Rules against errant and corrupt Customs and Excise officers who were summarily dismissed was a positive according to me.

In what was arguably a first, in February 2015, the new Government took the contentious coal ordinance route to ring–fence itself and the bureaucracy from criminal prosecution. This backstopping mechanism offers immunity to the ministers and babus against legal proceedings for any action taken in "good faith". Clause 28 incorporated in Chapter VI of the Ordinance stated: "No suit, prosecution or other legal proceedings shall lie against the Central Government, nominated authority, commissioner of payment or designated custodian or any person acting on their behalf, in respect of anything which is done or intended to be done in good faith under this Act." While Clause 29 laid down that "the provisions of this Act shall have effect, notwithstanding anything inconsistent therewith contained in any other law for the time being in force, or in any instrument having effect by virtue of any such law." It basically meant that the Act would have overriding influence. And it would act as a counter to the daft provisions under the Prevention of Corruption Act (PCA), under which investigations have been used to conduct witch–hunts even 10–12 years after a decision."

Despite this new mechanism, the bureaucracy refuses to move, stalling and styling decision making, refusing to come to terms with the new paradigm of growth and development. Multiple factors are at work — lassitude, ineptitude, fear stalking the corridors, sheer incompetence, earlier skirmishes with those in authority now — but once all this is distilled, it is holding up India. Two years into a new government which promised so much, all we have got is stop–start policy and endless rhetorics. No long term economic vision has been provided for unshackling and unfettering the economy — the steeped in fear and loathing bureaucracy acting as an imponderable.

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Ritika Prasad

Ritika Prasad

Ritika Prasad Student Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS)

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