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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 32, July 27, 2013

People’s Agenda on Administrative Reforms

Sunday 28 July 2013

by B.K. Manish

Looking at the hundred odd reports spanning the last two centuries available with the Department of Personnel and Training one would be forgiven on surmising that administrative reforms stands for bureaucracy reforms. Tiers, layers, list of subjects return with such good frequency they appear an end unto themselves rather than cogs in the wheel of Peace and Good Government. In fact this discourse could well be called retired administrators-bureaucrats reflecting at their lifetime vocation. There are some justifications as to why the Constituent Assembly failed to debunk the inherently colonial governance structure but there’re no justifications how successive governments failed to bring in radical reforms to make the administration pro-people. Reforms that would make the administration amenable to the unredeemed promises of the Preamble of the Constitution; to secure for all its citizens justice and equality, to promote fraternity assuring the dignity of the individual. All the efforts in this regard so far can be easily summed up as too little and too cosmetic.

Public administration has become a hovering hallowed mystery rather than a mere tool for public good. Quantity, diversity and severity of governance considerations in India are unnerving and yet the rulers have never recognised the facts that no other country has comparable problems and solution, and that our immense talent pool can be leveraged for national good if only public administration is made demystified and participatory. Objectivity is logically the most important attribute, even above expertise, of a reformer; but soaked-for-lifetime professionals who form the AR commissions and committees belie the insincerity of successive rulers in this regard. This predictability also explains why AR has never really moved beyond cosmetic operations in India. Yet AR is agreeably one of the key probable solutions to the miseries of a vast populace and therefore needs to be given people-centric orientation.

Interestingly, administrative reform is one area where the civil society scores in cynicism over the apathy of political class. While politicians avoid AR with the sure knowledge that it is antithetical to their interests, civil society refuses to spare energy on pushing a frosty cause up to centre stage. Even when corruption is the flavour of the season mainstream media do not bring out features on AR. Nor is the peer-reviewed economic and political journal willing to accord it space at par with the skepticism of the anti-corruption movement or the critique of the UID. Left-liberal groups within or outside universities are more interested in the rhetoric of anti-imperialism, anti-neo-liberalism and anti-globalisation than soiling hands in cold and slow yet effective counter-mechanism. Same is the case with advocates of development-paradigm-shift; loath to labour on a real-time alternate model, forsaking the nursing of the daydream of the revolution. The anti-corruption movement did toy last year with the idea of working on AR, election reforms in particular, but has done nothing except sounding out a few friendly ex-bureaucrats.

What Entails People’s Agenda?

Common people find the administration in general of the Indian state as exclusivist and detached from local circumstances. Obviously then the people’s agenda on AR needs to focus on finding singular instances, causes and remedies for exclusivity and alienation. Peace and sustainable growth are the ultimate goals of public policy; so exhaustive lists respectively of imperatives and impediments in Indian context would be required to be drawn. These lists would then become ready-reckoner for policy-making. All existing, structures, processes and policies can then be tested against this new paradigm for cost, time and flow efficiency. One might be tempted to ask at this juncture: ‘Isn’t this how it happens currently?’ The fact is that our
existing policy-making and supervisory mechanism is very circuitous; thus the entrenched sloth and corruption resists all attempts at simplification, transparency and accountability.

Two examples would suffice; village government and electoral reforms. More than half-a-century has passed since demise of Ambedkar and Nehru but their spirited opposition to Panchayati Raj is too close to the ruling classes to be subjected to critical review. Almost after two decades since the passage of the Panchayati Raj legislations by Parliament, village panchayats in the country are yet to achieve efficiency levels necessary for preparing exhaustive lists of tangible-intangible resources and the combined requirements. And the problem, as anyone might hastily assume, is not of implementation but of half-hearted efforts by the Union and provincial governments. Instant indicators are available on the burgeoning soci-eco-political crisis due to this rigidity but the zeal of statistical development continues to rule the roost.

The National Advisory Council released in 2012 a document on set of reforms necessary to fully functionalise PESA but the government has simply junked it. Similarly, electoral reforms have focused largely on criminalisation and election expenditure. The willingness to take the goliath of election funding is absolutely missing. Even the most basic aspect of intra-party regulations is not taken up seriously. These farthest examples show extreme indifference of the top executive to the issues of immediate and vast importance.

Would and Could People’s Agenda Work?

The most common excuse for the people’s apathy towards AR is that it is too academic in nature and the linkages to welfare are invisible. From the above explanation on people’s agenda on AR, both these excuses are taken care of. Then there’re apprehensions if the juggernaut of the Indian state can be forced to be responsive without engaging large representative bodies, especially in the face of global neo-liberal push. To this, one should remember that even during the infamous Emergency the state was not a cohesive unit of repression; individuals must be willing to find foothold in the incongruous surface of the state apparatus. CBOs, NGOs, PRIs and LSGs would certainly find such exercises in AR more feasible due to institutional strength for capacity building but individuals must also not hesitate from singularly articulating their own needs and suggestion for the benefit of these bodies. Empirical evidence from other milieu suggests that rising quantity and quality of AR paperwork output would automatically find ways to coalesce and gather momentum.

Contrary to popular perception, the tortuous status-quo in AR banks heavily on the absolute apathy of the stakeholders, due to its low solace threshold; so even smaller improvements in the participation scenario may tend to snowball and may most probably translate into an exponential growth of momentum. Entrenched organisations like think-tanks, umbrella networks, universities and media can help in preparation and distribution of self-help manuals but even this is not necessary if the spirited youth is hooked onto this realistic opportunity of open-source way of contributive, participatory governance.

The author is a tribal rights activist and communications advisor based in Raipur, Chhattisgarh. His public library was shut down when police removed him per force in August 2010; spent 10 days in jail in August 2012 for crawling outside the Raj Bhavan to raise the issue of tribal undertrials. His SLP on Tribes Advisory Council is considered the first theoretical case on the Fifth Schedule.

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