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Book Review: A View from Within

Saturday 9 June 2007, by D. Bandyopadhyay


Indian Administration: Politics, Policies and Prospects by Kamla Prasad; Pearson Longman, New Delhi; 2006; price Rs 650; pp. 406.

Retired civil servants have a comparative advantage over the run-of-the-mill research scholars in writing about administration. Any sensitive and perceptive civil servant with the experience of a three decades-and-a-half would have the opportunity to observe, participate and watch from a close quarter some major events and evolution of public policies, implementation of such systems and strategies either in observance or in breach to which a later day scholar would not have any access. Such researchers would have to depend on archives or secondary evidence from the writings of others to know about the subject to write upon. Thus an “eyewitness” account over time assumes an aura of sancity and inviobility to become the source material of further research and generation of knowledge. That casts a high moral duty on such writers to put on record their observations and comments as impartially and as objectively as possible for a participant or a close watcher. Such writers often also run the risk of missing the wood for the tree being too close to the events. On the other hand a researcher, because of his theoretical training and scholarly skill, can put events, incidents and policies in a broader frame to find out whether all these fit into a stereotype or a deviant set and can discern change in the pattern or in the grand design or paradigm of development and political processes. But when an administrator acquires the scholastic attributes, the end product is bound to be excellent. That’s why this book is a major academic achievement in the study of a highly complex and yet compelling subject like Indian Administration which touches the lives of innumerable men, women and children of this vast subcontinent.

One is amazed by the universe that the author covers in one book. It is an analytical description of evolution of political processes after independence leading to framing of policies and their implementation through the administration instrumentality of the Indian bureaucracy. Each one of these intricate and compound issues could be a separate subject matter of major academic discourse. The author has admirably and logically arranged and sequenced them in one scholarly and yet readable volume. It shows the author’s laudable command and grasp over these knotty and intricate problems and his excellent power of expression to knit them into an exquisite pattern.

That India is a Union of States and not a true federal country comes out clearly in the subsection “Bureaucratic Centralism”. (pp. 24-26) He identifies three elements within the administrative structure, for example, the Prime Minister’s Office, the Cabinet Secretariat and the Planning Commission which not only fortify but con-tinuously strengthen the political moves towards centralism undercutting the concept of autonomy of States. These are totally contrary to the aspirations of the people of the subcontinent comprising numerous linguistic, ethnic and religious groups. This centralism is the carry-over of the tradition of the Imperial system of governance where every policy issue emanated in the Whitehall in London and to which all the agencies governing the Indian empire had to be accountable. No ruler at any point of time even correctly realised that such centralism is totally counterproductive rendering the country un-managable and un-governable. One would, however, like to differ from the author’s observation: “Centralism has legitimacy if it promotes decentralised administrative decision making and re-interpretation of the implementation domain.” (p. 29) It can’t happen. It goes against the basic law of Centralism. Occasional conce-ssions from the provincial autonomy under the Government of India Act of 1935 to the 73rd Constitutional Amendment in 1992 were mere visible attempts to contain rising craving of and longing for local autonomy and the desire of the people to breathe more freely. But each such move done under some compulsion immediately set in motion measures to counter such “fissiparous” tendencies. Just look at how the Central Government is sabotaging its own 73rd Amendment by setting up single-time administrative and fiscal structures on all subjects emanating from New Delhi to subvert and wreck the three-tier panchayat system.

THERE is a scintillating analysis of the impact of emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi in Chapters 5 and 6. It corrupted, sabotaged and permanently maimed the impartial, fair and apolitical character of the administrative system and the bureaucracy. Mrs Indira Gandhi’s fulmination at Patna on May 1, 1976 that “if the State was not capable of being managed from Patna, she was prepared to do the same from Delhi” (p. 90) only validates our point of the “imperial” character of our politico-administrative system. In 1943 when millions of hungry men, women and children were dying on the streets of Calcutta and when the then Bengal and the Central Government grudgingly admitted the existence of famine in Bengal, the Secretary of State for India denied it in Parliament. The crown has gone but the Imperial legacy continues in a totally unmitigated measure.

It is not my intention to summarise the different chapters of the book in this review. That would do injustice to this valuable contribution to the literature on Indian governance. Any foretasting may impair the joy of relishing a delectable fare that awaits a serious reader of this book. However, having been a former member of the tribe known as the All India Services (AIS) I cannot resist my temptation to offer a few comments on Chapter 9—Higher Civil Service and the Management of Change—and Chapter 10—Rural Bureaucracy and the Delivery of Public Services.

Nirmal Mukerji, one of the last of the Mohicans, pleaded for the abolition of the AIS. He himself belonged to the Indian Civil Service. The reasons why he wanted the abolition of the AIS have been carefully documented in the book. (pp. 211-12) While the Sarkaria Commission (1988), examining its role in the context of the autonomy of States, came to the conclusion that the scheme of the AIS has not lost its relevance (p. 212), nevertheless, the debate the continues. If the present-day members of the AIS carried on and demonstrated their pristine attributes of impartiality, obedience to law, integrity, honesty fearlessness, competence, diligence responsiveness to the people’s cause and commitment to the basic values of the Republic as enshrined in the Preamble, Part III and Part IV of the Constitution and performed their duties accordingly, one could have agreed to the view that AIS was still necessary. But because of the corrosion that has taken place in its value system and erosion in the level of competence and personal honesty and integrity that is so apparent, one feels hesitant to assert that the AIS is still necessary for the good governance of the country. I leave it to the readers to come to their own conclusion after going through the book. After reading the detailed analysis of the processes which denied the panchayats their legitimate role as the third tier of governance, one comes back to the same conclusion that the ruling class(es) in India still believe in the Imperial idea of offering concessions when in trouble and withdrawing the same when the crisis passes over. It has succeeded for the last six decades. The question is: for how long would this chicanery continue? In this connection one would have expected some discussion on the current problem of rural unrest commonly known as Naxalism. From one police station in one district in West Bengal in 1967, it has now spread to 164 districts in 14 States covering more that 550 police stations. Since it has its deep roots in Bihar, where the author was the head of the administration as the Chief Secretary, his views and perceptions on this issue would have been of great value.

One finds a didactic strain throughout the book which only indicates the author’s personal commitment to the values that dominated the Republic when he entered the AIS way back in 1957. We had at that time a great role model in Jawaharlal Nehru. His towering personality and magic touch influenced all the entrants to the AIS in that era. For the AIS today there is no role model either in the public life or in the services. Hence, this decay!

I would commend this book to all serious students of contemporary Indian political history and administration. It presents a view from within with the “detachment of an outsider”. It is a superb analytical narrative rendered readable and enjoyable by occasional personal touch. It is a major work on the Indian Administration which should adorn the book-shelves of all serious scholars and libraries.

The reviewer is a former Secretary, Rural Development as well as an erstwhile Secretary, Department of Revenue, Ministry of Finance. Subsequently, he was the Executive Director, Asian Development Bank, Manila. Earlier as an administrator in West Bengal he played a crucial role in implementing ‘Operation Barga’, the Left Front Government’s biggest achievement in its 30-year uninterrupted rule in the State that vastly contributed towards changing the face of rural West Bengal. He is currently the Executive Chairperson of the Council for Social Development, New Delhi.

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