October , 2020
Transforming our bureaucrats into karmayogis
17:50 pm

Ramgopal Agarwala


Over the last six years, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has initiated more than a hundred schemes aimed at improving the ease of living of the common man - in particular the last man in the queue. These schemes are very different in orientation from what has been envisaged in the last seventy years by the political masters and partially implemented by the bureaucracy which in essence had a hangover of our colonial days. It is clear that for New India, we need an effective state as existent in the East Asian success stories and not a soft state. For effective implementation of the Prime Minister’s schemes, the bureaucracy has to internalise the logic of the schemes and implement them honestly and effectively. 


During the last few years, the Prime Minister has often pointed out the need for basic reforms in Indian bureaucracy. However, he has always tried to exude much positivism about the bureaucracy - perhaps in view of the enormous power they wield and the need to keep their morale high.


In his remarks at the Valedictory Session of the Civil Services Day event in New Delhi on April 21, 2015, the Prime Minister said, “A Report by Goldman Sachs says that in terms of effectiveness of governance it will take India ten more years just to reach the Asian average. I am not even talking about the western world. Goldman Sachs has shown us the mirror. Will we continue like this?” He went on to say, “In our governance, silos are a major challenge. Teams are essential. Without teams, there can be no work.” In his address on the Civil Services Day in 2016, he highlighted the lengthy processes of moving file in our bureaucracy. In his words, “It is being said in Hindu Mythology that if you perform pilgrimage to the four sacred places, you will attain salvation. However, a file does not reach its logical conclusion even after moving to 32 desks.”


 In course of his speech at the inauguration of the Supreme Court’s journey towards being a digital court in New Delhi on May 10, 2017, the Prime Minister said, "In the government, there is a general feeling that whatever we do or our departments do is very good. I took a risk around two months back by asking all the departments to inform me about the difficulties faced by them, about something that was wrong that needed to be corrected or if there was a need to simplify any process. For a few days, they continued to deny the problems. They said everything was fine…However, due to my relentless pursuit of the matter, some 400 issues were identified where there was a need for improvement or some intervention was required. Then I gave this task to the universities. In the form of a non-stop hackathon of 36 hours, they were required to find out solution for the 400 issues of governance...I was surprised that they were able to sort out most of the issues and give solutions.”


The government has come out with the Karmayogi Yojana which aims at preparing Indian civil servants for the future by making them more creative, constructive, imaginative, proactive, innovative, progressive, professional, energetic, transparent, and technology-enabled. In preparing this highly ambitious programme, the government has had no public discussion similar to what was done for the preparation of the New Education Policy. Civil service needs substantial reforms and that entails the need of a thorough discussion - at least something similar to what was done for the education policy.


Let us start with the system of competitive examination for selection of administrative cadres. The system was originally envisaged by the British. The famous steel frame was meant for control and not for achieving mass-based development. Over time, under pressure from freedom fighters in India, the examination system was gradually opened to Indians but mostly those who satisfy the Macaulay criterion of being English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect. The colonial hangover of our top bureaucracy has been a continuing feature of our policy-making and policy-implementing machinery over the last seventy years.


At the time of Independence, there were fears of instability in India and the British civil service structure was retained. But now, the situation has stabilised and there is a need for better approach. The findings of the committee for review of the examination system led by Professor Yogender Alagh, which submitted its report in October 2001 is revealing. While paying the traditional tribute to the system, the report goes on to note how the civil servants continue to have a ‘ruler’ based mindset, often preoccupied with their own survival with vested interests, harbour negative orientation to out-of-the-box thinking from outsiders and entail a distinct decline in standards of integrity. It was noted that the present examination system is weighted towards rote-learning rather than problem-solving abilities. There is an increasing predominance of professionals like doctors and engineers. After selection, the candidates do not take the post-induction training seriously. The rank obtained in the CSE remains fixed throughout the career. There is hardly any system for rigorous evaluation during the next 30-35 years in the career of an officer.


Perhaps time has come to design an alternative system for training and recruitment of civil servants. One may set up Indian Institutes of Public Service (IIPSs), similar to Indian Institutes of Technology and Indian Institutes of Management, where students after Grade 12 will enter into a curriculum for 3-4 years related to various facets of administration and the selection for the service will be made on the basis of performance during that entire period. During the service, promotion and placement will depend on performance over a period of 3-4 years based on review by peers as well as supervisors. In principle, there will be no barrier to promotion to higher levels depending on performance. With all the efforts going on to remove casteism from society, why do we need a super-caste of civil servants based on an academically oriented test taken in early youth? 


Civil services will be seen as one of the most important institutions of the country with high prestige in society, compensation packages (with full monetisation of all benefits) comparable to those in the private sector - very much like what is done in countries such as Singapore and public institutions such as the World Bank.


Turning around the examination, training, compensation and promotion systems of bureaucracy are but some aspects of reform in Indian civil service. It is the ethos of civil service that needs to be changed from a ‘ruler’ mode to a ‘service’ mode. If the objectives of Karmayogi Yojana are to be achieved, bureaucracy has to be taught something akin to Yoga before they can become Karmayogis. Through daily practice of Yoga all bureaucrats should, in return for the enormous prestige the society gives them, internalise the virtues that the Karmayogi Yojana is trying to instill in their minds (being more creative, constructive, imaginative, proactive, innovative, progressive, professional, energetic, transparent, and technology-enabled). Sustained effort for reform of bureaucracy over a generation combined with an enlightened political leadership may be required before the wealth creators can have exposure to true ease of doing business and the common man has an ensured ease of living. Haste in this complex area will only lead to waste.


 The author is Chairman of Pahle India Foundation and a former Distinguished Fellow of NITI Aayog

— The opinion/s expressed in the article are that of the author’s and do not necessarily represent or reflect the policy or position of this magazine

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