governance, political economy, institutional development and economic regulation

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The Supreme Court has struck yet another blow for democracy by protecting babus from politicians. Not bad in itself, but puzzling, in the context of the larger objective of protecting democracy.

Democracy is all about citizens electing politicians to manage the “commons” and regulate the markets. A babu is merely an “ahlu” in the sabzi; employed as a technician to work objectively with any elected government, irrespective of ideology, translating broad political objectives into policy options and implementing the ensuing policy. It is the test of the ballot which legitimates the politicians. Babus merely facilitate the task of governance and in return they are assured a cradle to grave job with pension.

It is not trivial to answer the question what ails the Indian babu today and how her concerns can be met. The SC has identified four key areas for redressal.

First, the SC has directed that the minimum, normal tenure should be three years, which is undoubtedly, wise. The apprehension however, is that for every honest and committed babu who uses this protection to implement the rule of law, there will be multiple others, who would instead use it as a formal confirmation of their colonial “right to rule” and the powerlessness of “topiwallahs”.

Fixed tenures can be effective, as intended, but only if they are accompanied by direct oversight of citizens in assessing babu performance. A District Magistrate has the right to demand a fixed tenure but only if she is willing to seek an annual endorsement of her performance from all the elected representatives of the District. If however, babus are wary of citizen review, they cannot simultaneously, shy away from the direct control of the elected government of the day.

Second, the SC directed that no babu should henceforth act on a verbal order. Clearly the intention was to create a paper trail for audit of decision making. A good thing in itself. But consider that Ministers, across political parties, now routinely act on verbal orders from party bosses. Even the Cabinet of India was caught acting hastily on the verbal and very public outburst of a party supremo. Can we really expect a Minister, herself acting on verbal orders, to respect the “written orders only” rule while dealing with babus?

More importantly, the relationship between a politician and her babu is often, though not always, a very intimate one. This is as it should be. The rough and tumble of an effective democratic system cannot be managed, without a measure of trust and faith between the Minister and her babu. Cutting this symbiotic cord between the two, would be suicidal for effective governance. Imagine District Magistrate, Krishna Kumar, the hero of Ganjam, asking Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik to write all his orders in triplicate, even in the raging fury of a cyclone.

Verbal orders that do not go against the public interest are a non-issue. Those that do not align with public interest can be subverted, as they have always been, using the legendary guile that babus develop. If even this is not possible, the option is always available to follow E.A.S. Sarma’s advice and “step aside when it is impossible to decide in public interest”.

Third, the SC has directed that babu management be outsourced to an “independent” commission to insulate the process from “political” influence. This merely restates what already exists. Initial recruitment is already done by the Public Service Commissions and other Subordinate Service Selection Commissions. Promotions are already done by a committee of senior officers who record written orders. In the case of the All India Services, the UPSC has to approve before disciplinary action can be initiated. Many already believe Indian babus are too cosseted by protective legislation. If despite all this protection, babus still feel threatened; outsourcing their promotion, postings and transfers to yet another “independent” commission is unlikely to help. It will however create additional post-retirement babu sinecures.

Instead, to build a meritocracy, we should do away with the anachronistic “cradle to grave” employment system. Every position in the officer grade of undersecretary and above should be widely advertised for open competition and filled on contract, for five years, by the related Public Service Commission. The concept of time bound, seniority based promotion must die, if babudom is to survive.

Fourth, the SC has directed that government legislate a law for babu management, in the hope that this shall introduce transparence, equity and performance orientation. The last thing India needs is another law. We already have more than 1200 laws. Our belief, that legislation can solve problems in public management, is deeply misplaced. The international experience is that legislation, unless backed by deeply entrenched norms and social capital, is ineffective in changing babu behavior.

Africa and East Asia are littered with civil service laws, but the actual performance, in managing graft and protecting the poor is, at best, on par with India. Whilst out babus do need to shape up, consider that India runs a pretty tight ship. We employ barely 3% (17.5 million) of our labour force (650 million) in government (including central, state, municipality, police and the army). Compare this with the most developed OECD countries, Norway 29%, France 21%, UK 17%, US 15%, Japan 7% and Brazil 9%, South Africa 9%, (ILO data 2008). Yes, our public services don’t match up to OECD standards, but neither do the resources we spend on them. Our teeth to tail ratios are poor and the comparison would be even starker if we consider the proportion of professionals employed in government.

The SC has never failed, in public interest, to fill the gap created by executive inaction. But the law is not a substitute for effective, executive decision making, which requires the ability to play with the grey scales of the real world. The law is a black and white discipline, quite unlike life. Public Human Resource Management is not an area of comparative advantage for the SC, as evidenced by the judiciary’s record on this score. Those who live in glass houses must not cast stones.

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