The Indian Bureaucracy – Foundation, Functioning and the Challenges Ahead – Part III

The Indian Bureaucracy – Foundation, Functioning and the Challenges Ahead – An Insider’s View – Part III


Today the issues of environment and environmental governance are matters of serious concern for public health and development as well, because the impact of air and water pollution directly affects the health, safety and security of the people as Delhi and NCR experienced in early Nov 2016.It has been estimated by the World Bank that India loses about 5 % of annual GDP due to air-pollution alone. The recent orders of National green Tribunal in regard to flood plains of Yamuna, air and water pollution in Delhi region reflect this un-sustainability and hence the need to put in place rules and systems to improve air quality and restructure the transport system. To this man made crisis must be added the Climate Change, as it has already made 2015, the warmest year in history. Understanding environment issues and prospects for mitigation of climate change in order to deal with this combined impact will be a major challenge for the Indian bureaucracy in the 21st century. The fact that global evidence suggests that the major burden of environment degradation falls on the poor – rural, urban and even the tribes in remote areas due to, for example, reckless mining and deforestation and therefore environment conservation and improvement must be factored into all anti-poverty and rural development programs. One must note that till date the Tribes bore the major brunt of ‘development’ as 40% of all project related displaced person since independence were ‘Tribes’ as estimated by Dr. N.C.Saxena, a distinguished Civil Servant and expert on forests. Thus harmonising environment and development will be a major challenge before Civil Services.


There is some truth in Benedict Anderson’s remark that, ‘ a nation is an imagined community’, as it is based on the historical experience of break-up of nation states in Eastern Europe i.e Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia and the ongoing Scottish demand for separation from England – unimaginable even a few years back. And of course the breakup of Pakistan  -already a geo-spatial absurdity in 1947 caused by the assertion of the ethnic and Bengali language based identity, and this more than anything else proved that a nation cannot be built on religion alone which gives Bangladesh a unique place in history as the only Muslim state that seceded from another Muslim state. If Kurds succeed in seceding from Turkey, Kurdistan would be the next Islamic people to do so.

However, India stands on a different wave as Prof Ravindra Kumar argued that India is rather a ‘Civilisational State’ and not just a nation state as the Indian republic is founded on the eternal (Sanatana) values of a syncretic civilisation and culture – tolerance of all faiths, creeds and sects, social customs and mores, languages and ethnicity bound together by the idea of India as the common home for the Indian people. Tolerance and willingness to synthesize by seeing common threads in faiths and cultures constitute the main plank of Indian civilisation and this led Tagore to see India as “the confluence of all humanity “That always gives away while absorbing everything good from the world over. This is true and practical humanism and much above the narrow legalistic concept of ‘Secularism’.


Notwithstanding this inherent strength of unity in diversity, India’s national experience shows that there could be threats to unity from within albeit with active foreign support as seen in Punjab, Assam, Nagaland and elsewhere in North-East. The Left-Wing Extremism in central and eastern India stands on a different plain as it seeks transformation of the State into one guided by the Maoist philosophy. The unrest Kashmir Valley stands on a different footing as it is a mix of religious and ethnic assertion of sub-nationalism. Without going into further details, one may hold a view that essentially these pockets violence and unrest are really assertion of demand for ‘adequate space’ in the national power structure arising out of ‘a sense of alienation and disaffection’ for various reasons which need sympathetic appreciation for working out a strategy to remove the real causes of disaffection. In the Indian context efforts to “homogenize” will not work nor a “one size fits all” approach to resolve perceived historical wrongs. Therefore the Senior Civil Servants of all cadres posted in these areas should have an open mind and look at the situation with empathy and conscious of the fact that disaffection will be a passing phase and the inhabitants are integral to the Indian Civilisation. Developing interest in other cultures and respect for the same are thus essential to develop such an integrationist approach to Nation building and thus poses a great challenge to the civil service and more so to the newly recruited official in the service where lack of field training could be a setback at times.


This discussion will be incomplete unless one takes into account the changing nature of “the political class” in India and the problem and challenges it poses to the bureaucracy in its functioning in what is essentially a parliamentary system on the UK model. In the first three decades of independence the political class was largely drawn from the professional middle class of lawyers, doctors, teachers, trade union or peasant leaders with a good proportion of leaders who took part in the freedom struggle. The Jayaprakash Narayan (JP) movement for “Total Revolution”, saw perhaps the final moments of this class. Steadily from 1980’s Indian politics took a turn on the one hand towards regional or caste based party system in major states visibly under control of powerful political families and on the other even the oldest party accepted the leadership of the Nehru-Gandhi family establishing thereby a culture of ‘political dynasties’. This period also saw steady rise of nexus between the political parties and leading business houses and induction of business persons, person’s from the film industry into legislature and the emergence of ‘money and muscle power’ as critical factors for electoral victory. This has led to the phenomena of criminalisation of politics, scant regard for the system of governance by the rule of law and the demand for electoral reforms including state funding of elections to prevent growth of nexus between the big corporate and the political parties. However, growth of the nexus seems unstoppable which is seen also in advanced democracies like the US where this became quite apparent in the 2016 Presidential election and as a factor that contributed to the subprime mortgage crisis in US in 2007-08 and the continuing ‘great recession’ in world economy.


The civil service, it appears has to learn to live with it. The controversy regarding the allocation of 2G spectrum and coal blocks to private sector corporate has raised serious issues about actual governance and the role of Senior civil servants as key players in decision making while also being expected to act more as a ‘facilitator’  than as a ‘regulator’. In this complex and extremely difficult work place, the challenge before the civil service is to act according to the law. Rules and the procedure established under the law and not for any reason or consideration whatsoever to go out of the way to suggest any course or act in a manner which could be later questioned on the grounds of impropriety and violation of procedure. Several experts view that over the years, India has moved towards a ‘Priministerial’ form of government with strong centralising tendencies which are also seen in the way strong Chief Ministers function in some states, and this trend of weakening of the Cabinet form of decision making also seems unstoppable given the character of the most powerful parties and the political class, even when the rule book is based on ‘collective responsibility’. Nevertheless, there is one strong merit in the West-minister model that we have adopted, that is, the Rule of law as law alone can protect an upright and honest civil servant.

To sum up, the Senior Civil Service have been assigned a vital role in the laws of the land in the discharge of State functions which though ‘ executive‘ are often quasi judicial in nature and therefore central to delivery of administrative justice in wide range of activities. However the complex social and political environment of India has been a major cause of the changed character of the political class and the growing impatience of the youth with the slow growth of the economy and work and job opportunities. Administrative management of this environment is no easy task and more so when the political class is impatient with a Bureaucracy that has to go by the Rules and may appear to be slow moving. The dilemma of the civil service is that the temptation to fall in line with this trend of the political class might entail violation of the rules and procedures which some time later could be held as acts of wilful violation, impropriety and even worse, corruption. The import of Sanjiv Chaturvedi’s case in the order of the Central Information Commissioner at Annex 1 provides an answer to this dilemma; and it is that the Law is the supreme protector and if a Senior Civil Service official follows it in letter and spirit his action will be vindicated. He or she must be aware that implicit in the examination based selection of senior civil service officials is the ‘public trust’ that while discharging duties they would be forthright and honest and go by the laws , rules and policies in letter and spirit because they alone can deliver justice and proper public service.

Consider a hypothetical situation: under the Arms Act the Executive Magistrate has the power to issue a license to possess a gun for self protection and the rules made under the Arms Act lay down the procedures and eligibility criteria which are inviolable. The magistrate is required to decide all applications for arms license strictly as per the instructions, rules and the procedures and his discretion is tempered by application of his judicial mind. If however the magistrate allowed himself to come under undue influence in taking the decisions and granted license to an unworthy person he would have committed two lapses, first breach of public trust, violation of the rules and policies and procedures and second, endangering public safety. On this matter John Rawls’ s definition of justice as fairness comes close to the philosophy of ‘karma‘ in Gita and ‘ Satkarma‘ in the Buddhist ethics. From this perspective just and fair decisions not only reflect the calibre and character of the civil service officials but invariably earn for him the approbation of the citizens which is the highest reward for the civil service.

While facing the challenges a Civil Service official might as well remember the inspiring words of the poet Rabindranath Tagore in Geetanjali as reproduced below:

 “This is my prayer to thee, my Lord –

Strike, strike at the root of penury in my heart.

Give me the strength lightly to bear my joys and sorrows.

Give me the strength to make my love fruitful in service.

Give me the strength never to disown the poor or bend my knees before insolent might.

Give me the strength to raise my mind high above the daily trifles.

And give me the strength to surrender my strength to thy will with love.”