Sanjeev Sabhlok's blog

Thoughts on economics and liberty

My Times of India Article of 30 July 2007 on the bureaucracy

Hi, The TOI posted an edited version of my article on the bureaucracy on 30 July under the title, 'Reform the Bureaucracy'. Below is the original article I sent to TOI.

A new bureaucracy for India

We face an inexplicable dichotomy in India between the performance of our public and private sector. While Indian business performance is often second to none, the results of India’s public sector are poor beyond description. Delivering simple things like water, electricity, roads, and education is well beyond our capacity.

This is unacceptable, and an explanation is in order.

I suggest that the blame for our poor public sector performance can be laid on the way our bureaucracy is structured, and on the incentives it faces. I base this conclusion not solely on academic comparisons, but also on the learning acquired by working for 18 years in the IAS and for 7 years in one the very finest bureaucracies in the world, in the state of Victoria in Australia.

When I started off at the middle rung of the Victorian bureaucracy in 2001, one of the most unexpected observations I made was that the performance of senior Australian bureaucrats was significantly better than anything I had experienced in India. No IAS officer knows more in the relevant subject area, can think as well and as strategically, or lead a team of professionals better, than his or her Australian counterpart. Australia also constantly benchmarks against the world’s best. Being just a little better than Bihar is not considered sufficient.

In my book, Breaking Free of Nehru, now available freely on the internet, I have proposed a plan by which India can, without significant disruption to existing service-delivery, acquire a new bureaucracy. The solution hinges on transforming the quality of our Secretaries, and the incentives facing them. The change needs to begin at the top.

The principles driving this plan are:

  • abolition of tenure at senior levels;
  • open market recruitment for each position;
  • contestability of policy advice to political leaders;
  •  market competitiveness of remuneration;
  • extensive delegation of responsibility; and
  • provision of access to the latest technology, information and training.

The validity of these principles can be readily seen by thinking of how a good national cricket team is built.

If our cricket team was not to be selected based strictly on players’ track record, and if non-performers were not to be ruthlessly weeded out, we know that the team would stand no chance on the world stage. An Indian cricket team built on the principles that apply to our bureaucracy would have Pataudi as its captain and Sachin its 19th man, waiting patiently for a turn at the crease. And every Australian school team would soundly thrash this ‘national’ team!

It is true that merit is taken into account at the entry point of the IAS. But merit is not a one-off measure. Shouldn’t a secretary to the government be a person with a track record of world-best performance? Shouldn’t the person be a subject- matter genius, a management guru? A great leader? What has writing a good essay in an examination at age 21 to do with these competencies?

Second, we do not prune our officers for performance and integrity. The legal protections provided to IAS officers are such that even when caught taking bribes, they cannot be punished, let alone demoted for non-performance. With our society thus signalling their invincibility, these officers increasingly become indolent, arrogant and incompetent, and yet, advance without resistance into the position of India’s secretary to government.

While Indian tax payers support this ineffective bureaucracy, thinking perhaps that there is no alternative, advanced countries have used the findings of agency and public choice theory to design systems that reward expertise, leadership, and good performance; and ruthlessly punish bad performance. In doing so, they have transformed their public servants into dynamic agents of change and excellence.

I suggest that we need to begin the desperately needed change by making a fundamental shift in accountability, ensuring that the bureaucracy becomes merely one of the many potential service providers to Ministers. This can be done by Ministers contractually appointing world-renowned subject-matter specialists who are committed to delivering their party’s policy platform, as their advisers. No file would then go to a Minister without these advisers having had a look.

Ministers would then appoint their secretary through an open (preferably global) market competition ? in the first instance, on a two year ‘hire-and-fire’ performance based contract ? paying a salary comparable with what senior MNC executives get in India. Secretaries would similarly appoint their joint secretaries. To ensure continuity, leadership change would need to stop at this point in the first phase. No government employee would lose monetarily for two years while the restructure is embedded.

Each of the newly appointed secretaries would then implement a two-year strategic process to restructure the bureaucracy into ten departments: freedom, defence, justice, external affairs, public finance, physical infrastructure, social infrastructure, commerce, social capital and community, and sustainability. This would involve significant training and redundancy planning.

A Public Administration Act would underpin the restructured, new bureaucracy. Positions requiring significant judgment and leadership skills would be brought under a three-year performance-based contract. Upon the Act coming into force, Constitutional provisions on civil services would be repealed.

By no means am I trying to suggest that this reform will be a panacea for India’s chronic misgovernance. Our political and electoral systems need fundamental reforms, too. But we must begin somewhere, and changing our bureaucratic leadership will, at this stage, make the most difference.

Continue Reading
Continue Reading
Continue Reading

Some thoughts on Assam from Perth

In the same vein as the previous post, here's something written in 1992. An edited version of this was published in the Sentinel. Sanjeev 22 Feb 07.

I have a background in administration in one of the most "backward" states in a developing country. Being sent here under a Colombo Plan training programme was an exciting prospect. And apart from doing my studies, which is what I am primarily supposed to do, I also decided that I would try to analyse what I saw around me, in relation to what I see back home.

What was it that struck me when I first came to Australia? The lights in the streets work. The streets are straight, well-finished, with berms sloping slightly above the edge of the road. And so on. I will come back to all this. But what stuck me essentially was the planning of the city. A city like Perth could not have sprung up on its own.

Coming from a socialist country, one has a tendency to think of planning primarily as "developmental planning" with someone at the state or central capital working out details of what is to be produced, where it is to be produced, how much is to be produced and who is to produce it. In Australia I find that there is far more planning than we have ever imagined.

But this planning is in the streets, in the design and lay-out of the parks, in the careful intersections of blocks, in the clear signboards visible to all concerned, specifying the names of roads and places. I found an amazingly high level of urban planning. Traces of this kind of planning are found in special zones in New Delhi such as Chanakyapuri, but these also are no match for the routinely perfect planning of every inch of space which Australia brings into its urban limits. But back at home, unfortunately we have delegated urban planning to a small and insignificant department, called the Town and Country Planning Department in Assam.

I am an advocate of appropriate technologies for rural areas, and a fanatic about rural development, but that does not mean in any way that our urban areas should use inappropriate technology and techniques.

As a citizen of Guwahati, the average level of frustration I faced, till only a couple of months ago, was so high that I wonder how and why I ever did any kind of work at all.

Driving:

Taking my scooter out on the streets of Guwahati was like going into hell. It was a terribly stressful experience. And I had to do it many times a day, since in Guwahati the plannig is linear, from one corner, near Khanapara, upto Jalukbari, nearly 25 kilometers away, and places are at great distance from each other. There are no interconnecting roads, hardly any alternative roads, and whatever roads exist are designed to test the driver's skills at moto-cross or "pothole-cross". There are vast areas in the rainy season (which covers half the year) where you have to walk in your boots with knee-deep drain water slushing in your feet, lugging the scooter along. There are also areas where the slush and mud on the sides of the roads is so dangerous that you never know whether you will reach home with your bones intact. And in the portions where the roads are relatively well-developed, a scooterist is liable to face all kinds of dust particles hitting his face at great speed.

And it is not as if the experience of a car-driver are any better. The traffic lights are small, hidden behind poles and mostly out of order. Except for the flyover at Chandmari, it is a stressful experience trying to locate and decipher the traffic lights, or the signals being given at night by black and invisible policemen, waving some circular, flat pieces at the traffic. The narrow, winding roads, terrible congestion, poorly-lit streets at night, lack of pedestrian crossings, lack of bicycle paths, and the movement of all kinds of vehicular traffic on the same road, are so frustrating that sometimes one wants to cry, but then, there is no other place to go. So one allows the stomach to churn and produce its acid of frustration, and tries to hang on till one reaches home at the end of the day.

Gas, electricity and and shopping:

Apart from the necessity of driving (or going by bus, if you so like) comes the stress involved in getting your cooking fuel such as gas. Till recently I had to go near the capital complex into a small street winding crazily in the middle of an otherwise totally plain area (one can expect winding streets in hills but not in the plains) and wait in a queue till I paid the money for the gas and the relevant papers were filled. Thereafter I had to go into another street some distance away where in a ramshackle "godown" someone would exchange the old cylinder for a new one. The skills in driving upto that place, reversing the car, and patience involved in getting the gas were so severely tested every time that it became a nightmare just to get the gas. Things had slighly improved just before I came, but not really very considerably.

In Perth, every flat has a piped gas connection with meter. There is so much saving of time and effort that I feel a strange kind of bliss in this place. My stomach, which had deteriorated with the stomach-wall being eaten up by its own acid in Guwahati, has improved dramatically over here. Less stress, less acid secretion. Happiness. Or, let us call it, bliss.

Shopping is one other necessary evil in Guwahati. It is a miracle that one has not caught more diseases such as typhoid and cholera, after going to the unhygienic market places littered all over Guwahati, including Fancy Bazaar. Apart from stepping over filthy footpaths and rubbish scattered all over, there is no happiness when you reach the shopping places either. The vegetable and fish shops are almost floating on filth and flies. Or so it seems after seeing the shopping centres here. And many of the other shops are adjacent to drains which smell as if these were open toilets. I remember one horrible experience when I purchased icecream and tried to eat it in a "decent" shop near Chandmari, with a most obnoxious smell coming from the drain just outside the shop. But one has to live. And one has to therefore shop and eat, even at great risk.

After travelling with great stress to the office and then to the shops, and buying the fish and vegetables in the midst of filth, and ultimately getting the them cooked on the gas which was procured with great difficulty, when one starts to eat, the lights go off! More stress, more strain. More stomach churning, more acidity. In Perth, the lights have not gone out for even one second since the two months we have been here.

A planned city is fundamental to our existence:

With the "blessings" of the streets and shopping centres of Guwahati, the difficulties in procuring gas, and the intermittent supply of electricity, it is a miracle that some of us keep on trying to work in the offices, trying to do some kind of "developmental planning" for this country of ours. And the stupid ones of us still have hope for our miserably mismanaged country.

I feel so shallow and so small here. I feel that we are like arrogant, stupid morons who are not even toilet trained and who have littered up their pants and surroundings, but who are trying to build up great developmental structures. Worse than Don Quixote. If our planning is blind to the physical space around us, and we are busy squatting and littering all over, we have no business to do economic development.

Even within India, I feel small as an officer of the Assam cadre of the IAS, when I go to some of the relatively better planned state capitals. Of course the mess that is India is inescapable everywhere, but at least in some places, here and there, people have had the foresight to plan something for their future, apart from living in the present. Take Madras for example. Inspite of the mess that one finds all over (the Cooum river, for example) there are relatively well-planned streets and parks on the beaches, where one can meditate near the ocean, if one is so inclined; and emphasis is being given on the development of children by building huge parks like the VGP Golden Beach. In Guwahati, except for the zoo, there is nothing to offer to our children.

Who will believe us when we say that we are economic experts and developmental officers? Even after my training of one year in economics and finance in an excellent university here, I am sure that I will not be able to utilise half of what I have learnt if I have to again go out in the same old filthy streets and shopping centres, and waste my time and energy organising gas and praying for electricity. A planned city is fundamental to the existence of modern man. Only a fool would decry the importance of well-planned cities in the over-all development of a country.

In my mood of depression which I feel when I look back at my country, my state, and my city, I have only this to say today. Sad to say, our best officers and ministers have more to learn from the planned and clear-headed mind of a common draftsman and brick layer of Australia than we will ever have to teach to the common man here. We may pride ourselves for having a great past, but when we live our present in a muddled web of confusion and disarray, then who in the world will respect us?

And the worst part is that the people of Australia have not done any remarkably intelligent act by deciding to live in a planned manner. This is not advanced science. It is only the elementary application of arithmetic and geometry, not even architecture. The concept is simple: draw up and implement a clear-cut plan for the place you want to live in.

Now what?

But enough of my depressive fit. I must not allow myself to feel overcome by grief. I have to tell you that there is hope. So…

What is the way out for Guwahati?

I would feel that Guwahati is a mess which can be rectified, if at all, only at great cost. Far cheaper would be to design a town somewhere outside Guwahati, but sufficiently near to it, such as we have in Old Delhi and New Delhi, so that government would be able to shift to a rational place within twenty or so years from now, and people living in it would feel proud to belong to Assam. Let us send our architects and engineers to places such as Canberra, or even within India, to places such as Ooty and Khadakvasla, so that we have, in the twilight years of our lives, a place to live from where the mess of today will only appear to have been a bad dream.

And in this matter, I must hasten to add that I have no axe to grind. I have nothing against Guwahati. I love the beautiful hills and the Brahmaputra river. Who would'nt? My wife, my child, were both born in Guwahati. This place means much to me. But we cannot continue with a place which frustrates the daily living of its average citizens, causes them disease, discomfort and distress, and saps their enthusiasm. We must search out a sister for Guwahati. And make her beautiful. And for once, show that we can plan a place to live in which is as good as the best in the world.

This paper is thus a plea to our planners and developers to turn strongly and vigourously to urban planning and development after having spent so many infructuous years in vague, socialistic, economic development. People often do their own economic development better if left to themselves, within a broad structure of rules. The government may therefore be best advised to spend a far greater amount of its energy on infrastructure and urban development.

I would also visualise the government doing a lot of training and development of the people, so that they are skilled enough to exploit the opportunities opening up to them. For this purpose, it would perhaps be necessary to set up many more engineering and technical universities of excellence and institutes of technical training all over the state. Institutes for garment production through computerised machines, institutes of foreign trade, and institutes of food processing are required in Assam. There are so many opportunities of selling our products in Australia and the rest of the world. I will touch upon this another time.

And perhaps government should withdraw as soon as possible from its disastrous experiment with managing production and commercial activities, which are best left to co-operatives and private enterprise. Intelligent people learn from their experience, and from the experience of others. We may not be worse off if we learn from the experience of people in Singapore and Korea, and Australia, among others. We have nothing to loose except our poverty and stupidity.

As I end, with a pensive note, I am led to wonder whether there would have been any change in the positive direction by the time I return to India. I love my country, but it burns my soul and hurts my heart to see the suicidal waste of its resources. Particularly by those who should know better.

Continue Reading