Assessing Administrative Reform in India
Kuldeep Mathur 0
Navdeep Mathur 0
0 Indian Institute of Management , Ahmedabad, Gujarat 380015 , India
This paper outlines trends in efforts at administrative reform in India. It spans the shift of ideological paradigm of the Indian political economy. While the pre1991 period was marked by a waning Statism, structural economic reforms marked a shift towards neo-liberal public management in the post 1991 period. This shift made the role of markets more salient as a framework for public services, in contrast to traditional perspectives of public administration. In the last two decades, even though some concern regarding administrative reform was expressed, substantive change took place outside the realm of the state machinery while blurring the borders between private and public institutions in delivering public services. The current political regime has added emphasis in the direction of using the bureaucracy to promote marketization and privatization in the allocation of public resources.
Administrative reform boundaries; Neoliberal governance
Concern about reforming public administration in India is not something new. What
is new is the context in which it is being talked about today. The period beginning
from 1991 is marked by the emergence of a liberal economic regime that is
attempting to dismantle the centrally directed framework of economic development.
It is also the beginning of the period when the international multilateral agencies
have begun attaching conditionalities while giving aid. These conditionalities
initially were limited to prescriptions on how the aid would be administered but
have gradually broadened their scope by suggesting reforms in overall framework of
governance itself. This is happening all over the world. Reform is in the air and no
country is left out of this global discourse. Changes in the intellectual climate that
provided a new understanding of the role and scope of public administration propels
this discourse while ‘Reinventing Government’ summarises and celebrates this new
When talking about the failure of the planned strategy of development, particularly
in the achievements of the various 5-year plans, the discussion usually veers around the
impediments created by the inherited bureaucratic and administrative system of the
British colonial days. The planners were quite conscious of the need for a different
system to implement the planned objectives of development and wrote so in
chapters of several plan documents. The government responded to this concern by
appointing many committees to suggest changes in the system. In this expression of
concern for administrative reform, public administration emerged as an academic
discipline in India and provided the intellectual background for suggestions to
improve public administration in practice. Intellectual analysis of the problems of
public administration and nature of efforts at administrative reform are closely linked.
The purpose of this paper is to examine the efforts at administrative reform in India and
analyse the context in which they were made. It is debatable whether these efforts
made any substantive impact on the practice of public administration in India. The
second part of the paper will attempt to discuss some reasons why these efforts merely
chanted the same litany of complaints against an ineffective administration without
making any headway on the ground. Finally, the paper will focus on the challenges
facing the government in the post economic reform period to see whether the
experience will be different from the earlier one.
2 The Colonial Legacy
The building blocks for the study of public administration in India were provided by
the contribution of many British administrators mainly belonging to the Indian Civil
Service. Many of these contributions were in the nature memoirs and apart from
being descriptive of the customs and manners of Indian society were rich in detail of
the working of the British Indian administration. One of the major outcomes of
these writings was the creation of what has come to be known as the ‘ICS
mythology’ and a romantic view of field administration. One of the premier
representatives of the most romanticised version of the role of the ICS is ‘The
Guardians’, the second volume of Philip Woodruff’s well known study ‘The Men
Who Ruled India’ (1954). Even though Woodruff asserted that the term guardians
was his own, several writers (ex-civil servants) joined him in perpetuating the myth
of the altruistic characteristics of the ICS in which platonic guardianship and men
being of superior virtue dominated. The love of outdoor life, commitment to the
district and the welfare of its population, courage and daring in decision making,
independence and integrity were among the many other virtues that the ICS seemed
to possess. The Indian members of the ICS helped in perpetuating these myths
through their own writings in the post-independence era (see Chettur 1964; Panjabi
A number of scholars particularly British also joined in this chorus. A rhetorical
question like the following was asked: ‘‘How is it, that 760 British members of the
ruling Indian Civil Service could as late as 1939, in the face of the massive force of
India national movement led by Gandhi, held down 378 million Indians?’’ (quoted
in Spangenburg 1976:4). Such a question implied that the British had the skills to
govern India. This assertion was based on three essential myths: a. the myth of the
popularity of the civil service as a profession that attracted the best minds; b. the
myth of efficiency in administering India; and c. the myth of sacrificial esprit de
corps of the ICS which ostensibly infused the government with the primary concern
of working for the welfare of the people.
For the British, the perpetuation of this myth served many functions. It came as a
defence of British imperialism in the court of world public opinion. Teddy
Roosevelt, at the end of his second term as President in 1909, cited British
administration in India as a prime example of overwhelming advancement achieved
as a result of white or European rule among the ‘peoples who dwell in the darker
corners of the earth’ (Spangenburg 1976:7). It also helped assuage internal opinion
in England reassuring the British ruling classes that the British rule was beneficial to
This myth not only survived but also prospered many years after independence.
The basic framework of administration continued as if the colonial administrators
had not departed at all. As an Indian journalist later remarked, ‘this would be
unbelievable were it not true’, but Nehru and his colleagues sought to build ‘a new
India, a more egalitarian society…. through the agency of those who had been the
trained servants of imperialism—it is as if Lenin, on arrival in Russia, had promptly
mustered the support of White Russians he could find’ (quoted in Potter 1986:2).
What is paradoxical is that this myth has persisted well on to the 1980s and has
resulted in the general posture adopted by the civil servants and professionals in
dealing with politicians and development processes.
The inability of national leadership to bring about change in the early 1950s set
the old system of administration in firm saddle. Nehru writing much before
independence had said, ‘I am quite sure that no new order can be built up in India so
long as the spirit of the ICS pervades our administration and our public services.
That spirit of authoritarianism…cannot exist with freedom…. Therefore, it seems
essential that the ICS and similar services must disappear completely as such before
we can start real work on a new order’ (Nehru 1953:8). In the spring of 1964, Nehru
was asked at a private meeting with some friends what he considered to be his
greatest failure as India’s first Prime Minister. He reportedly replied ‘‘I could not
change the administration, it is still colonial administration’ (quoted in Potter
The essential point is that the British administration upheld by its many myths
survived and entrenched itself well into the post-colonial period. However, the
introduction of Community Development Programme first raised the demand of a
new type of administrator who would be unrelated to the colonial one. The
administrators began to be told that a programme of social change like that of
community development could not be implemented successfully through colonial
3 The Reform Effort
The emphasis on the schism between the old and the new gained scholarly attention
really after Paul Appleby, a Professor at Syracuse University, was invited by the
Government of India to report on Indian administration. He expressed the view that
there was a dichotomy between bureaucratic dispositions and development needs in
India (Appleby 1953). Some Ford Foundation experts reinforced this view when
they recalled their work in community development programmes, commented that
‘…the inadequacies of the Indian bureaucracy are not due to the fact that it is
bureaucracy but due to considerable fact that it carries too much baggage from the
past’ (Taylor et al. 1966:579). This view gained further support when scholars like
La Palombara (1963:1) wrote ‘Public Administration steeped in the tradition of the
Indian Civil Service may be less useful as developmental administrators than those
who are not so rigidly tied to the notions of bureaucratic status, hierarch and
Simultaneously, the development administration movement was gaining
momentum within the discipline of public administration. This thrust had several
dimensions among whom at least two dominated. One was of professionalisation
of administration through the acceptance of a management orientation. It was
argued that management techniques and tools could be used successfully to improve
the implementation of development programmes and administrators must spent
significant time and effort in learning these techniques and applying them. Improved
education and training became the core efforts at professionalisation.
Another dimension of this movement had to do with change of behavioural
orientation of public administrators. This focus was aptly summed up by a leading
contributor when he suggested that only by becoming less oligarchic, less
technocratic, less stratified, closer to the administered and the managed, more
deeply rooted in the aspirations and needs of the ordinary people, only by such
changes can public service become a force with which the people of a developing
country may identify and they may have justified confidence (Gross 1974).
It was this message that the academics and consultants from the West,
particularly the United States, brought to India and through financial and technical
aid influenced the theory and practice of public administration in the country. The
Ford Foundation alone spent US$360,400 in grants to institutions and US$76,000 in
providing consultants and specialists to improve public administration in India
during 1951–62 (Braibanti 1966:148). An important consequence of this financial
and technical aid as well as the intellectual thrust of development administration
was that it began to be believed that change in the colonial administrative system
lies in changing the behaviour and the professional capacity of the individual
bureaucrat. This was possible through education and training programmes. Training
institutions proliferated and studies that supported this broad argument multiplied.
Large number of scholars was attracted to the field of development administration,
motivated not only by scholarly reasons but also by the belief that administration
was the instrument of change and administrative behaviour could be transformed
without structural changes in the colonial administrative structure and procedure.
During the period 1952–1966, policies of administrative reform were heavily
influenced by the developments in disciplinary understanding of public
administration in the United States and the perceptions of these academics and consultants
of the problems of administration in developing countries, such as India. It was at
the request of the Government of India that Ford Foundation readily made available
Prof. Paul Appleby of Syracuse University to suggest changes in the administrative
system in the country. He presented a Report in 1953 that set the tone of much of
what was done later. What is important to note is that until 1966, no other
committee was appointed to have a broad look at administration. As a consequence
of the Appleby Report Organization and Methods, divisions were established in
each government department to take care of the everyday issues of procedural
efficiency. Another recommendation of Paul Appleby to establish an Indian Institute
of Public Administration was also accepted. This Institute was supposed to take up
reform measures on a continuous basis but based on research studies.
In operational terms, the effort at administrative reform during this period was
based on education and training programmes for civil servants. The international aid
was extensively utilised for this purpose. Large number of training institutions was
established at both the central as well as state levels. The pattern of recruitment to
the higher civil services was changed, and the training system was also reformed.
A comprehensive examination of the Indian administrative system was
undertaken with the appointment of Administrative Reforms Commission in 1966. It was
patterned after the Hoover Commission of the US having a political and civil
servant membership with experts coming into write reports after study and research.
The Commission worked over a period of four years making a total of 581
recommendations (Maheshwari 1993:116). Little impact of the Commission was
felt; no recommendations of consequence were accepted. The politicians who
became members did not command prestige and influence with the government of
the day. As a matter of fact, the government itself was in a flux. Lal Bahadur Shastri,
the Prime Minister, who had appointed the Commission in 1965, suddenly died and
Indira Gandhi took over. For the years up to 1971, she was fighting for her political
survival, attending to crises and did not find time to reflect on administrative
change. When the Commission finished its tasks, the country was facing a war for
the liberation of Bangladesh and subsequently was caught in the turmoil of national
emergency. The ruling party was comfortable working with the existing
administrative system and reforming it was not on the agenda of the political parties in
opposition. The Administrative Reforms Commission just faded away leaving
behind a pile of reports and frustration at the national inability to reform a colonial
If during the early period of India’s independence, administration was seen as
instrument of change, the period after the Third Plan 1961–66; it began to be to be
seen as an impediment to development. Plan performance had been poor and the
policy makers saw lack of effective administration as major contributing factor. As
a matter of fact, in 1969, the Congress party itself raised the issue of the inability of
a neutral civil service to implement goals of development. It pleaded for a
committed civil service. The question ‘committed to what’ was left open. A fierce
debate followed in which retired and serving bureaucrats participated freely (see
Dubhashi 1971; Chaturvedi 1971; Committed Civil Service 1973). No formal
change took place but the practice of shifting bureaucrats on demands of political
leadership began a characteristic that is spread widely in the system today. The
period of emergency when loyalty became an important criterion for holding a
pivotal position in government was replicated when Janata Party came to power
defeating the Congress and Mrs. Gandhi. The return of the Congress and defeat of
Janata Party in 1980 signalled the beginning of the process again. The practice has
spawned what is colloquially known as ‘transfer industry’ and the central
government has begun to reflect what was confined to states only (Banik 2001).
Formal acceptance of this idea would have transformed the role of the civil service
but this did not happen. What could not be formalised was openly accepted in
4 Failure of Reform Effort
One possible reason that administrative reform failed to make a dent into the
inherited administrative system was the weakness on the conceptual front. No
alternative was offered. What was offered was ways to improve the existing system.
In addition, these ways were too inconsequential. Intellectually, adherence to the
Weberian model and Taylorian norms of work considerably constrained the
generation of alternatives. Overwhelming academic response to administrative
problems was through analyses of structural attributes that caused bottlenecks in
coordination or communication, or of the behavioural irritants that led to friction
either in a team of bureaucrats only or one of bureaucrats and politicians. The
prescription was already decided and not questioned, and therefore, when the
problems persisted, the solution was to increase the dosage of further division of
labour, and specialization or tighten controls through improved lines of
communications and authority.
The problem was that the empirical insights did not reflect the dominant concerns
in the intellectual study of public administration, where Weberian influences held
the attention of most scholars who explained variations in administrative
performance by examining issues of neutrality, training and professionalism,
structure of hierarchies, and processes of work and behavioural orientations.
Another source of explanation was the emphasis on the abilities and qualities of an
individual and the belief that it was an individual who made the difference whatever
be the structural constraints. A development oriented bureaucrat implemented
programmes well in spite of the prevailing administrative system. The memoirs of
the civil servants are replete with illustrations that show how they as individuals
dealt with new political issues (see for a recent example, Dar 1999).
Little concern for administrative reform was expressed in the 1970s and later.
Severe indictment of the civil service was made by the Shah Commission of
Inquiry, which reported that they carried out instructions from politicians and
administrative heads on personal and political considerations. There were many
cases, where officers curried favour with politicians by doing what they thought the
people in authority desired. In short, the evidence showed, as a journalist remarked,
‘‘(the Emergency was) the high water-mark of the politicians victory in the long
drawn out struggle against the civil service’’ (quoted in Potter 1986:157).
In the last two decades, the story of administration as an impediment to
development has taken a drastic turn. If the beginning of the Plan period saw an
effort to strengthen state intervention as recipe for triggering development, the
1980s ended with disastrous accounts of failures of regulatory and interventionist
states and with strong pleas to dismantle state machinery and its roles. Neo-liberal
economic theory tended to build its case on how rulers extract resources and invest
them. It argued that rulers in interventionist states tend to use resources for their
own benefit to the detriment of the development of their societies. The argument of
state failure was based on how monopoly rents are created through the imposition of
regulation and control of the economy. Political pressures dominate economic
policy formulation and execution. A consequence of this system is that government
machinery is used for personal interests. The policy recommendation that follows
from this diagnosis is to minimize state intervention and to rely increasingly on
markets for resource use and allocation.
5 Renewed Efforts
The above diagnosis of the failure of government in development led to rethinking
about the structure and role of public administration. A kind of revolution occurred
and the focus shifted from control of bureaucracy and delivery of goods and services
to increasingly privatise government and shape its role as an entrepreneur
competing with other social groups and institutions to provide goods and services
to the citizens. The book of Osborne and Gaebler ‘Reinventing Government’ (1992)
was a landmark in the growth of ideas that have sought to build a New Public
Administration. Public administration was admonished to ‘steer rather than row’ for
‘those who steer the boat have far more power than those who row it’ (Osborne and
Gaebler 1992:32). Since then, these ideas have swept across the world and the
international/multilateral agencies have used them to influence public management
of their economic aid programmes. The common theme in the myriad applications
of these ideas has been the use of market mechanisms and terminology, in which the
relationship of public agencies and their customers is understood as based on
selfinterest, involving transactions similar to those occurring in the market place. Public
managers are urged to steer not row their organizations and they are challenged to
find new and innovative ways to achieve results or to privatise functions previously
provided by government (Denhardt and Denhardt 2000:550). In this new world, the
primary role of government is not merely to direct the actions of the public through
regulation and decree, nor is it merely to establish a set of rules and incentives
through which people will be guided in the proper direction. Rather government
becomes another player in the process of moving society in one direction or another.
Where traditionally government has responded to needs by saying ‘‘yes, we can
provide service’’ or ‘‘no, we cannot,’’ the new public service suggests that elected
officials and public managers should respond to the requests of the citizens by
saying ‘‘let us work together to figure out what we are going to do, and then make it
happen’’ (Denhardt and Denhardt 2000:554).
Operationally, these ideas have advocated: a. managerially oriented
administration; b. reducing public budgets; c. downsizing the government; d. selective
privatization of public enterprises; e. contracting out of services; f. decentralization;
g. transparency and accountability; and h. emphasis on civil society institutions and
non-governmental organizations to deliver goods and services.
When India embarked upon an ambitious programme of economic reform in
1991, the ideas about public administration reform had already entered the package
of aid that was promised by the World Bank and the IMF. It will be fair to say that
they were reflecting a change in the disciplinary thrusts of public administration too.
Country after country was deciding to change and reform their governments. There
is little doubt that this change was being triggered by the wave of policies of
structural adjustment and liberalization prompted by a new globalization set in after
the collapse of Soviet Union. Therefore, while administrative reforms are
profoundly domestic issues, the fact that they are being seen as part of package
of the ‘new deal’ makes them open to external pressures and influences. Reform is
stylish today, and there is more than a single reason why it is so. Technological
changes are calling for managerial changes. The information technology with its
computer base has caught the imagination of both administrators and politicians.
Demands for greater decentralization are being met because of change in the
political scenario. People’s groups are becoming more aware of their rights and
demanding improved government services that are transparent and accountable to
them. This is apart from the influence that the international financial agencies are
exercising on government to reform to be eligible for more loan/aid and directly
funding NGOs to implement development programmes.
The effort at reducing the size of government began with successive budgets
presented by the Union Finance Minister from 1992. The imperative need was to
reduce the fiscal deficit and cut down on unproductive expenditure. In a bid to bring
about fiscal prudence and austerity, the Centre imposed a 10% cut across the board
in the number of sanctioned posts as on January 1, 1992. The Fifth Pay Commission
that submitted its report contained a recommendation for a whopping one-third cut
in government size in 10 years. The downsizing exercise was later taken up by the
Expenditure Commission, which further recommended cut in the number of
sanctioned posts as on January 1, 2000. As a matter of fact, instructions for cutting
sanctioned posts were renewed in 2000 directing a 10% reduction in the posts
created between 1992 and 1999 (Raina 2002). Statistics maintained by the Ministry
of Finance show that pay and allowances bill of the central government was Rs.
33,977.79 crores for the year 1999–2000 showing a hike of Rs. 31,560.19 crores
over the previous year. The number of central government civilian regular
employees was 38.55 lakhs on March 1, 2000 down from 39.07 lakhs on March 31,
1999. There had been a decrease of 51,605 posts or of just 1.32% (Mishra 2002). As
one can see, there is very little impact of these efforts.
In 1996, a Chief Secretaries Conference reiterated the popular policy
prescriptions for a responsive and effective administration. The Conference recognised that
the public image of the bureaucracy was one of inaccessibility, indifference,
procedure orientation, poor quality and sluggishness, corruption proneness, and
non-accountability for result (Government of India 1997a:1). The Fifth Pay
Commission (Government of India 1997b) took the concerns of the Chief
Secretaries listed among many of its recommendations the need to downsize the
government and to bring about greater transparency and openness in government.
Two developments of significance took place. A Chief Minister’s Conference
endorsed the issue of transparency through citizens’ right to information in 1997. In
addition, the concept of Citizen’s Charter took shape. Both were a follow-up on the
recommendations of the Pay Commission, which in turn was in a way responding to
grassroots demands in villages of Rajasthan.
A people’s organization in Rajasthan, known as Mazdoor Kisan Shakti
Sangathan (MKSS), has been in the vanguard of this struggle and forced
government to respond to the demands of information and accountability. As
documented in Roy et al. (2001), the people began to understand that their
livelihood, wages, and employment depended a great deal on the investments made
by the government as a development agency. If these benefits were not coming, then
they had the right to know where the investment occurred and how much of it was
actually spent. The right to economic well being got translated into right to
information. As Roy et al. (Ibid) point out, the struggle became for ‘hamara paisa
hamara hisab’. In other words, accountability became a critical issue in the public
hearings organized in five blocks of four districts. Four demands were made:
transparency of development spending, accountability, sanctity of social audit, and
redressal. This campaign began in 1994 and gradually gained momentum spreading
to the most parts of the state. It reached to the level, where assurances had to be
provided by the Chief Minister.
The essence of the campaign that steamrollered into a movement for right to
information was the jan sunwai (public hearing), where villagers assembled to
testify whether the public works that have been met out of the expenditures certified
by the government actually exist or not. The first Jan sunwai was held in a village of
Kot Kirana in 1994. Since then, they have caught the imagination of the MKSS that
has held them at several places. Beawar was the scene of a major event in April
1996. It was followed by a 40-day dharna in which activists were fed and sheltered
by the public. Another 53-day dharna was organized at Jaipur (see Bunker Roy, The
Asian Age 30 May 2001). The Rajasthan government responded reluctantly, but the
Chief Minister ultimately announced that the people had the right to demand and
receive details of expenditure on development works in their villages.
Three months after the event in Beawar, politicians, jurists, former bureaucrats,
academics, and others joined in demanding right to information legislation at a
conference in New Delhi. A committee under the chairmanship of Justice PB
Sawant was authorised to draft a model bill. The central government too came under
pressure to introduce legislation in the Parliament that could be followed by the
Government of India sets up a Working Group on Right to Information and
Promotion of Open and Transparent Government in 1997. The terms of reference of
the Group included the examination of feasibility and need to introduce a full
fledged Right to Information Act so as to meet the needs of open and responsive
government. The Working Group placed its tasks within the broad framework of
democracy and accountability and emphasised, ‘democracy means choice, and a
sound, and informed choice is possible only on the basis of knowledge’ (Working
Group Report 1997:3). It also argued that transparency and openness in functioning
have a cleansing effect on the operations of public agencies and approvingly quoted
the saying that sunlight is the best disinfectant.
The Working Group accepted the following broad principles to the formulation
of the legislation:
Disclosure of information should be the rule and secrecy the exception.
The exceptions should be clearly defined.
There should be an independent mechanism for adjudication of disputes
between the citizens and public authorities.
A draft bill has been prepared which was put to public debate and now the
proposed legislation is lying with the Parliament for approval.
Transparency in government also became an issue on the agenda of the
Conference of Chief Ministers held on 24 May 1997. The conference issued a
statement that provided an Action Plan for Effective and Responsive Government at
the Central and State levels. In this statement, the Chief Ministers recognised that
secrecy and lack of openness in transactions are largely responsible for corruption in
official dealings. The government set for itself a time limit of three months to ensure
easy access of the people to all information relating to Government activities and
decisions, except to the extent required to be excluded on specific grounds, such as
national security. The statement also gave an assurance that the Report of the
Working Group on Right to Information would be quickly examined and legislation
introduced before the end of 1997. Political events have taken over, and the Act has
yet to come into existence.
It is clear from the above that this dimension of administrative reform that
stresses transparency and right to information is an issue that has been spearheaded
by the people. It is not a change attempted by a well meaning and benign
government. However, the struggle has not yet been enough to get legislation passed
by the Parliament or the state legislatures. There has been resistance not only from
the political leaders who swear by the name of democracy but also from the
bureaucrats whose norms of work had been dictated by secrecy and confidentiality.
The Rajasthan experience has shown that even the local level administrators have
found ways to thwart attempts at opening the administration closest to the people for
The reason of resistance is not far to seek. Much of the corruption that occurs in
official dealings takes place under the cover of state sanctioned secrecy. The norm
has been to keep information away from the people on the pretext of guarding
public interest. Large number of national scams occurs, because no one knows what
is happening in closets of government. At the local level, even the information on
muster rolls is deemed to be confidential. Therefore, the movement for information
has as its genesis the fight against corruption and demand for accountability. The
muster rolls carried false name in Rajasthan villages and this could be identified
only by the local people and not by the audit parties sent by the government. It is for
this reason that the proposed bill does not provide the full opening of the file of
decisions to the public. Who advises what will not be told. The recent incident,
widely reported in the press, when the Urban Development Minister’s order for
placing a particular file on land deals for public scrutiny was reversed by the
bureaucrats shows the fear of open decision making (see Statesman 1998).
Information then is also associated with power government exercises. By
restricting information, people in government become more powerful than those
who are outside it. Thus, demand for transparency and information is also about
sharing of power. It is possible to misuse power when it is concentrated rather than
when it is shared among a broader stream of people. As information grows, the
arbitrariness of government tends to reduce. However, the resistance from the local
level functionaries is growing in response to the Jan sunwais held by the MKSS is
Rajasthan. A recent newspaper report of The Hindu (March 13, 2002) mentions how
over 240 sarpanchas have organized themselves and waited on the Chief Minister to
resist further sunwais.
It is this kind of resistance that has delayed the actual passage of the bill. It is
necessary for the parliament to take early steps to pass the law on the right to
information. Godbole (2001:1423) rightfully fears that longer the delay in the
passage of the Bill, the weaker and more anemic, it is likely to be. Each successive
draft bill on the subject prepared by the central government is a watered down
version of the earlier bill and is a bundle of compromises affected to accommodate
the stiff opposition to the proposed measures at the political and bureaucratic levels.
The citizen’s right to information has been coupled with the idea of Citizen’s
Charter. The aim of the charter is to make available to the citizen the information to
demand accountability, transparency, and quality and choice of services by the
government departments. It was first introduced in Britain in 1991 to streamline
administration and make it citizen friendly. A Core group has been set up under the
Chairmanship of Secretary (Personnel) for monitoring the progress of initiatives
taken by Ministries/Departments with a substantial public interface. So far, 61
charters have been formulated which include 27 Charters for public sector banks
and 4 Charters for hospitals (Agnihotri 2000:126). For lack of effective monitoring,
this has remained a paper exercise.
6 Concluding Remarks
Some lessons can be drawn from the experience of administrative reforms in India.
Those who resisted change have derived great inspiration from the support that
Sardar Patel, India’s first Home Minister, gave in saving the ICS and the steel frame.
At the time of India’s partition, he warned that chaos would result if the Civil
Service were removed from the scene. Nehru agreed and civil service reform was
not on high priority at the time when riots and uprisings had to be handled to
maintain the integrity of the country. Since then, one crisis or the other has taken
precedence and administrative reform commanded little attention. When it did, it
was an administrative matter to be handled by the administrators themselves. The
committees and commissions that came to review administration had administrators
themselves as members. The administrators for purposes of feasibility of
implementation processed even the recommendations of the Administrative
Reforms Commission, 1966–1970, that had a wide range of consultations with
people from various professions. One reason could be that the understanding of
public administration was heavily influenced by a paradigm that was inward looking
and perceived bureaucracy as a more or less autonomous instrument of
implementing development policies and programmes.
Another could be that political leadership saw advantage in maintaining the
status quo while continuing to articulate the need for radical reforms for public
rhetoric. Mrs. Gandhi and her group quickly saw that civil service could be
‘committed’ while continuing the public posture of neutrality. The Emergency
period and the subsequent years of ‘transfer industry’ are ample evidence of keeping
to form rather than substance. Even in questions of downsizing the government, a
mantra from 1992, the same evidence is forthcoming. The A level positions
continue to remain largely untouched, while all reforms—reduction of positions or
contracting out principles—are targeted at lower levels. The IAS or the IPS that has
held critical positions in government has never been under scrutiny for reforms in
spite of public outcry against their role and behaviour. The only time that a serious
attempt was made was when the Administrative Reforms Commission made the
recommendation of delimiting areas of specialization in the secretariat and
manning, these areas from personnel drawn from all sources through a mid-career
competitive to include more specialists in the higher positions was made. This
recommendation was scuttled and not accepted by the Government when the IAS
itself sought specialization through training and postings.
In the ultimate analysis, civil service reform in India has neither enhanced
efficiency nor the accountability of the civil service in any meaningful manner. As
far as the common citizen is concerned, it has not been effective. If Maheshwari
(1972:55) commented that India’s effort at reform have amounted to correction slips
to the inherited system, Das (1998:213) himself an IAS officer, has gone a step
further to indict the reform effort, around a quarter of a century later, by saying that
they were not even correction slips—they were more in the nature of endorsement
slips. Probably, the present time of structural adjustment, liberalization,
technological imperatives, and grassroots pressures may provide the best confluence of forces
that can break bureaucratic resistance and promote political will to make the
administrative system more open to reform and change.
The impact of such a confluence of forces is not without risks, however. The
global advocates of reform have assumed that one size fits all and any government
could be improved by the magic of market, privatization, participation, and
efficiency. However, the expectations of people of their governments are different in
different societies and they are critical in redesigning reform activities. Reinventing
government in US is based on different assumptions and these may not even hold in
UK. As Peters (2001:167) points out, ‘‘the central problem for implementing public
management reforms in developing countries is that their success to some extent
depends on the existence of public service values and practices that support
accountability and effective management’’. Deregulation and granting autonomy
may mean that the empowered decision makers may use the new found freedom to
serve themselves rather than the public.
India faces the major challenge of redesigning an administrative system can
sustain itself in an environment of globalization and economic reform. The earlier
efforts were partly failures, because they assumed an image of the administrative
system that was divorced from reality. It was rigid for most people but very flexible
for the privileged among them. Rules were flouted with impunity, privatization of
public office was common, and procedures were discarded at many personal
pretexts. The classic Riggsian formalism was at work. It is the common citizen that
lost confidence in administration and this has to be restored first. This cannot come
about only through tinkering with administrative design but challenges the basic
issues of governance itself.
7 Last Pages
As we have attempted to show administrative reform movement in India has not
been lacking in ideas and suggestions. Numerous committees and commissions have
been set up with experienced public affairs experts and technocrats at their helm, but
little forward moves have been undertaken.
The paradox is that all Prime Ministers taking office have expressed concerns
about bureaucratic rigidity and archaic procedures that cannot fulfill people’s
aspirations and their developmental needs. However, reform has not followed.
The first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had expressed some strong views even
before independence when he wrote in his autobiography ‘‘I am quite sure that no
new order can be built up in India so long as the spirit of the ICS pervades our
administration and our services. That spirit of authoritarianism…. cannot exist with
Successive Prime Ministers have expressed similar concerns when they have
assumed office. Nehru has already been mentioned above. Assuming the highest
office Mrs. Indira Gandhi said in 1966 what India needed today was a ‘revolution in
administrative system’ and a year later declared that ‘if a large proportion of the
investment we have made under the plans remains unutilized, the cause is to be
found in administrative shortcomings’. Rajiv Gandhi was more blunt and forthright
when in a speech in Bombay, he said that ‘we have government servants who do not
serve but oppress the poor.. they have no work ethics, no feeling for public cause, no
involvement in the future of the nation..’ (quoted in Mathur 2014:198). AB
Vajpayee addressing the National Development Council in 1999 voiced similar
sentiments when he said that’ people often perceive the bureaucracy as an agent of
exploitation rather than provider of service. Corruption has become low-risk high
reward activity (ibid:198). Prime Minister Manmohan Singh complained on
assuming office in 2004 that ‘I am convinced that government at every level is
not adequately equipped and attuned to deal with it (social and economic change)
and meet the aspirations of the people. To be able to do so we require the reform of
government and of public institutions’ (quoted in Mathur 2005:56). Possibly, it was
this comment that led to the appointment of the Second Administrative Reforms
Commission by his government in 2005.
The newly elected Prime Minister (2014) Narendra Modi had entirely a different
approach towards bureaucracy. He has not commented on its failings but has sought
its support in implementing his developmental agenda. In a meeting with 77 top
bureaucrats (Secretaries to Government of India), the Prime Minister expressed ‘full
faith in their commitment and competence to build a better future of the country’
(Times of India 4 June, 2014). He exhorted them to take decisions without fear or
favour while continuing the practice of appointing chosen bureaucrats to critical
positions in government. He also encouraged them to have direct links with his
office and not necessarily through the Minister who headed their ministries.1
In keeping with this overture, the Prime Minister now keeps himself in direct
touch with civil servants in states and central ministries through monthly meetings
conducted in tele-conferencing mode. He reviews projects, gives directions to
remove obstacles, reduces red tape, or improves coordination. The ministers in
charge of the relevant portfolios are kept out of these meetings. This monitoring
platform has been named PRAGATI (Proactive Governance and Timely
Implementation). Projects are treated on a case by case basis, and no effort is made for
systemic change. It is this process of interacting directly with senior members of
civil service and empowering the Prime Minister’s Office that has led to the charge
of centralization of powers by the Prime Minister.2
In the last 2 years (2014–2016), there has been little discussion of reform within
government. There is increasing reliance on private management practices and
technology to raise efficiency in the delivery of public services. For introducing this
change, the government is relying on the bureaucrats themselves, and thus, the
effort is of training and capacity building. Strong belief in liberal market economy,
the government is placing great faith in outsourcing of services, public–private
partnerships and external private consultants to guide the implementation of many
Thus what is happening is that administrative reform as such is on the back
burner which means that the role of bureaucracy particularly the role of its higher
level members has increased and not diminished in the new dispensation. Higher
level bureaucrats are beholden to the Prime Minister’s Office for reporting their
1 It has been estimated that over 16 months, since Modi government came to power in 2014, 80
secretaries to Government of India have been reshuffled. This reshuffling has taken place at the behest of
Prime Minister’s Office not of individual Ministers. See AK Bhattacharya Winds of Change Business
Standard October 4, 2015.
2 Commenting in Business Standard (February 8, 2016) Bhattacharya contends that after 20 months in
power, Prime Minister Modi looks different from other Prime Ministers in his engagement with
bureaucracy. He has established direct contact with senior bureaucrats, by-passing their Ministers, and
monitors performance of key projects. Transfers take place more on the ability to deliver. Unlike previous
incumbents, Modi has made no pretence or promise of reforming the bureaucracy.
achievements and accomplishments and it is this Office that holds them
accountable and the political heads of the ministries or departments that they serve.
The emerging challenge is how this effort to improve the delivery of public
services through technology and private management practices can be sustained in
an ossified administrative system that has been repeatedly characterized as
unresponsive to state goals and new policy environment. It is administrative system
that still continues to set the terms of negotiations with the private sector or rules for
settlement of disputes. If these procedures, among many, are not reformed to keep
pace with the private sector managerial thrust, the country faces greater prospects of
Acknowledgements This research was supported by a grant from the Dr. Seaker Chan Center for
Comparative Political Development Studies at Fudan University.
Kuldeep Mathur is former Professor, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He held the academic
chair of the Centre for Studies in Law and Governance and served as Rector at the JNU. He has also
taught at the Indian Institute of Public Administration, New Delhi, and has served as a consultant for the
UN and Asian Development bank.
Navdeep Mathur is on the faculty of The Public Systems Group, at the Indian Institute of Management,
Ahmedabad. He has previously served as a Research Fellow at INLOGOV, School of Public Policy,
University of Birmingham, UK. He was founding co-editor of Critical Policy Studies (Taylor and
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