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M N Buch
'Caste' of service blight of Indian bureaucracy
Posted: Monday, 1 Aug 2011 at 5:04 PM
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The Indian bureaucracy is highly caste bound. Members of the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) are the brahmins, those of the Indian Police Service the kshatriyas, with the rest of the bureaucracy being the vaishyas.Bringing up the tail are the teachers and scientists who are akin to the shudras. We still identify the importance of an official by the ‘caste’ of the service to which he belongs rather than by the work he/she does.

Let’s take two examples. The Director General of Police (DGP) is the king of of the police force. The humble traffic constable is a beast of burden. Everyone bows and scrapes to the DGP whereas the traffic constable is harangued by his superiors, bullied by the influential, and generally harassed when trying to make people obey traffic laws. In reality, however, the traffic constable, when on point duty, is also king. No one can order him to allow traffic to merge at an intersection at right angles because this would cause accidents. When he orders traffic to stop everyone from the President to the humble clerk must stop. Does he not deserve the respect his job entails? If the zonal IG were to stand on traffic duty he would certainly be feared and respected. So why deny the humble constable his power?

The other example is that of a municipal street sweeper. He is a figure of derision and revulsion as much due to his lowly caste and position coupled with the nature of his job which requires him to handle garbage. In sharp contrast, the municipal health officer who supervises the sanitation work would be welcomed by most householders, even served a cup of tea. A street sweeper, on the other hand, may refrain from crossing the threshold of your back verandah. This is despite the fact that he plays a key role in maintaining the city’s sanitation and hygiene, removing refuse and ensuring that the general environment remains clean and healthy. A mature society would treat such a person with respect because he performs an important task.

The hierarchical system is further reinforced by our obsession with pay scales, pay bands, grade pay, etc. A grade pay of a professor in a top university may be around Rs 10,000/ till the fag end of his career compared to his colleagues at the IIT/IIM who might be drawing Rs, 10,500/ even if the institution became operarional a week ago and lacks even the basic infrastructure. Are we to assume that the intelligence and ability of a university professor is less than his counterpart at any of the IITs/IIMs? Proffered is the familiar argument that it is difficult to find competent faculty members for IITs/IIMs compared to those for the humanities, law, commerce, physics or economics streams which is just not true. What is ignored is the need to nurture and respect professorial talent in our varsities which remain the principal temples of learning. The teaching staff at our universities deserve as much respect and honour as those at the IITs/IIMs.

The idea is not to decry or run down the all India services. Sardar Patel rightly recognised that since centrifugal forces in India were more powerful than centripetal, there was an urgent need to have unifying links which held the country together regardless of political instability. The position remains unchanged today. Therein lies the need of the all India services. If the central government is to play its true role as a cadre controlling authority, it must protect and encourage all India service officers to work without fear or favour and punish rogue elements who succumb to local pressure and deviate from the path of duty. This is a power the Centre has almost never invoked though empowered under Part XIV of the Constitution.

In fact, the sole example of central intervention is when Jayalalitha ordered the arrest of Kanunanidhi which the Tamil Nadu police executed at 2am, dragging the septuagenarian out of bed in an unseemly manner. The Centre transferred both the state DGP as well as the police commissioner, Chennai, to Delhi, thereby driving home the firm message that all India service officers who transgress rules and laws can invite central intervention and punishment. The action, however, served no purpose since the officers went unpunished and soon returned to their cadre state. Outright dismissal or even suspension would have put the fear of god in the IAS and IPS fraternity throughout the country. It would have reminded them that they are servants of the law, not of any particular chief minister.

At issue, however, is the vexed question on how to deal with the divorce between deed and consequence. We have ceased to punish dereliction of duty, corruption, inefficiency, incompetence, lack of impartiality in performance of duty and the complete lack of courage in giving our political masters good advice, all areas of accountability in which the guilty officer ought to be punished. Here too there is a caste system at work. When something goes wrong it is invariably someone in the lower rungs who is pulled up. When the Government of India messed up the list of wanted criminals allegedly hiding in Pakistan it was not the CBI director or his senior officers who were held accountable. Action took the form of suspension of a sub-inspector, and the transfer of an SP and DSP. None in the home ministry who approved the list for transmission to Pakistan was hauled over the coals. The chances are that the more serious the offence the less likelihood is there of any senior officer being punished. The scapegoat is generally a junior engineer, a clerk, a sub-inspector of police, a naib tahsildar or some such functionary. Senior officers go scot-free. This is a mirror image of the caste system. A brahmin can do no wrong, a shudra can do nothing right. We have to break this system because action must start from the top and senior persons must be held accountable not only for their own actions but that of their subordinates too.

Of all the all India services, those of the IAS, play a crucial role in formulating and implementing policy, advising ministers, piloting policy resolutions, and ensuring compliance. They deserve the high stature they enjoy. But there are many areas of specialisation where scientists, engineers, even philosophers have a key role to play. A good professor is a polished diamond as is a good archaelogist, a good historian, a good geographer, or a good teacher of technology. No less important is the master craftsman who converts design into product. Is their work not important enough to justify respectable compensation and status?

Former TELCO CMD Sumant Mulgaonkar often said India had scores of graduate engineers but few master craftsmen. The latter’s skill is considered lower than the erudition of a teacher when in reality both complement each other. A scientist develops a concept, the master craftsman transforms it into a commercially salaebale product. But sadly, the best hands and brains never go into making craftsmen because they are considered lower on the social ladder than a scientist just as a scientist is perceived to be lower than the secretary of his ministry.

Scientific investigation and a whole plethora of forensic skills are absolute essentials for criminal probes in the police department. Behind them are learned scientists and forensic experts. But since their status in the police hierarchy is low, such a person would usually be an assistant professor in an ordinary university rather than a senior scientific officer in a forensic laboratory. It is thus important to find ways and means to ensure that the working conditions and stature of a forensic scientist is good enough to rope in the best talents. Neither pay bands nor grade pay should be restricting factors.

To give an example, the late Shyama Charan Shukla, who was chief minister of Madhya Pradesh in 1989, appointed an expert on power as advisor to the state electricity board and wanted to give him a salary higher than that of the
chief secretary or the chairman of the board. When his chief secretary (RS Khanna) raised an objection, he was curtly told: “Mr Khanna, your status is not determined by your salary but the post you hold. The expert is being paid for his specialized knowledge. Take it that i am paying the workman his due wages”. Khanna saw the point. People in authority should not feel threatened because someone in their set-up is being paid more than they. The caste system based on salary must go.

Another offshoot of the caste system is our systemic inability to recognise and reward merit. Progression up the bureaucratic ladder is almost entirely seniority based. Which means that a bright officer with ideas can never innovate or get an out of turn promotion because the hierarchy does not permit it. A junior officer who does outstanding work is rarely rewarded or granted public recognition with a Padma Shri/Bhushan. A complaint, howsoever false, a misjudgement, and a hasty albeit honest decision is enough to ruin an officer’s career. That’s why all civil servants play safe. His mental makeup is no different from a priest in one of the 12 temples with a jyotirling. The pujari cannot risk inviting a shudra to assist him during ‘bhasma aarti’ if only to prove that in God’s eyes, there are no untouchables. Doing it would invite instant revulsion and expulsion by the high priests of the Hindu religion.

So until we introduce a system of rewards which cuts across hierarchical lines, and make it clear that incompetence, inefficiency, laziness and lack of decision making will stand in the way of a person’s professional advancement, we cannot break the caste system. Till we are able to establish, at least within each cadre if not across cadres, an upward mobility for the meritorious, the brahmin will always remains a brahmin, and a shudra always a shudra.

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