It is seldom that one finds genuine pleasure in reviewing a book, but involvement in its theme can make the exercise rewarding. Ram K. Vepa belongs to the Indian Administrative service. The blurb describes his book as one written by a ‘practising administrator for the benefit of other administrators’. As a ‘practising administrator’ cast, for the moment, into academia, quite unconsciously, one compares one’s own experience with that of another in the same business.
As the administrator progresses from youth to middle age and, sadly thereafter into ‘anecdotage’ he reminisces; and passes out capsules of wisdom—some trite, some instructive, some amusing. Indeed, books have been written by retired administrators, laced liberally with home-brewed wisdom. Vepa has been unable to resist the temptation to which so many of our senior colleagues have succumbed. In the very first few pages of his book we find epigrams that are, no doubt, being instilled in his juniors. Samples: ‘… a quick decision in most cases is preferable to a “right” one, since there is no guarantee ever of its rightness:’ and, ‘India will stand or fall not by what happens in the cities but in its villages …’ Further down the book one discovers, ‘One needs to be on the look-out for all types of injustices so that there is a sense of fair-play in society which will make for a contented public; after all, administration is meant to enlarge the area of human happiness …’ Who says that the Indian Administrative Service does not carry the Brown Man’s Burden?[ih`c-hide-content ihc_mb_type=”block” ihc_mb_who=”unreg” ihc_mb_template=”1″ ]
The first part of the book deals with the broad theme of district administration in India, and its transition from a law and order, colonial administration into, hopefully, a development-oriented, national administration. District administration was recognized by Charles Metcalfe, ‘as best suited to the character of our native subjects’. One of its cardinal features was the placing of all branches of district work under the superintendence of the Collector. Also crucial to the working of the system was bringing the magistracy, as distinguished from judges, under him. Sir Thomas Munro believed that: ‘A judge should perhaps be abstracted from all private converse with the natives. A magistrate must maintain a most intimate communication with them—justice should be blind but police requires the eyes of Argus.’ This basic system of district administration continues practically unchanged to the present day.
Vepa points out the difficulties which faced the administration after Independence. Gaps developed in the steel frame after the premature retirement of its British members. Some areas of policy were unknown territory, like Defence, because Indians had been kept on the periphery of all sensitive departments. And there were industries to manage, besides all manner of undertakings to run in a vastly expanded public sector. Above all politicians had to be understood. The ‘knee-jerk’ reaction of politicians to blame the bureaucracy for all the ills of India is noticed. But it is admitted that hierarchical traditions, rigid adherence to rules and procedures, courtier habits and insensitivity to the people are some of the maladies afflicting Indian bureaucracy. There is a discussion on the delicate question of ‘commitment’.
Not that the administration has not grappled with very difficult problems. It scaled high levels in handling the refugee influx after Partition, integrating the princely states, and in performing the enormous tasks of holding elections, census and famine operations. Still, the number of people below the poverty line has increased, the population continues exploding, developmental schemes regress from one Plan to another, unemployment and illiteracy have increased since Independence. A lack of popular involvement in the administration is recognized as responsible for this dismal state of affairs. The Panchayati Raj experiment, Vepa believes, has only succeeded in bringing party politics and corruption to the masses.
All this is perfectly true. But the author might have noticed one other important factor. This is the steady deterioration in the quality of routine administration. Whether it be in the offices, or disposing of revenue and criminal cases or the maintenance of land records, or in the area of supervising, the old norms have collapsed. Too much time and energy is devoted to what might be described as ‘high-tension’ areas of administration—Ministers’ visits, well-publicized melas to display Government achievements; drives ranging from Family Planning to Wild-life Weeks/Fortnights, and so on. The routine suffers. In fact, nobody bothers about it. And it is routine at all levels which moves the administrative juggernaut; it is routine administration which concerns the public, and leads to their despair.
Having set forth the problem, Vepa utilizes the second part of his book to explore how the challenges might be met. Systems analysis is suggested, among other tasks, to formulate, evaluate and monitor plans. Then there is a chapter on ‘Science in Decision Making’, which explains how simple office equipment can improve matters. The introduction of modernism into administration takes time—not because of financial problems or fears of retrenchment. In my own experience the trouble lies in the higher echelons of the bureaucracy, and their unwillingness to experiment with newer methods of getting work done. What is missing is a ‘management culture’.
There are chapters on ‘Centre-State relations’ which do not quite fit into the scheme of the book, and one on ‘Interfacing with the Citizen’. For ‘interfacing’ please read ‘dealing’. We are warned on many occasions to avoid an exotic vocabulary. But Vepa can be excused. All specialists become word merchants after a while.
Which brings us to the heart of Vepa’s book, and his chapter, rather misleadingly entitled ‘Human Factor in the Steel Frame’? Attention is drawn to the imperative need for career management, which assumes salience as the administration develops greater complexity and requires more specialized skills. Training and a coherent postings policy are essential to get the best of the generalist administrator, which would be of infinite value to the administration. It is evident, however that nothing concrete has yet been done, and it is not unusual to find the generalist administrator wandering from one department to another gaining unrelated knowledge but no specialized experience. That leads Vepa on to the specialist versus generalist controversy. Wisely, he avoids taking sides, and conveys the perfectly sensible viewpoint that both these species of administrators can either succeed or fail in their charges, depending on their personal attributes.
Interestingly, Vepa believes that one of the hoary traditions of Indian administration—civil service anonymity—needs to be questioned. Should the administrator be expected to have at the very least, a commitment to the fundamental aspects of the Constitution and become more deeply involved in plans for economic and social reconstruction, can he function properly as a ‘faceless’ entity? Surely some projection of his own views in public forums cannot be all that dangerous in. a democratic system. I entirely agree.
No, this is not a definitive book on the Indian administrative system. But anyone claiming to write one must be either extraordinarily naive or extremely conceited. Still the book makes easy reading, and will be of interest to the practical administrator and the concerned layman.
P.R. Chari is Director, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.