This is a true story. It was told to me by one of the dramatis personae.
It happened sometime in the 1960s when Kerala was under governor’s rule. A politician from Uttar Pradesh was the governor of Kerala at that time.
A young officer from the state secretariat was entrusted with the task of carrying files from the secretariat to the governor’s house daily and getting his orders and signatures.
The governor was so pleased with the meticulous and dedicated manner in which the young man did his job, that he issued a written order that the young man may be given two advance increments in his salary in appreciation of his good work.
When the order reached the finance section of the department concerned, an undersecretary, driven probably by envy, felt it his duty to save the state from the capricious whim of a politician.
So, he wrote on the file: “If this order is implemented, it will become a precedent, which will create requests for similar incentives in future. Therefore, it is proposed that it may not be implemented and that the governor’s order may be lodged in our archives. For orders please.”
And then he sent it up to his joint secretary.
The joint secretary, a very brilliant young man, who had fully imbibed during his training in a prestigious institution the conviction that, in a parliamentary democracy, it is the bureaucracy that constitutes permanent government, that elected politicians are birds of passage who have to pass a test every five years and that bureaucrats can exercise their powers with impunity to safeguard what they consider the interests of the nation, thought for a while and, as a bold exercise of his decision making powers, wrote with a firm hand: “As proposed”, added his signature with a satisfied smile and sent the file down.
The file was promptly sent to the archives where it must be resting in peace ever since, in the company of many similar trophies of an undemocratic bureaucracy.
When my friend told me this story, I was not at all surprised because I had spent nearly 35 years as part of Indian bureaucracy during which I was witness to such antics by non- accountable bureaucrats, in almost every file which came to me.
And that deadly combination of authority with lack of accountability in the higher levels of the bureaucracy has cost the country very dear.
One example is the non-implantation of a Cabinet resolution made in 1957, which would have changed the very face of Indian bureaucracy and hastened the pace of national development.
It was suppressed, just like the governor’s order cited above, to safeguard certain vested interests.
Another example is the massive toll of lives in the Andhra Pradesh cyclone of 1977, which could have been minimised if the then chief secretary of the state had not sat on a warning sent by the meteorology department in Delhi, without taking any action.
And recently, in a temple in Kerala, we had a ghastly explosion, which took more than a hundred lives. Would it have happened if the district collector, the superintendent of police, the inspector of explosives and the home secretary, who is supposed to receive daily intelligence reports, had taken prompt and timely action to prevent illegal accumulation and storage of explosives against all rules?
In the meantime, administrative reforms commissions come and go, one after another. They submit voluminous reports, the key recommendations of which remain unimplemented because they undermine vested interests. And files keep going round and round exactly as they did in the days of the East India Company.
When will our country get a modern, professionalised, people-friendly bureaucracy with efficient structures, systems and procedures so that the dreams of the founding fathers of our democratic republic could be fulfilled and the sufferings of the poor millions mitigated?
(SS Kaimal is former chief engineer of the government of India and former chief technical adviser to the United Nations (UN). He is also the founder joint secretary of the All-India Confederation of Central Government Officers' Associations, which worked in the 1960s and 1970s for reforms in the administrative apparatus and to convert it into a modern, people friendly organisation, liberated from the Macaulayan snail-paced redtape rituals.)