Saturday, April 14, 2007

Bureaucracy, heal theyself, April 8, 2007

I come from a family of government servants. So it was not a surprise when an old friend of our family, a senior IAS official, dropped in the other day. He was almost in tears because he said his college going son was ashamed of him. Father and son had been discussing potential careers the night before, and when the possibility of the IAS came up, the son shot back, ‘Dad, only corrupt, inefficient, and negative people join the IAS.’

It was a devastating verdict on the nation’s premier service. The provocation was the recent scandal over Fulbright scholars. Himself a Fulbright candidate, the son was disgusted at the way our bureaucracy had summarily rejected research proposals of some US Fulbright scholars, delayed visa applications of others from 6 to 21 months, and had even asked a few to change their subject!

Many years ago my friend, Ralph Nicholas, the charming American anthropologist, had told me that foreign scholars who wanted to do research in India often faced such humiliations. Some foreign professors even went as far as tell their students, ‘Don’t bother with India-- choose another country’. The problem, in fact, goes back to the dark days of Indira Gandhi when every American was considered a CIA spy. One of her ministers, it seems, had once been denied a US visa, and he had tightened India’s visa rules to take revenge on ‘all American scholars till eternity’. It is a pity that we have forgotten how much we owe foreign scholars for India’s intellectual re-awakening in the 19th century. Academic black humour has it that Megasthenes, Hiuen Tsang, and Alberuni would all have been denied visas today!

Evidently, visas are delayed because the scholar’s file is sent to the much burdened Intelligence Bureau (IB). Since the file is not an intelligence priority, IB sits on it for months. Meanwhile, the applicant’s career goes for a six. For thirty years, no one has dared to ask why should the IB be involved? Wouldn’t it be easier for a terrorist to come in as a tourist or for a CIA agent to come as a diplomat? Why masquerade as a foreign scholar and face humiliation? As a result of the Fulbright scandal the government has now instituted a red and green channel. But the new system is not working because the inter-ministerial committee of bureaucrats is too petrified to take a decision and routinely passes the buck to the IB.

Now we cannot have our children being ashamed of our highest civil service. The son’s remark does, however, capture the irony of a rising, confident India of the young sitting alongside an insecure, oppressive India of our malfunctioning bureaucracy. This is not about foreign scholars but the attitude of Indian bureaucrats. They get away by heaping indignities daily on Indian academics, but when their visa policy cannot distinguish terrorists from scholars then their competence is an issue.

The only way to save our bureaucracy is to reform it. When our Prime Minister took office, he said that administrative reform was his top priority. Three years later he appears to have given up. Bureaucrats, we are told, have sabotaged his well-meaning efforts. We inherited our bureaucracy from Britain, but Britain has gone and completely transformed its own civil service, making it far more accountable to ordinary citizens. Australia and New Zealand have done an even better job of administrative reform. The message is clear. If Indian bureaucrats want to earn the respect of their children, they better seize the initiative and reform their rotten system.


The Castle of the Writer said...

Hello Sir. I have been trying to reach you. I don't know if you could be able to drift your e-mail address to me through

I have read A Fine Family and I think it's very exceptional.

Thanks and I look forward to hearing from you.

Onyeka George Nwelue
(Check my blog also, Sir)

Pratik said...

Dear sir,

I am a graduate student in chemical engineering in the US and have read your book India Unbound. I am a keen follower of the indian economy and hope to become a successful entrepreneur. Is there anyway that we can make this blog of yours more interactive?

Pratik Bhandari

HimS said...

Another humiliation of the academics and this time of the Indian nationality is the recent ruling by the AICTE that CFA exams conducted by CFAI constitute technical education, hence they can not conduct the exams without their approval.
I dont know why AICTE timed its order so perfectly that it was announced only two weeks before the exams making it a very tense environment for more than 7000 students registered for the June exam.
Well most of us planned to go abroad and take the exam - isnt that a total mockery of AICTE order?
I also wonder how come conducting an exam is considered imparting technical education? Its a self study course.
What about the online courses conducted by the likes of ecourses and others? The education is imparted in India via internet. AICTE would do well to ban them as well.

Who looses over here by such high handedness? Its the Indians. CFA is a world recognised education program which kind of guarantees you admission with investment banks etc. Financial service is recognised as the next big thing in India. The global financial industry needs CFA charter holders in India to outsource their research operations to India.

Anonymous said...

Indian Bureucrats are equivalent to the English babus who left India. Once in Washington amongst government officials one of them remarked to me, " the english babu has left india long time ago, but babugiri has not left the country."

An IFS officer at the Indian consulate who is currently the cultural counsellor told me, " I don't know what the h... I am doing here"

One of them asked me," will you take orders" - that pretty much describes the job description of the Indian Bureaucrats. They are just there to take orders by politicians and power pullers. Poor puppets.

Holly Singh