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.