It was Monday morning at the All India Radio (AIR) Staff Training Institute in Bhubaneshwar, in the western state of Odisha. At the beginning of the second week of my workshop on training techniques, I’d asked the participants—senior managers from the public broadcasting service—to share ideas for their final presentations.
We went around the table. How to plan and record a concert of classic Indian music. How to produce a one-act radio play, a talk show, a live event broadcast. And so on. Ashok Tripathi, Director of Programmes for Doordarshan (DD), the national TV service, was last to speak. “I’d like to present on how to prepare and maintain the administrative file,” he said matter-of-factly.
I must have visibly gulped at what sounded like the dullest topic anyone had ever proposed. The participants sensed my reaction because they quickly piped up. “Please let him do it.” “It’s really important that we know.” “Trust us on this—he’s the expert.”
I gave in, and on the final day, everyone listened intently and scribbled notes as Tripathi explained the complex process. Nothing in AIR or DD—not a program, a purchase or a promotion—moved forward without an administrative file. The file had to be in proper order; if it was not correctly labelled and annotated, it simply would not move, but sat in a stack beneath other improperly prepared files.
I had allowed 20 minutes for each presentation, and Tripathi kept to his time, but the question and answer session lasted another 30 minutes. When it was over, the room erupted in applause. “After 20 years, I finally know what to do,” said one regional radio manager. Over tea, participants told me of their frustrations dealing with the bureaucracy. They were required to prepare files, but had no instructions or templates. Program and equipment proposals languished for months at headquarters in Delhi. The manager would call and write polite memos. Eventually he might reach a clerk who would point out the error in the file and perhaps even correct it.
Prasar Bharati (the Broadcasting Corporation of India) is the largest public broadcaster in the world with about 35,000 staff. Its radio service, AIR, broadcasts in 23 languages and 146 dialects from more than 400 stations across the country. Doordarshan (literally, “seeing from afar”) has two national TV channels, 11 regional language satellite channels, four state networks, an international channel, a sports channel, and two channels for live broadcast of parliamentary proceedings. With a lot of physical plant, equipment, content and people to manage, you need administrative systems and files. However, like other bureaucracies in India—for ministries, state governments, railways, universities—the broadcasting bureaucracy has grown out of all proportion to its tasks and become self-perpetuating, often a barrier rather than a facilitator.
In the colonial era, the Indian Civil Service (ICS), headed by professional British officers, was responsible for all administrative and legal matters, and for maintaining law and order. Nationalist leader Jawaharlal Nehru, quoting a popular joke, liked to say that the ICS was "neither Indian, nor civil, nor a service.” Yet, as India’s first prime minister, Nehru retained the organization and its leaders, while changing its name to the Indian Administrative Service (IAS).
There’s long been agreement among political parties and the business community on the need for civil service reform. Successive governments have appointed committees, task forces, consultants and other groups to study the problem and issue reports, but have had little success in changing how the bureaucracy does business. Meanwhile, it has grown by leaps and bounds. By 2010, it was estimated that the national government employed about 6.4 million staff, and the states another seven million. In total, that’s a couple of million more than the population of Belgium or Greece. Or, if you were to exchange them all for the residents of an Indian state, you would add more than a million to the population of Jammu and Kashmir. A lot of Indians would love to dispatch their babus to this remote and chilly northern outpost.
The title babu, also spelled baboo and derived from bapu which means father or grandfather, was traditionally used in South Asia as a sign of respect towards men. In the colonial era, babu became a common term for a literate Indian clerk in the ICS. From the early 20th century, it began to take on negative connotations when used to refer to government bureaucrats and other officials. The Indian media have long been critical of individual babus and of the bureaucracy—the babudom--in general.
Although civil servants are hired through competitive examination, many complain that the quality of recruits has been falling. They blame lower education standards, competition from the private sector, political interference and, above all, caste-based reservations, which set aside a percentage of positions for lower castes and members of tribal communities. Even the most competent senior civil servants find it difficult to develop expertise in a specific area because they are frequently shifted from one post to another. Some studies have found that at least half those working for the IAS spend less than one year in a single position. “They can also end up working for India’s vast number of state-run factories, hotels and airlines without much experience,” noted BBC correspondent Soutik Biswas, “so an official administering a small northeastern state ends up running an ailing airline or a senior policeman can head up a liquor company.”
Although the civil service is supposed to be legally protected from political interference, many bureaucrats, especially at the state level, are beholden to politicians who can promote, demote or transfer them at will. Without transparency in appointments and fixed tenures, they have little job security. There are countless stories of honest bureaucrats who publicly challenge the way their political masters do business, only to find themselves abruptly shunted off to a remote rural area with few staff and little or no budget.
For many years, the business community has lamented the costs of bureaucracy, and economists have constructed models to show what India’s GDP growth would have been without the crippling costs of forms in triplicate and official stamps. Since the early 1990s, the economy has been opened to competition and freed of many regulations, leading to faster growth, but getting things done still requires dealing with the babus. “You cannot measure Indian red tape,” notes The Economist, “but evidence of it is everywhere. One director of a ‘new economy’ company in Mumbai confides that he spends half his time with bureaucrats, who are generally looking for pay-offs.” In 2010, and again in 2012, the Hong Kong-based Political and Economic Risk Consultancy rated India’s bureaucracy as “the worst in Asia.”
Jokes about the excesses and absurdities of bureaucracy in India usually mention the colonial legacy. Three quarters of a century after independence, it’s a stretch to keep blaming the British. Today, India is a world power and lower-middle income country. It’s quite capable of creating its own cumbersome bureaucracy without help from anyone else. And it should be capable of making it work better.