Where will the Samurais come from
The Government of India Act of 1858 created the Indian Civil Service. By 1934 the British were administering India through seven All India Services and five Central Services, together designated as Central Superior Services. The term “civil service” in India today loosely refers to the handful of services that provide senior managers for a wide array of the most critical government businesses ranging from general areas like administration to specialized fields like international relations, tax administration, law & order, audit and accounting, railways, posts etc.
The rich history, the important role in managing affairs of the state and the prestige civil services carried made them the topmost career option for several decades after the independence. Working for the Government was working for the People of India. It gave tremendous satisfaction. Being a second generation civil servant, I grew up with the impression that general public respected government servants - from the postman and Railway Ticket Collector to officers of the elite civil services - perhaps because these people were considered as symbols of selfless public service.
But things had started changing by the ‘80s. In 1989, when I informed some of my college teachers in Mumbai that I had cleared the civil service examination, one professor asked me coldly, “What’s so civil about the civil service?” I felt disappointment, disdain and derision in her tone. Most of my brighter classmates were taking their GRE or CAT and wanted to get away from India. At least in Mumbai, by that time, civil services were no longer a preferred option.
With liberalization in the ‘90s the picture became worse. As private companies vied to attract better talent, the pay packages and perks became more and more lucrative. In metros, the lifestyle of my contemporaries in equivalent managerial positions in the corporate sector had become unachievable by civil servants. Having a father and an older sibling in civil service I was less naïve, but the visions that many batch-mates had of zipping across in government Ambassadors and living in sprawling bungalows were quickly shattered in the bigger cities. Only those posted in B or C class towns still enjoyed the “charm” of yellow PWD accommodation, a rundown office Gypsy and residential telephone.
In my second year of posting in Delhi, a college friend who had taken the B-school route visited from Mumbai. He invited me over for lunch to his room in Le Meridian. He happily said the bill would be “adjusted” in his business account. He spoke enthusiastically of his company’s corporate values and clout. He proudly talked about how his company influenced government policies and decisions and how their MD aspired to build a new India. He also had a taxi waiting that dropped me back to my office. I didn’t have to hunt for an auto.
I married a college mate who had become a journalist. Before marriage, a mutual friend advised her, “Ask him to change his job. It doesn't suit him. Government babus are horrible, paan-chewing creatures. Besides, how would you live in those filthy small towns?” It was a big shift from the times when civil servants were supposed to possess sophistication and intellectualism. OLQ – or Officer Like Quality was no longer at premium. Corporate Culture was the new benchmark of social grace. Already, a civil servant was not the best match for urban girls.
By the new millennium, India was shining brightly and India Inc was the new Sun. A call center executive was earning almost as much as a civil servant. The B-school wallas had moved far ahead. They justified their astronomical packages by swearing they worked 18 to 20 hours a day. Yet, despite returning home past midnight during Parliament sessions or working for days at a stretch on enforcement duties, I couldn't claim doing any work because it only earned sniggers and comments like, “The country would be better off if you babus did even less work.”
Understandably therefore, I haven’t met a single boy or girl from any metro or even second tier towns in years who wanted to join the civil service. Neither the image, nor the salaries nor the prospects of constant transfers attracts them. The lure of cheap government guest houses on vacations or “tenure membership” of district sports clubs is no longer enough. Governance, like politics is considered a dirty job.
Sometimes, the existing reality reminds me of the movie, The Last Samurai where a fast-westernising Japan has no place for the age old system of Samurais. Arrested for carrying arms into a meeting (a Samurai never left his sword behind), the leader of the Samurais, Katsumoto Moritsugu is ready to commit Seppuku (or hara-kiri). “The way of the Samurai is not necessary anymore”, he says.
In India today, there is still – and I dare say even more - need for dynamic DMs, humane SPs, judicious DCs of taxation or polished First Secretaries in our embassies abroad. But the best are no longer looking at entering public service. Yet, as a nation we want the best, most professional, bright and sensitive civil servants. We want high class Samurais who will serve the nation with dedication, integrity and intelligence – sacrificing personal interests. At the least possible social remuneration.
So it makes me wonder: Where will the Samurais come from? And more importantly – does India, as a nation even need those Samurai anymore?
Or is it time to disband the old style bureaucracy and shift to a system where practically all functions of the state are privatized. Can’t this be done? Let’s examine four of the fundamental role of a state: defence, foreign relations, taxation and law & order.
A famous and extremely popular author, in his book analysing the needs of present India makes a point of outsourcing LoC border defence to the US army. He reasons, this will be far cheaper than maintaining our own border security with, say, Pakistan because the US army already has bases in Pakistan and it would be in their interest to maintain safe borders between India and Pakistan. If I look at it like a rational, economic individual, it makes sense. At a fraction of the cost, our borders can be outsourced. Several small nations in Africa have already tried this successfully. Border security can be contracted out to another nation or mercenaries at a fraction of the cost (monetary or human) it takes to maintain a national army.
Today, most public spaces – malls, cinemas, residential colonies, parks etc. have private security. Should not this model be extended to policing? Local communities can appoint their own policemen, private detective firms can be contracted to replace crime branch, mercenaries can be hired to conduct raids or replace armed constabulary.
Instead of a dedicated, career diplomatic service, why can’t the job be done by hiring lobbyists, PR firms or contracting professionals on a tenure basis? Processing of visas or passport applications is already outsourced. Why can’t this philosophy be extended to other functions of our Ministry of External Affairs?
Similarly, why can’t assessment and collection of federal taxes be given to firms of chartered accountants and auditors? Banks can be made responsible for collection – after all, we have all seen how active collection agents of banks are. Existing laws permit hiring of private auditors for very complex matters. Why not extend it to all tax cases?
Such measures would practically eradicate the much-resented and redundant “government servants” from the structure of governance. This should come as a big relief and satisfaction to our citizens. And all this will substantially bring down the administrative costs that are the biggest portion of government spending. Service Level Agreements can be entered into so that the hired contractors simply deduct operational costs, charge a pre-decided contract fee and pay the balance to the government. They may even be allowed to raise public money through IPOs. So, if people do not want to continue with Arunachal border security – or it is a loss making enterprise, the share value of that company would fall and eventually it will cease to exist or amalgamate with some more efficient (profitable) company rendering defence services. If Indo-Pak relationship is becoming worse, the PR firm can be fired and a new one hired. If tax collections do not meet targets, the collection agency can be penalised and the contract withdrawn. The same for police service contractors. Why can’t all this be done?
Such a course of action might make “government” itself redundant. If all its functions can be privatised/marketised and therefore outsourced, what will be the need for any “government”?
Or this is all impractical and undesirable? If so, we come back to the need for having a dedicated band of Samurais – professional, ethical, intelligent, self-sacrificing, faceless and incorruptible. But how do we get them? That’s a thorn in my side.