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Back to the babus; PM gets them to perform

Sunil Jain in New Delhi | August 30, 2004

Unlike some of his predecessors at North Block who changed their team every year, the man who ushered in India's economic reforms in 1991 relied on an unchanged team of seasoned bureaucrats like Montek Singh Ahluwalia, NK Singh, CM Vasudev and Shankar Acharya to carry out his plans.

As Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh's carrying forward the lesson he learnt then -- the bureaucracy matters, perhaps even more than individual ministers.

A lesson, of course, that makes a lot more sense for a prime minister who probably feels isolated within his Cabinet, and wants to drive an economically-sensible agenda.

But how do you get the bureaucracy to perform, how does one insulate them from the pressures of both their seniors as well as political masters? While the Vajpayee government began the process of figuring out just how to do this by appointing the Surinder Nath committee, it then sat on the report for a year.

Singh's got the Cabinet Secretary firmly working on implementing the report, and has commissioned another committee report as well to deal with some aspects that the Nath committee was not asked to deal with.

For one, the Nath committee addressed the issue of senior bureaucrats often knowing little of their ministries before joining. To fix this, it came come up with the concept of domain expertise.

All ministries are divided into 11 domains, and for an officer to qualify as a joint secretary, he/she will have to prove his/her qualifications for a maximum of three domains -- this would involve education background, professional courses attended and so on. Once done, officers will be posted only in their domains.

Since the possibility of a poor grade in the Annual Confidential Report is one of the tools used to get bureaucrats to fall in line, one of the tasks assigned to the Nath committee was to figure a way to get over this.

What the committee has proposed is a transparent system of ACRs -- all bureaucrats will have to be shown their ACRs and given an opportunity to record his/her comments. And just in case the senior officer chooses to ignore this, there is to be a referral board to ensure neutrality.

Since postings are another area where nepotism rules, all jobs are to be filled only through the department of personnel and training. The job will be put up on the Web site, and candidates will be free to apply.

Based on this and the domain expertise, the department will forward a list of three to each ministry. If a politician or bureaucrat wants to reject this list, unlike the current practice, a written reason will have to be given, and this will be brought to the attention of both the Prime Minister and the home minister.

Since the Nath committee did not look into the issue of arbitrary transfers to get bureaucrats to fall in line, another committee will do this.

One proposal is to fix minimum tenures for a job, and if a transfer is made without the officer's consent, this should be treated as a punishment, as a result of which the usual grievance redressal mechanisms will automatically come into play. If babus still don't deliver after this, it won't be for want of trying.

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