Current Public Administration Magazine (October - 2014) - Administrative Reforms in India

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Administrative Reforms

Administrative Reforms in India

(This is the text of a lecture delivered by Prof. M.P. Singh,University of Delhi at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Hyderabad as the inaugural activity of the Centre for Policy and Governance at the TISS, Hyderabad on 26th October, 2012.)


Independent India inherited three basic constituents of modern state in 1947 – a rudimentary framework of a minimally representative structure of government, a predominantly bureaucratic state apparatus, and a hugely popular party of mass appeal born in the movement for political freedom, namely, the Indian National Congress. These three inheritances have significantly contributed to democratic origin and democratic consolidation and deepening in India, a rare achievement in the Afro-Asian world defying the long-held theories of pre-conditions for the success of democracy linking it with higher levels of economic and educational development. India has been deficient in both of these preconditions, yet it has managed to be a reasonably successful democracy.

Administrative reforms have been a major concern of the government of India, if one goes by the sheer number of the reports of the central committees or commissions on administrative reforms set up since 1945-46, when the Richard Tottenham Report on the Reorganization of the Central Government was prepared and submitted. The list of such reports extends considerably if one includes commissions with mandates larger than administrative reforms per se, e.g. commissions on centre-state relations and on review of the working of the constitution which do not exclude administrative reforms from their scope.This chapter describes and critically reviews these reforms and the Indian discourse about them, and puts this within the broader context of the various phases of the evolutionary development of the Indian political system in the last sixty-four years since the Independence in 1947. This chapter has five parts. First, this chapter discusses the foundational challenge in adapting the bureaucratic apparatus of the colonial state to the new parliamentary federal republic established under the 1950 constitution of India. In the three successive parts thereafter the administrative reformist debates of the Nehru and Indira Gandhi eras and those of the Rajiv Gandhi years are analysed. Subsequently , a critical appraisal is provided of the administrative reforms deliberations since the early 1990s, when India witnessed parameter-altering changes, almost paradigmatic shifts, to greater federalization, business liberalism and globalization, and adjustments in foreign and defence policies on account of the post- Cold War multipolar world. Finally, I sum up our review of administrative reforms in India in a concluding section.


The historical foundations of the bureaucratic arms of the modern state are expectedly quite old. Agrarian bureaucracy was an important component of governance in Indian history. Going by the prevailing historiography of government and state in India, the ancient Mauryan state is supposed to be a centralized bureaucratic monarchy; the medieval Mughal state, a feudal monarchy; and the modern British colonial state, a colonial bureaucratic monarchy that pioneered in introducing a merit-based centralized bureaucratic apparatus. The highest echelons of administrators in these three subcontinental states were called the mahamatya / mahamatta system in the Mauryan state, the mansabdari system in the Mughal state, and initially the covenanted civil servants and finally since 1892 the Indian Civil Service (ICS) under the British Raj. In all these state systems, bureaucratic structures were supplemented by non-bureaucratic elements like feudal and segmentary social structures assigned administrative functions. This was especially so in the hinterland or peripheral areas and at the local levels. Such non-bureaucratic modes of domination in the backwoods or backwaters have led to animated debates among historians about the nature and extent of bureaucratic, feudal, or segmentary character of states in Indian history. Suffice it to say here that one of the important legacies of the British Raj to independent India was an institutionalized but overdeveloped bureaucratic establishment.

The civilian bureaucracy in British India during the phase of the East India Company (that doubled as a trading company gradually assuming functions of a government since the Battle of Plassey (1757) was a patronage and venal bureaucracy. Under the India Act of 1793 and the Charter Act of 1793 passed by the British Parliament for India its officers were nominated by the members of the Court of Directors of the Company signing a declaration that the favour was done without receiving any payment. According to Bernard Cohns' estimate, between 1840 and 1860, "fifty to sixty extended families contributed the vast majority of civil servants who governed India." In course of the expansion of the empire, the Fort William College in Calcutta was established in 1800 where the officers of the Company in all the three Presidencies of Bengal, Bombay, and Madras were to be trained for three years for serving in India. But in 1802 this college was turned into only a language school, and the East India College was established first at Hertford in 1805 and subsequently shifted to Haileybury in 1809. Two-year training and a test at the end was mandatory for appointment to the service of the Company. Under the Charter Act of 1833, a limited competitive examination was introduced among the candidates nominated by the Court of Directors.

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Following the 1857 Indian Rebellion and the takeover of the government of India from the Company to the British Crown-in-Parliament in 1858, a Civil Service Commission in the United Kingdom began the recruitment of covenanted servants through an annual competitive test held in England. Only subordinate uncovenanted civil service positions were open to the Indians. In 1853 Indians were allowed to compete for covenanted civil service but a great barrier practically kept them out as the examinations were held only in England. Under the pressure of the newly English-educated Indian middle class, a statutory Civil Service was introduced in 1870 in which Indians could be nominated to a few positions hitherto reserved only for Europeans. Since 1813 the process of Indianization of services had already started.

In 1892, in a major civil service reform the covenanted civil service was renamed the Indian Civil Service (ICS), the uncovenanted civil service was made the Provincial Civil Service, and the statutory Civil service was abolished. The practical difficulty for Indians entering into the ICS remained as the open examination was still to be held in London. In 1922 only about 15 percent of Indians were members of the ICS. However, after the provision of recruitment examination to the ICS to be held in India as well under the Government of India Act, 1919 (the first such test was held in Allahabad in 1922), the Indian officers in the ICS exceeded Europeans by 1941.

After the First World War under the Government of India Act, 1919, significant civil service reforms, including Indianization of services, ensued as the principle of limited responsible government came to be introduced at the provincial level, though not at the centre. Under this scheme of diarchy (a mixed bureaucratic plus representative government), a few subjects were transferred to the elected Indian ministers, while retaining more important and sensitive subjects under the direct bureaucratic control of the Governor. All India services like the ICS and the Indian Police (IP) continued to control the top echelons of the provincial administration as well. In addition to the ICS and the IP, there were the Indian Forest Service, Indian Agricultural Service, Indian Service of Engineers, Indian Veterinary Service, Indian Forest Engineering Service, and Indian Medical Service (Civil). Besides, there were the central services under the Governor General of India and the Provincial Services under the Governors of the provinces. The initial appointment and terms and conditions of service of the All India Services were settled by the Secretary of State for India, a member of the British cabinet.

The Government of India Act, 1935, which intended to federalize the system with provincial autonomy and to extend diarchy to the central government, provided for the appointment to the All India Services by the Governor General and to the Provincial Civil Services by the respective Governors. The power to regulate conditions of service of the officers of these services were also similarly divided between the Governor General and Governor. Appropriate legislations could also be made by the central and provincial Legislatures but within the framework elaborately outlined in the Report of the joint select committee of the British Parliament of 1934.

Independent India faced the challenge of making up its mind as to what it was going to do with the legacy of the British administrative inheritance. The nationalist leadership was expectedly ambivalent towards it. The nationalist movement had seen the political freedom fighters ranged against the colonial executive and administration. The antipathy was mutual and deep. The Constituent Assembly Debates reflects this tension well.However, Sardar Ballabhbhai Patel strongly argued for the retention, adaptation, and expansion of the services bequeathed by the retreating British colonial state in India in the new Indian nation-state born in crisis and partition:

"I wish to place on record in this House that if, during the last two or three years, most of the members of the services had not behaved patriotically and with loyalty, the union would have collapsed. Ask Dr. John Mathai, he is working for the last fortnight with them on the economic question. You may ask his opinion. You will find what he says about the services. You ask the Premiers of the provinces. Is there any Premier in any province who is prepared to work without the services? He will immediately resign. He cannot manage. We had a small nucleus of a broken service. With that bit of service we have carried on a very difficult task. And if a responsible man speaks in this tone about these services, he has to decide whether he has a substitute to propose and let him take the responsibility?”

The final text of the constitution that emerged from the Constituent Assembly authorized the appropriate legislatures to make laws, subject to the constitution, to regulate the recruitment and conditions of service of the central and state civil services. It created two All-India Services, namely, the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) and Indian Police Service (IPS), and gave the Rajya Sabha, the federal second chamber, the power to authorize by at least a 2/3rds majority the creation of any new All-India Service by the Parliament. All-India Services are unique in being constitutionally entrenched "federal" services recruited by the Union Public Service Commission, trained in central academies, and then assigned to state cadres. They serve on the highest echelons of state administration as well as in the union administration on periodic deputation with the consent of the state government concerned. They work under the disciplinary jurisdiction of whichever order of government they may be posted at the time. However, the ultimate disciplinary measure of their dismissal is subject to the approval of the President of the Union of India. The all India Services are, of course, besides the central and state civil services under the union and state governments, respectively and exclusively.


Reformsin the 1950s–early 1960s

The principal challenge of administrative reforms faced by independent India was to reorient the bureaucratic apparatus to the tasks of adapting it to a parliamentary-federal constitution and undertaking the responsibilities of promoting electoral democracy and economic development with justice and equity. The strategy of economic development was premised on an import-substituting, nationally self-reliant industrialization through centralized but democratic planning in the context of a mixed economy in which the public sector or the state would play the leading role. The details of the setting up of legislative committees and public service commissioners at the union and state levels as also new constitutional and legislative frameworks of relations among the union, state, and local governments need not detain us here. Our survey of the earliest phase of administrative reforms would also be rather rapid in the interest of greater focus on the subsequent phases and those immediately preceding the present. Notable contributions to the thought on administrative reforms were made by the commissioned Reports by a committee appointed by the Planning Commission and chaired by A.D. Gorwala, a retired ICS officer, and Paul H. Appleby, an American expert of public administration. Gorwala submitted two reports: Report on Public Administration (1951) and Report on the Efficient Conduct of State Enterprise (1951). So did Appleby: Public Administration in India – Report of a Survey (1953) and Re-Examination of India's Administrative System with Special Reference to Administration of Government's Industrial and Commercial Enterprises (1956). The Gorwala committee reports formalized the ideas and institutions about Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s policy of planned economic development in the context of a “mixed” economy with a dominant state sector allowing some space to private enterprise as well. The Appleby reports dealt with general public administration. The main recommendations of these reports were the establishment of a semi-governmental Indian Institute of Public Administration in New Delhi, the setting up of Organization & Method (O & M) divisions at various levels of governments, and the streamlining of recruitment and training of administrators and their relationship with the Parliament/ State Legislatures Planning Commission, and the Comptroller & Auditor General of India. These reforms were immediately implemented. In March 1964, the Government of India also set up its own internal think tank in the Department of Administrative Reforms in the Home Ministry. Independent India adopted a parliamentary-federal form of governments superimposed over the administrative structure largely inherited and adapted from the British colonial state in India. As a war service entrant into the Indian Administrative Service recruited in March 1947 aptly draws attention to “contradictions” inherent in this situation: “The Government of India Acts of 1919 and 1935 did not provide for sovereign legislatures and the ICS men sat on the Treasury benches and defended and justified the plans and schemes that they had drafted and implemented, in reply to the arguments of the elected members. Provincial governors, who were mostly members of the ICS, had powers of certification in legislative matters.

The Planning Commission was set up in March 1950 by the Government of India with the Prime Minister as its chair. The National Development Council consisting of the Prime Minister as the Chair and comprising the executive heads of all state and union territory governments in August 1952 "to strengthen and mobilize the effort and resources of the nation in support of the five -year plans, to promote common economic policies in all vital spheres and to ensure the balanced and rapid development of all parts of the country." The Bureau of Public Enterprises was established in the Ministry of Finance, which became the Department of Public Enterprises in 1985.

This early phase of political and economic development in independent India is also notable for establishing the basic framework and tradition of free and fair elections conducted by a constitutionally entrenched autonomous Election Commission of India , a progressive set of labour laws, reservations for scheduled castes and tribes and other backward classes, poverty alleviation programmes and a welfare state in promise envisaged in the Directive Principles of State Policy of the constitution, and statutory institutions of local self governments in rural and urban areas. These features mark out India as a democratic-developmental state as distinguished from the developmental states sans the concomitant democratic component in East Asia .

Reformist Discourse in the Mid-1960s-80s

The end of the Nehru era in 1964 occasioned most comprehensive reviews of Indian government and administration set up by the constitution of India (1950) and the Government of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru (1946-1964). The two documents that dominated the reformist discourse during this phase are the reports of Administrative Reforms Commission-I and the Commission on Centre-State Relations- I . What accounts for the appointment of these two commissions in the mid-1960s and the early 1980? Administrative decay evident by the early post-Nehru period (Nehru died in harness in May 1964) prompted the first major review of the administrative apparatus by the ARC-I. The tension areas in centre-state relations exacerbated by the unabated political centralization throughout the 1970s under Prime Minister Indira Gandhi caused the first comprehensive review of the federal relations between the union and the state governments by a constitutional commission chaired by a Supreme Court judge.

Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri appointed the Administrative Reforms Commission (ARC-1) in January 1966 with Morarji Desai as its chair and five members, all except a senior civil servant sitting members of parliament. Desai left the commission in March 1967 on joining the Government of Prime Minister India Gandhi, (Shastri's successor) as the Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister. A member of the commission, K. Hanumanthaiya, was appointed the new chairman. The 20-volume ARC-I Report, with a very wide terms of reference, appears to be as elaborate in its approach as the constitution of India itself filling in the details of the process of government and administration left uncodified by the largest constitution of the world. Here I will focus on the structure and process of governments at the centre, state, and district levels, leaving aside sectoral and specialized branches, with the exception of the machinery for planning.


Summing up, the board thrusts of administrative reforms in India have aimed at three basic goals: improving the efficiency of administration internally and in relation to service delivery to the citizens; maintaining the thin line of demarcation between political neutrality of administration and party politics; and curbing corruption. A systematic empirical studies or even a series of such micro studies in a large number are still awaited. The available information, however, suggests that the Indian administration is seriously deficient on all the three counts. One gross indicator of this state of affairs is the recurrence of public protests and anti-corruption movements locally, regionally, or nationally, including the India Against Corruption (IAC) campaign led by Anna Hazare since the heady Arab Spring of 2011, considered by some as the most important democratic moment since the Post-World War-II collapse of communist authoritarianism in the wake of the end of the Cold War around 1989. Indeed, the most telling evidence comes from a high-level union government administrative committee chaired by Home Secretary N.N. Vohra itself. It its report submitted to the government of India in 1993,the committee drew pointed attention to a nexus between politicians, criminals, police and bureaucrats in various parts of the country.

More recently, legal action triggered by the report of the Comptroller and Auditor General of India to the Parliament and the Supreme Court order against ministers and civil servants in the government of India in relation to the 2-G telecom spectrum allocation to corporate private companies, among other cases of corruption, has revealed glaring cases of collusive corrupt deals. The Nira Radia Tapes involving a lobbyist, government of India functionaries, and corporate companies have brought to public notice instances of ministerial portfolio allocations being made on considerations of collusive quid pro quos. Wholesale transfers of civil and police officers on political, caste and other community considerations after coming to power of a new government in several states have become routine affairs.

The major problem that administrative reforms in India face is the abysmal record of lack of implementation of the series of reports of the various commissions reviewed above. Even a few reforms like the creation of agencies and regulatory authorities within the bureaucratic apparatus and the 73rd and 74th constitutional amendments concerning the Panchayati Raj and Nagar Raj at local levels are seriously deficient in autonomy, power, and finances. The vigilance commissions at the centre and in the state and the Lokayuktas in the states are again be devilled by the same deficiencies. The Lokpal at the centre is not yet instituted in the trail of legislative bills, and belatedly in 2012 a constitutional amendment bill, allowed to lapse or defeated in the last over forty years. The Anna Hazare anti-corruption movement making this issue as its central platform has clearly revealed the entire political class, or at least an overwhelming majority of the parliamentarians, on one side of the political divide, and the active citizenry on behalf of the civil society, on the other. The movement, much like the anti-corruption /anti-authoritarian movement of the 1970s led by the socialist-turned Gandhian, Jayaprakash Narayan (JP), has developed outside the framework of the formal party system. Unlike the JP movement which used conventional means of political mobilization, the Anna Hazare movement has mainly thrived on the private electronic and social media, supplemented by mass congregation in the metro-cities like Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore. Led by the middle classes, both these political events qualify as popular mass movements. A few administrative reforms like Right to Information Act (2005), "social audit" of Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (2005) schemes were implemented under the pressure of social movements and / or National Advisory Council (NAC) of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) Government chaired by Sonia Gandhi. Under the pressure of the Ana Hazare Movement, the UPA Government was forced to form a joint Lokpal Bill drafting committee comprising five union ministers and five IAC civil society activists and co-chaired by Pranab Mukherjee from the government and Shanti Bhushan from the civil society. Consensus eluding the committee, the Manmohan Singh Government referred its own bill to the joint parliamentary committee, followed by the Janlokpal (People`s) Bill of the IAC under pressure. The version of the constitutional amendment bill cleared by the standing committee failed to muster 2/3rds majority severally required in both Houses of the Parliament (Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha) for a constitutional amendment. In the Lok Saba, it passed the requisite simple majority for a legislation (not a constitutional amendment). In the Rajya sabha it faced an overwhelming and uproarious opposition before the session was adjourned sine die. At this writing (May 2012), the bill hangs fire, the most probable outcome being its certain rejection in the present Parliament, unless a miracle happens under the pressure of the mass movement in a new Parliament due to be elected in 2014 or elected earlier in a snap, mid-term election.


Question :

1Q. Comment : ‘Administrative reforms have been a major concern of the government of India, if one goes by the sheer number of the reports of the central committees or commissions on administrative reforms set up since 1945-46.’ 200 Words

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