Current Public Administration Magazine (August - 2016) - The Study of Public Administration in India: A Chequered Journey (?)

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Indian Administration

The Study of Public Administration in India: A Chequered Journey (?)

Changing Stances

Since the 1980s, there have been efforts at re-conceptualising Public Administration especially those associated with universities in India. A shift was noticeable in the areas of research which was no longer confined
to the institutional studies of public administration. It was strongly felt that in order to understand the institutions of governance, one needs to comprehend the prevalent socio-economic milieu; otherwise, it would be a futile exercise. Public administration is not merely institution-driven, as the argument goes, but also a process sensitive endeavour for understanding and also meaningfully addressing societal problems which are seen to have had their roots in the administration. This is a complex task for which one needs to be receptive to the tools of analysis, developed in other sister disciplines in the family of social sciences. So the effort that was undertaken in the1980s also led to meaningful inter-disciplinary borrowing which was not encouraged so zealously in the past.

A new era had dawned in the study of Public Administration as a discipline which now by stepping out of its orthodox/conventional mould sought to create an independent space in social sciences. It is therefore surprising that new areas of research received far more critical attention than in the past. This was also reflected in the university syllabi and also in the syllabus of Public Administration for various competitive examinations both at the national and state levels. The 1980s were a watershed in the study of Public Administration though one cannot designate the era as a break with the past. The studies that were undertaken now were far more  nalytical than mere structural descriptions of the institutions. It was felt that the study of institutions remained incomplete without judging them in the specific Indian politico-administrative and socio-economic context. This was undoubtedly a revolutionary change that radically altered the approach to the study of public administration with reference to the cobwebs of socio-economic and political processes. Administration is not merely an instrument, but a process-driven exercise which requires a thorough study of the context in which it is located and flourishes. In this sense, administration is a lived experience which can be captured by being sensitive to the existent socio-political reality shaping, if not determining, its actual manifestation. What is most critical in the entire exercise is to understand the contextual peculiarities of public administration for which the disciplinary-orthodoxies of the past needs to be shunted-out. It is evident from the growing interests in areas of concern which were never considered pertinent in exploring the public administration either as an activity or a

There are plenty of issues that figure in the study of the discipline in its contemporary manifestation. It will be difficult to provide an exhaustive list of issues. Furthermore, these issues are also critical because they remain significant in the making of syllabi in the universities which means that Public Administration as a discipline is receptive to new ideas which have already been tested by rigorous intellectual probing by the academicians and researchers. Since this piece is about the study of Public Administration in India, only those issues have been focussed which have a clear bearing on the Indian social, economic and political contexts. This is however not
to suggest that they are exclusively India-centric; instead, the argument hinges on issues which are reflective of the inter-dependent nature of the problems and their solution in a networked society. What is striking in the study of public administration in India is also the fact that while preparing the syllabi for regular courses in Public Administration, the university departments seem to have been guided by the government initiatives in the field of administration. It is not thus surprising that a significant part of the list of topics that are taught draws on the government reports which are always useful in conceptualising administration as organically-linked with the socio-economic circumstances. Along with the focus on the issues that are raised in the government reports, the other important source of inputs for the university syllabi, at least in their contemporary articulation, happens to be the specific global intervention seeking to provide a university design, especially in the aftermath of the collapse of the former Soviet Union and consequent rise of the hegemonic neo-liberal approach to public

Given the pedagogical limitation of the study of public administration in the confines of class rooms because of its practice-driven nature, several universities have made field trip to government offices and other places
which are integral to public administration as an essential component of the teaching of Public Administration in the universities.

One of the penetrating concepts in today’s discussion of public administration is governance which is not synonymous with the mere act of governing, but an ideological ploy to universalise the neo-liberal model of government-functioning. Governance as a model of public administration cannot be understood without reference to the context in which it has been conceptualised. There is no doubt that globalisation provides significant inputs to its epistemological articulation. Public Administration has basically been an inward looking discipline concerned with the management of a country’s domestic public affairs. It has now woken up to the need for focusing on the pulls and pressures of the on-going processes of globalisation and their impact on domestic-administrative management. Since then, the search has been on how to reinvent or reposition the discipline in the context of a newly emergent world order. Public Administration thus now represents ‘a decisive move away from direct provision by government agencies and their employees – the standard bureau model of the past’.7 Several efforts were undertaken by the government to arrest the drift in civil service that ceased to become civil. The purpose was to transform an aloof, impersonal, paternalistic bureaucracy into one which was to be citizen-friendly and sensitive to user-needs. The Government of India had appointed two Administration Reforms Commissions in 1966 and 2005 respectively. Their recommendations have revolutionary effects on administration. One of the important consequences of these recommendations happen to be the effort to shift our attention away from the steel frame of bureaucracy to other agencies which are equally crucial in public service, but have not been formally recognised so far. In this sense, it has also set in motion a powerful critique of Weberian bureaucracy that is strictly hierarchical and largely status-quoist. By recognising the importance of civil society organisations in public administration, these Commissions provide a formal recognition to a space of cooperation between the government bureaucracy and these organisations. Such cooperation was discouraged presumably because of the sanctity of the governmental domain in which the state bureaucracy appears to be the only legitimate agency in discharging responsibilities on behalf of the state. Underlying the importance of these agencies, not exactly linked with the government and its peripheral organisations, these efforts have not only redefined Indian bureaucracy but also expanded its sphere of influence by seeking to involve various non-governmental agencies, a role which was never recognised under traditional theories of public administration.

In the light of a general degradation of public administration, the importance of ethics in governance has acquired a significant place in contemporary theoretical discussion more so because of the growing decadence in governmental practices largely owing to a decline of ethical values in public administration which is perhaps singularly responsible for the rise of ‘corruption’ in a virulent form. The possible reason is located in the overgrowth of the state in which bureaucracy has become ‘rentseeker’, ignoring its Benthamite role of being ‘a benevolent guardian’.

The World Bank-sponsored solution is to downsize the state and allow free play of the market and civil society – consolidating the ideology of neo-liberalism. Whether this is an appropriate strategy for the developing and also underdeveloped nation is a challenging question that needs to be addressed keeping in view the importance of ‘public’ in public administration. This is a challenge that involves a thorough analysis of the circumstances and also the outcome in a historical context because dwindling of ethics in governance is not an overnight phenomenon, but an offshoot of a long-term process. As a sequel to the recommendation of the 1964 Santhanam Committee which was appointed to address the issue of corruption in administration, the Government of India introduced a series of institutional measures to arrest administrative corruption. As a result, several new institutions solely responsible for combatting corruption were created: of them, the important being the Central Bureau of Investigation, the Comptroller and Auditor General and the Central Vigilance Commission. Besides these major institutions, the zeal to fight corruption in public life also led to the enactment of the Right to Information Act in 2005 which allows citizens access to government information and a mechanism to seek to establish ethics in governance. It was reiterated in the 2005 Second Administrative Reforms Commission report by stating that “in our case, at times public office is perceived to be an extension of one’s property. That is why sometimes, public offices are a source of huge corruption and a means of extending patronage”.8 The Commission was thus asked to suggest measures to achieve a “proactive, responsive, accountable, sustainable and efficient administration for the country at all levels of the government”.9 What is striking about these commissions is the fact that they have provoked a fierce debate on the nature of public administration which cannot afford to be insensitive to the public needs in the context of the rising importance of right-conscious citizens in India. As in the case of the above commissions which set in motion a new conceptual framework of public administration, the 73rd and 74th Amendment Acts of 1992 remain two revolutionary measures in local selfgovernment: while the former deals with local government in rural areas, the latter is a specific step to meaningfully implement the ideas of democratic decentralisation in so far as urban governance is concerned. Besides directing significant structural changes in the institutional set of governance at the respective levels of administration, the 73rd Amendment is remarkable for having recommended reservation of one-third seats for women in the panchayats which is revolutionary for having provided a feminist perspective in public administration in India. By making the institution of local governance through direct election mandatory, these legal enactments created an environment in which local government no longer remained a personal fiefdom of the vested interests in rural and urban areas. There are efforts at meaningfully articulating devolution of power in a meaningful way. In other words, by making the stakeholders integral to local governments, these amendments besides translating
democratic decentralisation in practice, have also contributed to refashioning the syllabi in Public Administration as a discipline that appears to have lost its momentum by being sterile in its approach to the rapidly changing public administration in India. What is fundamental here is the effort at re-conceptualising public administration as an outcome of the lived experience of the people in specific socio-economic and political contexts.

The above discussion is very important to reinforce the argument that the study of Public Administration in India draws heavily upon the government initiatives that have always set in motion new thinking on administration. It would not be an exaggeration to suggest that discipline would have been handicapped without these significant government interventions in reinventing public administration in India. A scan of the syllabi of Public Administration in major universities in India confirms this: a large chunk of topics that need to be studied while pursuing courses in the discipline comes from the governmental practices and the reports that are prepared on the basis of thorough studies of the processes of governance at various levels of administration, as is evident, for instance, in the report of the 2005 Second Reforms Commission. Is this indicative of disciplinary weaknesses of Public Administration? This can be an issue of debate, but cannot be conclusively substantiated given the wellestablished nature of Public Administration being a praxis discipline, the core of which is a creative blend of theory and practice. It is perfectly possible that these reports lack solid theoretical basis, and are largely in the problem-solving mould. So the study that is dependent on these efforts which are generally technical in nature will reduce the discipline to a mere technical exercise. This is usually the argument that is often made in most of the meetings for syllabi-framing in Indian universities undermining the organic character of Public Administration as a field of social science enquiry. The major weakness of this argument stems from the fact that Public Administration, unlike other sister disciplines in the family of social sciences, is practice-driven. Unless the students are made aware of the actual functioning of administration, much of the fun for studying public administration shall be compromised to the detriment of its basic organic nature and its inherent ability, largely un- tilised or under-utilised, in conceptualising governance in specific historical perspectives. In fact, such a visible disconnect with the reality weakens the discipline of Public Administration which is not merely a theoretical exercise, but also a goaldriven design of action. Hence dissociation with the context in which public administration is located does not seem to be epistemologically appropriate for obvious reasons. In that sense, the government initiatives and reports remain critical in comprehending public administration as a practical endeavour which is also useful in developing a theoretical framework and conceptual tools for pedagogical purposes.

So in the development of Public Administration as a discipline, the importance of the government reports cannot be wished away just like the growing interest of the students in studying the discipline. Students are being drawn to the discipline for understanding the processes of administration besides the fact that Public Administration by virtue of being integral to various competitive examinations for jobs has also ensured its popularity among them. Unlike other disciplines in Social Sciences, Public Administration is perhaps the most sought-after discipline presumably because it is both interesting as an area of study which help them understand the intricacies of public governance once they are engaged formally for jobs and also very scoring which will put them ahead of others taking other disciplines for these competitive examinations. It is therefore not surprising that several private Institutes have sprung-up to train candidates in Public Administration which may not have received adequate attention in the universities, including some major universities in the metropolis of Delhi, Kolkata and Mumbai where the discipline is being taught even today as part of the under-graduate and post-graduate degrees in Political Science. Whatever may be the reason, the fact remains that Public Administration is now an established discipline in India that is no longer an appendage of other disciplines, but has an independent existence.

Concluding Observations

This reflective text on the state of Public Administration in India as a discipline identifies the sources of concern and joy at the same time for those involved in pedagogical exercise, particularly in the university system. There is no doubt that the discipline has not adequately provoked either the faculty members or the students to undertake sustained research in the field to develop the discipline despite its growing popularity in competitive examinations for jobs. Even the University Grants Commission which manages universities in India does not seem to be supportive to the extent it is evident in its Bangladesh counterpart. Some of India’s leading universities, like the University of Delhi, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Allahabad University, Calcutta University, among others, do not have a full-fledged department of Public Administration and continue to offer courses in Public Administration as a component of BA/MA in Political Science. This is a matter of great concern since it continues to be identified as an appendage of Political Science which inhibits perhaps its growth as an independent discipline. What is however most encouraging is the sustained endeavour that the Government of India has undertaken in understanding public administration and also in evolving newer mechanisms to streamline and also make administration efficient. How to address the disciplinary weaknesses of Public Administration in India is a million dollar question which does not have an easy answer. Nonetheless, while laying out some of the areas of theoretical concerns which are critical in making the discipline relevant and popular among the stakeholders, one can set the ball rolling for a very engaging discussion on its nature and impact on contemporary governance. As is argued above, Public Administration is an action-oriented, context-sensitive and practitioner-friendly field of Social Science enquiry. In order to sustain its disciplinary viability, the methodological catholicity has to be discarded, and the discipline needs to be appreciative of collaboration and meaningful inter-disciplinary borrowing. Given the complexities of governance especially in the light of the growing consolidation of the LPG (Liberalisation, Privatisation and Globalisation) regimes following the disintegration of the former Soviet Union and the consequent rise and strengthening of neo-liberalism, it would be conceptually erroneous to comprehend public administration in its traditional mould. One needs to be equipped to articulate the inevitable changes in administration which is, despite being context-specific, also subject to influences which are not exactly contextual. A strong argument is thus made for methodological diversity to capture the changed administrative reality in the context of the blurring of national boundaries following the emergence of the global village. This is surely a significant step towards redefining the methodological contours of the discipline which is very persuasive. But one is required to be sensitive of the problem that stems from the endeavour at providing ‘a universal design’ of public administration which the World Bank-sponsored Governance Model seeks to make. By defending the ‘onesize- fits-all’ formula, the neo-liberal thinkers have not only challenged the context-driven analysis of public administration while pursuing social Darwinism, but also sought to universalise the Governance model of administration by completely undermining the importance of public in public administration. The fundamental task is therefore to reinvent the discipline by reiterating its spirit of being public in the face of the obvious neo-liberal challenges, being sponsored by those proponents willing to sacrifice the fundamental ethos of the people-centric public administration. And, here the role of those involved in the pedagogical transmission of knowledge in public administration, both in the universities and institutes, cannot but be significant and critical for the future of the discipline of Public Administration in India.


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