Monday, March 24, 2008

The Economist on India's bureaucracy

Bashing the Indian bureaucracy is pretty much in fashion today, so one is not surprised to find the Economist weighing in:

Some economists see India's malfunctioning public sector as its biggest obstacle to growth. Lant Pritchett, of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, calls it “one of the world's top ten biggest problems—of the order of AIDS and climate change”.

....In India's corrupt democracy, the collectors' burden is made much heavier by interfering politicians. The problem is most grievous in north India, where civil servants tend to attach themselves to politicians for enrichment, advancement—or in despair of otherwise getting their jobs done.
The reasons trotted out for poor performance are familiar enough: declining quality of recruits (one is not sure how far this is true, the IAS remains extremely competitive), poor pay, interfering politicians, permanence of tenure, etc. But those who criticise the bureaucracy need to do some explaining: if it is all that bad, how come Indian economic growth has sprinted over the past two decades? Do we give the bureaucracy some credit for this or not?

The Economist notes that significant downsizing has taken place: some 750,00 jobs remain unfilled, so a leaner bureacracy is supporting higher volumes of work. Just to look at the brighter side, let me mention two areas where the bureaucracy does deliver. One is disaster management- the response to major catastrophes is much better in India than in many other parts of the world (think of the US response to the hurricane in New Orleans). The other is the conduct of elections in remote, insurgency-infested areas.

These are not the work of the office corps alone. It's the people down below, the much maligned clerks and peons, who contribute a great deal. Surely, there must be some merit in a system that can produce outcomes in these two situations?


Anonymous said...

I find it hard to believe that the bureaucracy should be given credit for the economic growth that is mostly a result of the private sector. What really have the bureaucrats done beside sign a couple of legislations allowing these multinationals to bring in massive revenue to the country. To not have allowed this would have perhaps cost these bureaucrats their jobs. I don't see how they have actually improved anything. Private companies still take it upon themselves to develop roads, pour lots of money into beautifying and maintaing the areas near their office spaces. But once you get out of these tech parks, when the polluted air hits you and the roads instantly become clogged, then you can see the failure of the bureaucrats.

I agree that it is too big of a problem to battle. One cannot simply change all this overnight and the fact that there are still positive results from the civil service in arenas such as disaster relief and conducting elections in troubled regions. This means that some officers are doing their jobs. Great. Now why can't we hold everyone else of the 'babu raj' accountable for their actions?

Anonymous said...

I now know why you sit on the RBI TAC and the SEBI advisory committee, and so on. Stop oiling the bureaucrats to get plum postings, and concentrate on teaching and research. I was reading the other day that IIM professors do not publish at all in top global peer-reviewed journals, so try using your Stern degree to do that instead of trying to suck up to the IAS folks.

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