THE TITLE TO THIS BLOG IS BORROWED from a cover story that The Illustrated Weekly of India (now defunct) ran more than three decades ago. The phrase encapsulates in a nutshell the state of Indian bureaucracy. I was transported to the world of dingy office rooms and files yet again as I chanced to see the Kafkaesque pictures by photographer Dayanita Singh in her latest offering titled “The File Room.” (www.dayanitasingh.com). It rekindled memories of my own visit to the Ration Card Office in Mumbai 37 years ago and my visits to the offices of the Government of India in New Delhi in the 1980s and more recently of the visits I made to the Village and Panchayat Offices in my home town in Kannur.
MUCH OF THE PAPER WORK THAT we see currently in government offices is largely the legacy of the British Raj where the compulsion to create a record for anything that happened was supreme in the extreme coupled with the twin syndromes that have been the bane of Indian bureaucracy – the cover-your-ass syndrome and the “perceived” total absence of delegation of authority. In The Hindu recently, Vivek Kulkarni of the Karnataka I.A.S cadre estimated that a file would, on an average, take 36-50 days to reach to the top and about 70 days to obtain a Government Order. Typically, a file would be “put up” by a Junior Assistant and from thereon it would warm the desks of the Assistant, Senior Assistant, Section Officer, Under Secretary, Deputy Secretary, Joint Secretary, Additional Secretary, Secretary, Principal Secretary, Minister of State and finally the Cabinet Minister.There may be additional delays if a reference is also made to the Ministries of Finance and Law.
IT WOULD BE UNFAIR OF COURSE TO overlook the efforts of several honest and efficient Indian officers who had the courage and honesty to take independent decisions thereby saving not only time but also additional paper work. Given the budgetary constraints they operated under, they also took upon themselves to introduce imaginative and efficient filing systems – the most famous being the Ahmednagar Filing System named after its District Collector Mr. Lakhina.
THE GOOD NEWS IS THAT THE VERY APPEARANCE of the offices of the Government of India scattered all over the country may change if Prime Minister Narendra Modi succeeds in his well-meaning ambition of totally revamping the bureaucracy. There will be a substantial elimination of unnecessary procedures as a consequence of which much of the paper work will automatically disappear. We may then well be moving into an era of complete e-governance as is prevalent in say, Hong Kong or Singapore.