Mission Karmayogi shouldn't become an exercise of political vindictiveness

The Central government has doubled down on its efforts to streamline and improve the efficiency of its vast bureaucracy with the latest guidelines to review the performance of government servants in the 50-55 age group or those who have completed 30 years of service. Those found to be corrupt or inefficient would have to retire. These rules existed in the Fundamental Rule 56 (j) of the Central Civil Services (Pension) Rules, 1972. It was under this rule that 27 senior tax officers were retired for corruption in June last year. Another 22 revenue service offices were fired and 284 from the Central Secretariat Service were shortlisted for retirement. This marked the first time the rule had been enforced on such a large scale. In its latest circular, the government is regularising the process by mandating that a register of civil servants in the target group be prepared and quarterly reviews conducted.

This has been the third major organisational jolt to the bureaucracy since Narendra Modi became prime minister. The first, in 2016, introduced the controversial corporate-style 360-degree appraisal for government servants in addition to the Annual Confidential Report (ACR), which have been widely acknowledged as ineffective. Second, in 2018 and 2019, a proportion of posts at the level of joint secretary, director, and deputy secretary were opened for domain experts outside the service. And now comes Mission Karmayogi, an initiative to make the bureaucracy more “creative, proactive, professional and technology-enabled” via a council, comprising ministers, chief ministers, and HR experts, and headed by the prime minister, plus a “Capacity Building Commission”. 

Taken together, this amounts to a substantial shake-up to the steel frame, though downsizing an organisation of two million-plus by 300-odd in six years does not suggest that the exercise has been applied with vigour so far. A more robust assessment process was indubitably overdue for a civil service that tends to view employment as a sinecure, but the question is whether all these moves will achieve Mr Modi’s maxims of “minimum government, maximum governance” or “reform, perform, and transform”. For one, the ageism embedded in the policy may be flawed; bureaucrats with three decades in government bring invaluable experience and knowledge to the jobs. The corrupt and inefficient should certainly be weeded out but it is unclear why this policy should not apply to younger officers also. For another, given that the relationship between the bureaucracy and political executive in a complex polity such as India is tricky, the criterion of “efficiency” can be variable and subjective. Frequent punitive transfers of bureaucrats known for their integrity and/or efficiency point to the ubiquitous political constraints on bureaucratic functioning. They weaken Mr Modi’s rousing exhortation to bureaucrats to “think like a PM”.

Third, the age-old problem of calling bureaucrats to account for past decisions — which appear not to have a statute of limitations — remains the major obstacle to fearless efficiency, as was seen in the case of coal block allocations under the Congress government and privatisation under the first BJP-led government in the early 2000s. Given this history, it is vital that the drive towards weeding out ageing non-performers does not degenerate into the familiar exercise of political vindictiveness. This should be a major focus of “Mission Karmayogi”.

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