Redressing Grievances: Why India’s New Administrative Reform Legislation May Not Work

In this article, the author analyses the structural problems of India’s administration which are likely to hamper the functioning of the Citizens’ Right to Grievance Redressal Bill, 2011.

By Siddharth Singh, 16 Dec, 2011

The Citizens’ Right to Grievance Redressal Bill is set to be tabled in the Indian Parliament in the current parliamentary session, after a delay of several years. In the recent months, the Jan Lokpal (Citizens’ Ombudsperson) agitation led by Anna Hazare, which brought to light the people’s frustration with the corruption and inefficiency of the administration, has brought a sense of haste to Dr. Manmohan Singh’s government in the passing of this legislation.

The draft of the bill was posted on a Government website a few months ago (infuriatingly, in the Comic Sans font). This bill is not significantly different in its key tenets from the already-enacted state-level service delivery acts and the other drafts that have been put out by civil society groups such as Anna Hazare’s team.

The bill makes it mandatory for government departments to lay out ‘Citizens’ Charters’, which is a document which specifies the obligations and duties of the department and the administrators, along with the time frame of the delivery of the services. In other words, this bill legislates the right to time bound delivery of services by the government. The bill proposes that violations of service delivery are identified and the erring administrators punished.

This legislation is hence purported go a long way in improving service delivery and even fighting corruption. However, there are structural issues with the administrative setup in India which may render the bill ineffective.

Who defines the services?

The foremost problem with the bill is the lack of the definition of “public service”. The draft of the bill does not have an appropriate definition of what constitutes a service. Even if it did, it would be difficult to implement it across the board. For instance, the passport department is obligated to provide passports after appropriate verification. It would be easy to time-bound the delivery of passports, and to punish those administrators who violate the deadline for reasons they could control.

However, the issue is significantly different in the case of the roads and highways departments in the country. The construction of roads is contingent on budgetary allocations, the status of tenders and contracts with private contractors, technical feasibility and other issues. In case there was a substantial demand for the construction of roads where there are none, the responsible administrator would be swamped with work he or she may not be able to complete within the specified time frame.

The government, possibly for this reason, has left the creation of the Citizens’ Charter in the hands of the heads of the respective departments. This too can be problematic. If the head of the passport department refuses to add the time bound delivery of verified passports, then there is nothing a citizen can do about it. On the other hand, in case the citizens themselves or public representatives were made to create the citizens’ charter, then they would add provisions that would be administratively infeasible and unreasonable to meet. Appointing representative committees to address this issue would also be difficult given the multiplicity of departments.

Who is responsible?

The other issue is that of responsibility. This issue is twofold. Firstly, the draft bill and the existing state-level acts legislate that in case the administrator fails to meet the deadline of service provision, the matter would go straight to the head of the department. The administrators involved in service provision are often at the lowest rungs of the bureaucracy. This has serious implications on the work of the department since the heads are put in place manage and plan at organisational levels. In case they are swamped with such complains, they will not be able to concentrate on their core duties of, inter alia, planning and modernisation.

Secondly, service provision is like often like a relay-race. The service is often linked to to a chain of decision making and operational processes which lead all the way to the top of the administration, and even beyond. In order to win the relay-race, all the runners will have to do their share of running. If any of them fails to do so, the team loses. However, the Grievance Redressal bill purports to only punish the final runner.

To take a more relevant example, in the past few years, the state of Rajasthan has seen protests in villages because the schools in that region have an inadequate number of teachers. In some cases, there are schools with no teachers at all! In order to address this issue, the administrators responsible for ensuring the postings of teachers have done what they could do – they transferred teachers from different villages to the ones where the protests were on. This pacified the protesting villages, but didn’t really address the problem at all, since other schools were made to face the shortage.

In such cases, the administrators often had no choice: there is a shortage of teachers because bureaucrats at the top have not recruited in adequate numbers. They, in turn, have not been able to do so because the ministers of their department have not sanctioned enough posts. (This, in turn, may be because the state doesn’t have the finances for the extra jobs.) However, the Grievance Redressal bill does not account for such structural issues. The only entities responsible are the service-providing administrators at the bottom.

A cylindrical administration

When India got its independence in 1947, the literacy rate was less than 20% and the average life expectancy at birth was in the early 30s. Over the years, with rising standards of living, increasing prosperity and growing state expenditure and finances, the awareness of people has also increased. Naturally, the demand for public services has increased by magnitudes, but the government hasn’t been able to keep pace.

The administration has not grown in size proportionally, which has led to woeful staff shortages. The primary reason for this is financial. Increases in public finances since Independence have led to increases in spending in social schemes and subsidies. Curtailing hiring has been an easy way to save money to divert towards other vote-winning initiatives. On the other hand, given the work load (and political considerations), high ranking bureaucrats have been retained in the administration without concern for administrative structure.

The result of this is that the department structures now are cylindrical rather than pyramidal. Often, the reason for delay in service provision is a result of this, as departments get burdened with more work than they can handle. Many departments are said to run with 40-50% capacity. The police to population ratio, for example, is 145 per 100,000 population, far short of the UN stated minimum of 222 (most advanced nations far exceed this number). That makes it a shortage of over 80,000 police personnel in the country! Of course, administrative sloth, corruption and incompetence are major reasons for delays in work too. While the Grievance Redress bill can take care of the latter, it will end up delivering perverse outcomes as it attempts to deal with the former.

If genuine cases of delays due to overwork are penalised, it will lead to the able administrators leaving for greener pastures. This problem is compounded because the bill (and the draft presented by Anna Hazare’s team) state that any act of repeated delay in service provision will be deemed as an act of “corruption.” This issue is hence very grave and is also the reason why heads of departments in states where such acts are already in place are not adding core functions to the Citizens’ Charter.

Making the bill work

In order to make this bill work, it is imperative that the governments at the centre and in the states work towards filling up the vacancies. Reforms to reshape administrative structures are important. Additionally, it must be ensured that “services” are properly defined and only those services are included in the Citizens’ Charters that are not directly dependent on budgetary allocations. Without these, the Citizens’ Charters will likely look empty or full of non-critical services, hence rendering the bill ineffective.

Postscript: In an interesting anecdote, a senior bureaucrat was once imprisoned in the state of Andhra Pradesh for not following a District Court’s directive. The court had directed him to appoint a junior level administrator to a certain post within a given time frame. In fact, the bureaucrat was helpless as the orders for recruitment had not been passed by the minister-in-charge. Given there was no one to appoint, he couldn’t possibly fill up the vacancy. However, the judge wouldn’t hear any of it. The bureaucrat ended up in jail for no real fault of his, and the case moved up to a higher court for appeal.


2 thoughts on “Redressing Grievances: Why India’s New Administrative Reform Legislation May Not Work

  1. That was thorough and insightful as always, Sid. Speaking of ‘public services’, is there a distinction made here between ‘Essential Services’ (of the ESMA kind) and the rest? First off, on what criteria were certain services classified as ‘essential’ or otherwise?

    Making governance transparent all the way to the backend may involve some pruning and making the system leaner, as does the prescription of tapering a cylindrical organization into a pyramidal one. Considering that the government happens to be a significant and coveted employer (even more so in states like J&K where it maybe the most preferred employer), is it politically feasible for any administration to push for a downsizing of the bureaucracy?

  2. Thank you for your comment, Arvind.

    While I am not sure about the criteria used in ESMA, I think it would be reasonable to speculate that the services are included on an ad-hoc basis.

    In the case of the Grievance Bill, structural problems could lead to perverse outcomes even if only “essential” services were included. Let me give you an example.

    An “essential” service that the police provides (or ought to provide) is filing all FIRs and investigating crimes. Hence, it ought to be included in the Citizens’ Charter. But in states where such acts are already in effect (such as Delhi), the services included are non-essential ones such as “servant verification”! However, while it is desirable that the former (registering FIRs for all cases) is included in the Charter, it will lead to the Police organisations getting crippled. While it is true that we often see Police personnel sleeping or just whiling away their time in groups around tea stalls etc (even though they are only a small fraction of the police force), it is also true that even if every one of them got down to work, they would not be able to adequately investigate all crimes under any reasonable time frame. If the UN specified bare minimum police-to-population is to be reached, over 80,000 policemen and women will have to be recruited. In case India is to reach Western levels of this ratio, a few hundred thousand police personnel will have to be recruited.

    So if this “essential” service is included in the Charter, the ones who will eventually be punished are the ones who are genuinely trying to get work done but can’t because of the workload.

    Also, the issue here in not of the downsizing of the lower bureaucracy, but the increasing of it. This may sound counter-intuitive, but it is unfortunately true. When I talked about converting a cylindrical bureaucracy to a pyramidal one, I meant to point out that the base needs to be expanded (the pruning at the top is relatively less vital and ought to be performance based rather than for structural reasons).

    Today, apart from police shortages, India has a woeful shortage of teachers, drivers (for ambulances etc), junior administrators, etc. Unfortunately, given the state of finances, it will not be possible to hire on such a scale without reducing expenditures elsewhere (which the government is unlikely to do).

    The result is that the Grievance Bills are going to lack the teeth to make real change. To make such bills really effective, India will have to make a sustained effort towards improving the administrative structure and creating a a system of incentives and disincentives within the departments rather than just at the service-provision levels.

    PS. Do excuse me if the argument was a little redundant. I realise I have repeated a few points from the article for emphasis.

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