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Management guru Dale Dauten’s maxim, “Bureaucracy gives birth to itself and then expects maternity benefits”, describes the amoebic Indian babudom perfectly. As an organism parented by itself, it keeps multiplying and duplicating, all the while feeding off public money and public spaces like an omnipotent and omniscient organism of executive gluttony and apathy. The long arm of pencil pushers can create files from figments. It can also destroy files that matter. It can make castles of sand that look more real than the original. Its insatiable appetite for luxury and post-retirement sinecures makes it the most successful agent of destruction in the name of construction.
For the past few weeks, the outraged citizenry of India’s capital have been locked in deadly combat with the bureaucracy to save over 20,000 trees in Lutyen’s Delhi from the government chainsaw. About a couple of years ago, a penny wise panjandrum had an egregious epiphany on a `32,000 crore project, to construct 25,000 housing units ostensibly to provide homes for lower- and middle-level officers. But in the universe of mandarins’ mirages, nothing is what it seems.
The hidden agenda in the grandiose plan is to build over 200 swanky bungalows for junior ministers, MPs as well as Secretary and Additional Secretary-level officers who find their current socialist-era flats claustrophobic. Currently, government colonies like Sarojini Nagar and Nauroji Nagar have blocks of double-storey units set in a verdant environment.
Since the new bungalows would need a larger area—around 1,000 square metres each, trees would have to be felled to make space for the luxurious abodes. The chronic inefficiency of the steel-framed bureaucracy does not apply to official land grab. It takes over two years for private builders and individuals to get clearance for construction from various environmental agencies. But IAS officers in both the Delhi government and the Centre got the green clearance for the housing project in a jiffy. Over 100 huge infrastructure and housing projects worth over `20,000 crore await clearance from forest departments across India. But the babus have their own master plan.
The so-called redevelopment of old residential colonies was approved by both the finance ministry and the Union Cabinet without questions being asked about the damage to the ecosystem of New Delhi, which is one of the world’s ten most polluted cities. The capital’s forest cover has shrunk over the past few years due to illegal construction in connivance with mandarins and ministers. For babus, home is where the art of deception is. They convinced the Cabinet that the Delhi project would be self-financing, since the Ministry of Urban Development would earn crores by selling off a part of the vacant land for commercial development, as if Lutyen’s Delhi is starved of luxury malls.
Even in the states, the best localities in cities and towns are reserved as bureaucratic habitat, which is fully secure and insulated against encroachment, garbage dumping and crime. The exalted babu brotherhood extols its members as divine walking symbols of all that the rest of India is denied. The bureaucracy gets the best of office environments. It sets the kind and price of furniture for a joint secretary’s office, the size of the room and the residence.
It also decides other perks like healthcare for itself. The bureaucrat is the neta’s concubine in the conjoining of power and self-interest, since politicians get the same benefits—a perfect partnership that makes each other’s life happy but unhealthy for the country. For a newly posted civil servant, a spacious house in the most expensive area of any capital city is the first priority. India is one of the few countries which assures an official residence to every middle- and top-level government executive. Less than 20 per cent of the over 20,000 Central Services officials from the IAS, IFS, IPS, IRS, IA&AS and allied services lack government accommodation.
With each promotion, the house becomes larger and better as per the entitlement decided for themselves by themselves in connivance with the leaders at the Centre and the states. A Central government secretary is entitled to a Type-7 bungalow; the number of secretary-level officials has risen to over 400 currently from 180 in 1980. In states 30 years ago, there were just a few chief secretary-level officials. Now each state has a dozen of them plus numerous director general-level police officers. Since they want to live close to the office and the best schools, the green areas around are ravaged to make way for concrete monstrosities.
A babu is not satisfied with just a government house. Over 90 per cent of senior officials also own houses in some Indian city or the other. Some have acquired homes in London, Geneva, Paris and New York. Yet they don’t want to forgo the perks of power. During the past two decades, these administrative conjurers have created post-retirement jobs with the same pre-retirement remuneration and benefits, if not more. Interestingly, these fancy jobs have been created in the name of administrative and financial sector reforms in the government monolith that is home to 50 regulatory bodies such as Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, Pension Fund Regulatory and Development Authority, Competition Commission of India, state-level environment protection authorities, Central Electricity Regulatory Commission (CERC), State Electricity Regulatory Commissions, Central Information Commissioner and commissioners.
Over 200 retired IAS officers nest in these bodies and retain their government houses. A few years ago, the bureaucracy had a conspiratorial revelation to ensure greater transparency and accountability in the banking system. They advised the government to split the post of chairman-cum-managing director of a bank, adding a non-executive chairman to watch for suspected scams. The irony is that these fossilized guardians could not only not prevent lakhs of crores of people’s money from being funnelled out of the country, but some were even complicit. Many posts of chairman—in both public and private-sector banks—have gone to superannuated desk jockeys who were previously part of the banking bureaucracy.
The frightening fallacy of the system is that babus keep flourishing in the toxic environment of power without audit or oversight. In making their life better, they have made the people’s lives worse. Has the CERC brought down power tariffs and ensured better quality electricity? Have drugs become cheaper and not adulterated? In fact, the quality of life, services and products has deteriorated in sync with the middle-level leadership. It is evident that the bureaucracy is the most arbitrarily avaricious organ of Indian democracy. The boundaries of Clean India and Green India extend solely to the boundaries of their abodes. Parodying the prime minister’s dream, India’s bureaucrats are providing maximum governance to their own comforts and ambitions with minimum scrutiny by the people.