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V. Balachandran is a former Special Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat.

Reform system, delegate power to the districts

We have a colonial mindset toward the people who are made to stand in queues outside government offices.

ARC chairman Moily presents a report to PM Manmohan Singh, in 2007.

recurring failure of every government in New Delhi and the states is their inability to redress public grievances after lofty promises during every election. The next Central government to be formed after 16 May will also not be different, given the track record of all governments since 1947. We still have a colonial mindset towards the people who are made to stand in long queues outside government offices in sun or rain as we do in Mumbai Mantralaya (government secretariat). Things would not be different in other states too. We have also succeeded in exporting the same colonial attitude to our foreign missions. 2,500 Indians had petitioned our mission in London (May 12) to be polite and "not to treat them like garbage". In 2010, Indian Americans had similarly protested against our missions in the United States.

This should not have been so. We have had two major Administrative Reforms Commissions (ARC) since Independence, the 1966 Hanumanthaiah Commission and the 2005 Veerappa Moily Commission, not to speak of the 1964 Santhanam Committee. Yet the situation on the ground remains far from the slogan quoted by the Moily ARC through Gandhiji's words: "A customer is the most important visitor on our premises. He is not dependent on us. We are dependent on him. He is not an interruption in our work. He is the purpose of it. He is not an outsider in our business. He is part of it."

It is in this context that we need to examine the Maharashtra Chief Secretary's call to his officers (9 May) to "go to the villages" and stay in remote areas to understand the local issues. According to the 2011 census, 833 million out of our 1,210 million population live in villages. Yet all our decision-making offices are located in urban centres, heavily tilted towards city dwellers. Zilla parishads are not given sufficient financial powers or autonomy to decide land cases. All these are concentrated with ministers in state capitals. No doubt "Guardian" ministers have been appointed, but they cannot decide cases in which other departments are to be consulted.

The British administration understood the problem of inadequate connectivity with the vast rural population. They tried to remedy this by forcing their officers to "camp" in villages compulsorily. The highly readable memoirs of the late Rajeshwar Dayal, who was an ICS officer of the 1931 batch (A life of our Times, 1998) gives details of such mandatory camps during the first 10 years of his service in the districts. In the British Central Provinces and Berar, such camps used to be held for months by their officials. My first police boss, who originally came from Madhya Pradesh, used to tell me that they had to undertake such "tours" for weeks without even returning to their headquarters. The only recent case in which the entire state cabinet moved on wheels to a rural area was in Rajasthan when Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje and her ministers toured the backward Bharatpur area in February 2014, but that was with a political purpose.

Unfortunately, this type of administrative strategy would have worked in the colonial times or the pre-election period, but cannot be replicated in modern times when our administration has become more complex. Now-a-days, decision makers among bureaucrats are answerable not only to the traditional secretariat hierarchy, but also to others like courts, citizens' groups, commissions on information, human rights, minorities, women's rights and the media. Besides, the diary of an average secretariat or police official is filled with daily meetings. All these do not allow them the luxury of being away from their headquarters for long. But then why should people trek to state capitals at all when the system of communication is now much easier? Can't decisions be taken through video conference calls as have been done for years in Tamil Nadu and Kerala?

Finally, the only way by which we can prevent the villagers being compelled to come all the way to state headquarters is by rendering justice locally through more delegation. That will be possible only if the ministers, who are now final decision making authorities, are made to delegate their powers to zilla parishads, collectors or revenue commissioners. That will be the only crucible of genuine administrative reforms.

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