An Odyssey in India’s Bureaucratic Jungle


Moin Qazi – TRANSCEND Media Service

26 Jul 2017 – In the late nineties I was manager of a bank branch at Warora, a   town in Chandrapur district.

We had to make frequent trips to the Block Development Office at Warora and the Collector’s secretariat in Chandrapur for discussions on various rural development projects being undertaken by our bank branch. We believed that instead of individual clients going and sorting out issues, it would be wise for us to meet the Collector and discuss the issues collectively. My first visit was a unique experience. I had a young, agile youth volunteer, Moreshwar Chikankar, who would join me on my trips to these government offices.

In the1990s, India had some of the hardest-working bureaucrats in the world, but its administration had an abysmal record of serving the public. The sclerotic bureaucracy had plagued all development programmes.

Vijay Bhoge, a fifty-three-year-old civil servant, woke each morning to the screeching of peacocks outside his bedroom window. A scuffling attended him, as an armed guard, peons, gardeners and orderlies—tasked with catering to Mr Bhoge’s various needs—hopped to attention. After a simple breakfast, he would leave his residence, a Victorian-style bungalow once used by a senior British police officer, and get into his car, a white Ambassador—the curvaceous clone of the 1948 Morris Oxford, complete with siren and flashing yellow light, which has symbolized officialdom in India for decades. Mr Bhoge would take the back seat; a policeman riding machinegun in the front, and in a few minutes they would arrive at Mr Bhoge’s main office, the Collectorate.

There for the next four hours, beneath a portrait of a beaming Mahatma Gandhi, Mr Bhoge would receive a stream of poor people. A turbaned flunkey would regulate the flow, letting in a dozen at a time. Many were old and ragged, or blind. Most brought written pleas: for the resumption of a widow’s pension that had mysteriously dried up; for money for an operation; for a tube-well or a sprinkler. Many bore complaints against corrupt officials. Mr Bhoge listened, asked questions and, in red ink, scrawled his response on the petitions. For desperate cases, he ordered an immediate payment of rehabilitation grants. More often, he wrote a note to the official to whom the petition should have been directed in the first place—or, wretchedly often, to whom it has already been directed: “Act upon this according to the law.” If he was fully convinced about a particular case of injustice, his usual remark was “Kindly do the needful.”

Supplicants had already begun besieging the Collector’s office when I arrived that morning. Two greasy clerks presided over his antechamber, their desks overflowing with papers loosely bound in crumbling files held together with strings. Three phones rang intermittently, and were answered in a wide variety of tones, ranging from the uncooperative to the unctuous, depending on who was calling. Outside, a nervous line of saluting adjutants waited for signatures, permissions and orders.

All eyes were on the closed teak door in the corner, bearing the brass nameplate of the Collector, behind which their destinies were being determined. The huge hall appeared to be a neglected warehouse; admin papers piled high on the desk of every employee, paper-bound files held down by paperweights, metal filling cabinets rimmed with dust, an old, rusty fan wheezing away, a single huge padlock. We were directed to a small garret where we found the collector’s personal assistant shooing away visitors like he was swatting mosquitoes. People crowded round the desks, seeking attention, thrusting slips of paper forward, folding hands in entreaty, shouting to be heard. Occasionally, a paper was dealt with and a khaki-uniformed peon sent for to carry it somewhere. Sometimes, people were sent away, though most seemed to be waved toward the walls where dozens were already waiting, weary resignation on their faces, for their problems to be dealt with. We saw a small board hung at the entrance of a dilapidated hall reading “Staff Recreation Hall”. Two men sat on each end of a wobbly pew, both straddling the chessboard between their knobby knees, their noses directed at the muddle of pawns in the centre. We later realized that these were occupants of vacant chairs in different sections of the Collectorate. A man stood at the door to signal the likely entry of any official. Before we left, we witnessed one such signal. The players clattered pieces on the board and slipped out through a broken window.

“It’s hopeless,” I said to Moreshwar, who had accompanied me. “I told you we should have tried to get an appointment. We’ll be here all day.”

“How would we have got an appointment?” Moreshwar asked reasonably, since we did not yet have a phone in the village. “No, this is the only way. You go and give them your card.”I did not share Moreshwar’s faith in the magical properties of this small rectangular advertisement of my status, but I battled my way to the front of one of the desks and thrust it at an indifferent clerk. “Please take this to the Collector Saab,” I said, trying to look both important and imploring. “I must see him.”

The clerk seemed unimpressed by my card. “You and everyone else,” he said sceptically, putting the card aside. “Collector Saab very busy today. You come back tomorrow, we will see.”

At this point, Moreshwar insinuated a currency note into the clerk’s palm. The man’s eyes lit up and sparkled. “Send the card in,” said Moreshwar, “It’s important.”

“I am doing as you wish,” the clerk said grudgingly, “but you will still have to wait. Collector Saab is so very busy today.”

“You’ve told us that already,” I replied. “We’ll wait.” He then called a clerk who was hidden in a cubbyhole desk in front of him. A peon wandered in, bearing tea for the clerks. Once the clerk at the desk had satisfied himself that his tea was sugared to his taste, he added my card to the pile of papers he gave the peon to take in to the Collector. “It will take some time,” he repeated with a grin.

It didn’t. Soon after the door had closed behind the peon, the black phone on the assistant’s desk jangled peremptorily. “Yes, Sar. Yes, Sar,” he said perspiring. “No, Sar. Not long. I have taken care of them. Yes, Sar. At once, Sar.” He had stood up to attention during this exchange, and when he replaced the receiver there was a new look of respect in his eyes. “Collector Saab has called you in.”

A long line of windows ran along the side of the room. Mr Bhoge half rose to greet me, an effort which consisted of bracing his hands on the side of the chair and raising his sloping shoulders in a quick jerk upward to shake my hand. I offered mine, robotically expecting him to have a commanding presence, but his demeanour was modest and his tone warm. In a subdued stream of equally-accented, putt-putt syllables, he reeled out his priorities in development projects in villages. I couldn’t resist the urge to broach the subject of corruption among lower babus, particularly those associated with development programmes. After a pause, he counteracted saying that the whole culture had to share the blame for the situation. I mentioned that, on account of the government’s cranky programmes, we were sanctioning loans and writing them off ritually after three years. His eyes flashed with sardonic delight. The leather top of his wooden desk was covered almost entirely by a dozen or more piles of documents, arranged in neat rows; in the space that remained there were two telephones. He leafed through the pages, signing some and pushing others to one side. A husky clerk came in, carrying a cache of documents and clutch of papers. Yellow and orange sticky labels indicated which pages required signing. Mr Bhoge fished out a pen from the tray, scribbled his signature in the requisite places and shunted the files down the table. The clerk hobbled out.

When he promised to issue suitable instructions on my pending issues, I was very happy to find a sensitive soul and a liberal analogue in the hard-fisted bureaucracy. The meeting turned out to be a forerunner for a lasting friendship. In the Collector.

I found in this gentle official a source of enormous support. When we analyze successful development interventions we find that. A lot of good programs got their start when one individual looked at a familiar landscape in a fresh way. These practical idealists demonstrated   passion, intellect, and   gritty determination and were supported by heroic, skillful, and inspiring field staff. Pairing experts   with “on the ground” teams   and field workers has yielded many good ideas about how to address the problems of disadvantaged populations.

Honest and competent civil servants — and there are many — must initiate human capital reform as their contribution to creating a high-performing Indian state that does fewer things but does them better.

Jawaharlal Nehru once said the Indian Civil Service was “Neither Indian, nor Civil, nor a Service”. Sardar Patel said the civil service was the “steel frame of government machinery”. Thankfully, this team of rivals worked together to create a model for non-elected civil servants that served India well when the primary task was nation-building. But now that the task has shifted to poverty reduction, most citizens eel we need bureaucrats with a new ethos, more attuned to performances on the ground, and not just policy discourses.

As Verghese Kurien, the father of India’s Milk Revolution repeatedly emphasized: “India’s place in the sun would come from the partnership between wisdom of its rural people and skill of its professionals “.


Mazin Qumsiyeh, associate professor of genetics and director of cytogenetic services at Yale University School of Medicine, is founder and president of the Holy Land Conservation Foundation and ex-president of the Middle East Genetics Association. He won the Raymond Jallow Activism Award from the national Arab American Anti-Discrimination Committee in 1998. He is co-founder and national treasurer of Al-Awda, the Palestine Right to Return Coalition, and has written extensively about the Middle East. Qumsiyeh is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment, author of Sharing the Land of Canaan and Popular Resistance in Palestine, a professor at Bethlehem University and director of the Palestine Museum of Natural History in Bethlehem.


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 31 Jul 2017.

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