Recently, in a lighter vein, I tweeted this about the complicated MHA circulars: “If you can understand MHA circulars, you can crack the Data Analysis and Comprehension of CAT or any entrance exam in the world easily.” Most people laughed, but not all were amused. A young IAS officer replied: “Civil Services Exams are among the toughest in the world. With patience, orders/circulars can easily be understood. Read calmly, because each word written in such orders matters.” Alright then. I had been reminded of my place. I forgot these orders were written by superior beings. Hence, if I found the orders confusing, something was wrong with me.
This one example reflects the broader superior, arrogant and unwilling-to-change attitude that exists among many of our civil servants. And yet, one fails to understand this: if they are so amazing, why are India’s bureaucrats seen as a part of India’s problem? Why are they feared by the common man? Why are they cited as the main reason behind the difficulty of doing business in India?
People talk about India benefiting from coronavirus as companies will want to move manufacturing out of China. Sorry, but that will not happen. Firstly, China is already back. India is not. The factories are buzzing there, not here. More importantly, global companies are happy there. They would rather risk a new pandemic than deal with Indian babus.
Why are babus like this? The entrance exam is where it begins. There are two prelim papers, nine mains papers and an interview. This rigour could be appreciated if it made any sense. You don’t need eleven exams to test the capability for being a government employee. Don’t laugh, but one subject is ‘Ethics, Integrity and Aptitude’. It has cute questions like “What is expected of a public servant?” and “Describe a ‘crisis of conscience”. One would think India runs one of the most honest services in the world. If only integrity could be learnt by memorising answers. Another paper is about India’s heritage and geography. Cracking it requires massive amounts of rote memory. In times of Google Maps and the internet, the course content is as outdated as the font UPSC selects for printing the question paper.
Of course, appearing candidates don’t question the syllabus. They simply follow the silliness to crack the exam. A million plus people apply. Less than a thousand get selected. Half the seats are reserved. It is a ridiculous exam curriculum and an equally ridiculous selection rate. Selection has as much randomness to it as merit. The real skills needed for the job are never tested.
The two years spent preparing for this mind-numbing exam sucks every bit of creativity, initiative, soul and enterprise out of the candidates. Those who make it also feel entitled — like they are superior and deserve something great now.
They enter the great Indian sarkaari system, which rewards total risk aversion. Sit at your desk, keep signing files, you will get promoted. Try something new, if it works no special reward but if it fails, you are screwed. What would you do in such a system? Sad that such capable people waste their lives in this system, for what is not entirely their fault. But while there may be a hundred things wrong with the system, some fault lies within the civil services community, which almost revels in being outdated and creating hurdles. The recent complicated MHA circulars weren’t just a joke. They are a symptom. Something as simple as language, page formatting and fonts have not evolved over the years. Really, who apart from sarkaari babus uses the word ‘hitherto’?
How hard is it to check online on the Covid notices being released by Hong Kong, Singapore or the UK governments? How difficult is it to simplify the language and make the page look more modern? You may not get a promotion due to this, but isn’t there a work satisfaction that comes from improving things? This isn’t just about circulars. It is about every sarkaari process. Why does everything sarkaari have to be boring, dull and inefficient?
Of course, change is not without risks. Recently, a group of enthusiastic IRS officers stepped out of line. They made a plan to generate revenue post the crisis, but drew enormous flak for it. Some would argue this shows that initiative is not rewarded but punished. The action taken against the individuals was indeed harsh. But that document had problems too. The schemes recommended were archaic, inward-looking and anti-growth. While making the document showed initiative, the contents reeked of the same dated mentality. Open your minds. See what other Asian economies are doing. Nobody expects civil servants to be extra creative. We are simply asking them to open their mind, stay updated and improve things. Oh, and simplify those circulars, please.