India seeks to reform its cumbersome bureaucracy

The Modi government hopes that with better training and skills-based transfers, the bureaucracy will be more streamlined.
The Modi government hopes that with better training and skills-based transfers, the bureaucracy will be more streamlined.PHOTO: AFP

NEW DELHI - India's bureaucracy is often criticised for being cumbersome as well as slow moving, bogged down by red tape and weak capacity-building.

Every government has tried its hand at reform with only limited success.

Now it's the Narendra Modi government's turn. It is focusing on improving the training of bureaucrats and encouraging specialisation in a system where civil servants are often seen as "generalists" because they are routinely transferred from one department to another.

The Modi government hopes that with better training and skills-based transfers, the bureaucracy will be more streamlined, with improved workflow cutting down delays and red tape, often a bugbear for foreign investors.

Architects of the reforms hail them as among the most extensive but critics remain sceptical.

Dubbed "Mission Karmayogi", the government is creating an online database of officials, will offer specialised training programmes to increase domain expertise and regularly review performance. At present, multiple agencies provide different types of training.

The Minister of State for Personnel, Public Grievances and Pensions, Dr Jitendra Singh, told The Straits Times in an interview on Sept 16 that the training programme, estimated to cost 5.1 billion rupees (S$95 million) over five years, would be overseen by a council headed by the Prime Minister.

Some 4.6 million federal employees would be eligible for the training.

"Earlier what was happening was that one day you may be a collector (the senior most bureaucrat in a district) and the next you are in education. So an officer becomes a generalist... a jack of all trades. Here you will have provisions (programmes and modules) to train yourself for the assignment," said Dr Singh.

He said the online system would help identify the right bureaucrat for the right job.

"So at the click of a button, you will have the profile of the official who is more suited by aptitude and background. This will bring objectivity even in assigning jobs," he said.


Dr Singh said the focus was to train officials to be "innovative, capable of decision-making and technologically enabled".

The Indian bureaucracy is known to have some of the country's brightest minds, with officers highly respected in the country. But the bureaucracy suffers from a systemic problem, which includes a lack of officers with specialised knowledge. Much is often left to the discretion of senior officials or politicians.

The latest reforms are seen to be deeper than previous efforts but some experts maintain they do not go far enough .

"The size of the bureaucracy needs to be cut down. Then their jobs have to be more sharply defined and sharply focused. There is also a need to instil a chain of responsibility, which is absent right now," said Mr Jagdeep S. Chhokar, founder member of the Association for Democratic Reforms.

"A bureaucrat needs to be accountable to the Constitution and not to political bosses," he added.

Many international surveys have not been kind to the Indian bureaucracy.


A 2018 survey by the UK India Business Council pointed out that the quality of bureaucracy was rated as the weakest component of India's business environment for the fourth year running.

The survey, which was based on responses from 89 British companies, saw 67 per cent of respondents rating the quality of the bureaucracy as "poor" or "very poor". Still, the report noted that the bureaucracy differed from state to state.

Mr Yogendra Narain, a retired bureaucrat who has served as former defence secretary, the most senior civil servant in the ministry, as well as in other posts, said: "Brief attempts have been made to reform the bureaucracy in the past. I think what the Prime Minister is aiming for is slightly different. He wants it to be a professional service," he said.

"The objective is good."