By M D Nalapat
The way in which a necessary move such as GST has been implemented illustrates the problem created by 21st century policies implemented in a 19th century fashion.
Seconds after the midnight ceremony on 15 August 1947 transferring power within a newly truncated country from London to Delhi, those who took over from the British headed in limousines to official residences hastily vacated by their former masters. Had Mahatma Gandhi more time on earth, there is little doubt that he would have demanded that India’s new masters adopt a lifestyle more in sync with the people they were ruling, rather than emulating the British in their pomp. Both Nehru and Patel kept the structure and chemistry of British rule intact. To this day, key branches of the executive follow manuals and procedures that have their origins in the nineteenth century. The Indian Police Act or the Indian Penal Code, to name just two examples, seem poised to celebrate the second century of their being made the foundation for administration. The bungalows, aircraft, automobiles, staff and other accoutrements of colonial authority remain, including going about on horseback as an essential part of training of those passing the IAS, the IFS, the IPS and other services examinations. Those entering them believe themselves superior and remote from the population they govern, for such continues to be the ethos of their cadres. There is even a caste system that remains in force since “birth” (i.e. central services examinations), and which classifies individuals according to the service they have been chosen for, with the IAS clearly at the apex, followed by the IFS and the IPS. Just as the white man (or, in rare cases, woman) was assumed (by themselves) to have the ability to understand and to command disparate wings of government, the IAS in particular continues to—in effect—run even those institutions (such as Niti Aayog) that were explicitly set up to create a different paradigm of governance. Neither bad performance nor lifestyles far removed from salaries by too many have been permitted to stand in the way of regular promotions such that practically every entrant to the IAS reaches the top of the salary scale, and enjoys the benefits of One Rank One Pension without a whimper of protest from North Block.
Several of the members of the IAS are indeed outstanding, perhaps about a third of them, but another third are either venal or incompetent or both, and need to be turfed out. A third of the IAS should be inducted each year from high achievers in “lower” cadres, while the remaining third should come from outside the services, and be chosen for their track record of proven achievement and integrity rather than frequency in attendance at Lutyens and other durbars. Both these streams should be given the same conditions of service as the third who will enter through the examination route. 10-year renewable contracts should be the norm for every member of the IAS (as well as other services), with lifetime tenure (i.e. doing away with the 10-year limitation) being given only to a quarter of the entire service, including those from other services and from outside, based on an exhaustive review of performance carried out after 10 years of entry. The operative words in the IAS are “Indian” and “Service”, and the values of both need to be inculcated through ensuring that field experience be present in all cases. For example, officials in the Ministry of Defense need to spend an initial ten weeks embedded with the armed forces, of which at least 10 days should be at a forward post. Such experience alone will give context and depth to the decisions needing to be made by IAS officers about how to make the armed forces have high morale and performance. In addition, at least a third of Defense Ministry posts at all levels should be held by those in uniform, who should serve one to three years in such jobs. A 10-week embedding within the police needs to be carried out for those officials posted in the Ministry of Home Affairs, just as practical experience in a print or television outlet should be mandatory for those in the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting, including members of the Information service. Those in the Commerce & Industry ministry need to have work experience in these before taking up their departmental responsibilities. Every five years thereafter, a practical refresher programme of immersion in field streams needs to be ensured for every official. The IAS is the pivot of the administrative system, hence the need to ensure a level of knowledge and performance sufficient to carry out the vow of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to transform governance in India from a 19th century to a 21st century construct.
The way in which a necessary move such as GST has been implemented in practice illustrates the problem created by 21st century policies implemented in a 19th century fashion. First, the measure ought to have been passed in the first six months of the new government. Extra time was sought to “improve” the GST but it is difficult to see just what the improvements were that led to a wait of three years. Second, the measure contains such abominations as disallowing inter-state items for those above Rs 75 lakh turnover. Aside from the fact that the floor for exemption should have been Rs 5 crore rather than a paltry Rs 75 lakh, the blocking of inter-state trade is retrogressive in the context of Modi’s efforts at uniting the entire country into a single market. Third, there are too many rates and categories. A fixed rate of 10% would have ensured higher output in succeeding years, and therefore greater revenues over a 5-year period. Lower tax rates ensure higher collections. Relying on the Big Stick as has been done in the case of GST and demonetisation is counter to the Prime Minister’s credo of a citizen-friendly “Minimum Government”. Treat the Indian well and he will respond with enthusiasm. Treat him badly and he will call upon the experience of our country’s thousand years of survival in conditions of slavery to game the system, the way it happened with the return of almost all the cash extinguished on 8 November 2016 to the banking system. Those who have faith in the Prime Minister are confident that Modi will act soon to ensure that GST gets refashioned into a genuinely 21st century policy. Over to the PM.