Sunday, December 05, 2004

the curse of red ink

An ex-government minister attacks India's bureaucracy

By Jason Overdorf
(This book review appeared in Newsweek International in December 2004.)

Dec. 13 issue - Arun Shourie, who has captained a half-dozen different ministries, knows what ails India's government. But reading his latest book, "Governance, and the Sclerosis That Has Set In" (262 pages. Rupa & Co.), one gets the feeling that it was his experience as minister of Disinvestment—charged with selling off India's sick state-owned companies—that motivated the journalist turned politician to pick up his pen. Resistance to the sale of state companies ran deep, even though none of the ailing firms had made a profit for years. In the end, political infighting guaranteed the minister would fail. But he realized that it wasn't ideological disputes that tied government after government into knots of inaction: it was the system of governance itself. As he puts it, a sclerosis had set in.

Shourie begins this compendium of examples of stupefying bureaucratic obstructionism with a hilarious one. Two officers in the Ministry of Steel set off shockwaves when they appended comments to an official document in red and green ink. Their worried superiors consulted the Department of Administrative Reforms and Public Grievances: "Can officers use inks other than blue or black?... Are there Guidelines on the question? If so, could these be forwarded to the undersigned..." In resolving this quandary, the department took 18 months and consulted the Directorate of Printing (experts on ink), the Department of Personnel and Training (experts on rules), the National Archives of India (experts on longevity) and the Ministry of Defence (experts on hierarchy). The result is outlined in two conflicting paragraphs appended to the hallowed Manual of Office Procedure, and can be summed up roughly as follows: some people can use red or green ink some of the time, but nobody can use red or green ink all of the time.

The red tape extends far beyond red ink. Shourie outlines how internecine disputes not only helped prevent many state-owned companies from ever turning a profit but also made it nearly impossible for the government to sell its loss-making firms, since nobody would bid on them without a clear statement of their assets and liabilities. Likewise, he shows how the government's move to adopt new telecommunications was slowed by conflicts not over the actual policy but over who should be deciding that policy. And the public remained in grave danger because debates over which authority should be held accountable—rather than what needed to be done—prevented environmental legislation from being enforced.

This is an admirable exercise in truth-telling. But it's hard to share Shourie's cautious optimism that the disease can be cured by "wielding the axe" to limbs of government that don't function. The patient won't lie down on the table. Whose responsibility is it to decide which table and which axe? And should it be an axe or a scalpel? That, too, is a matter for careful consideration.

© 2004 Newsweek, Inc.