From Sahayaks to Toll-Free Lives: The Enduring Privileges of Indian Bureaucracy

Indian Bureaucracy

When you enter the office of a senior government official in India, you’ll notice a familiar sight. There’s a person, usually a man but sometimes a woman, seated behind a spacious desk. In front of them, there are orderly rows of chairs occupied by individuals patiently waiting for their chance to seek justice, assistance, or special treatment.

Outside the office, there’s a crowd of people eager to make their voices heard. Every now and then, the official rings a bell, indicating to an assistant to bring in the next person seeking their attention.

From the small offices of local officials in distant areas to the higher-level bureaucrats in the capital city, and from municipal commissioners in provinces to senior tax inspectors, the physical image of the Indian government often resembles a makeshift court cluttered with plastic chairs. This is because the Indian people are not effectively governed, but rather ruled with authority.

A senior bureaucrat mentioned that Indian officials, including those in the bureaucracy, often display a “feudal mindset” that has been passed down from the times of Mughal rule and British colonial officers. This attitude of entitlement and superiority is prevalent throughout various sectors of the government.

The Economist reports that the army continues the British tradition of assigning soldiers as sahayaks, or personal assistants, to high-ranking officers. These young recruits, who joined to serve their nation, often end up performing household tasks like serving drinks, cooking, and ironing, as well as washing cars and walking dogs for their superiors.

Along with senior military officers, police commissioners and heads of public-sector companies also enjoy perks like official vehicles and large homes.

Even less prominent figures enjoy certain privileges. For instance, around 25 categories of officials, including every member of parliament, are exempt from paying road tolls. Airports have a list of 32 categories of individuals who can bypass security screening, including the head of a particular government think-tank.

Additionally, private airport lounges are required to provide free access to a wide range of individuals, from public-university vice-chancellors to members of lesser-known government agencies.

These privileges have a visible effect not only on the behavior of officials who often display superiority towards citizens, as seen when dealing with an Indian police officer while asserting your rights, but also in the way public services are delivered and policies are formulated.

According to a planner interviewed by The Economist, individuals who make decisions about public transportation frequently enjoy the luxury of having their own cars and chauffeurs funded by taxpayers. He suggested that their choices might be influenced if they had firsthand experience of the daily lives of ordinary people.

Narendra Modi, the prime minister, has taken steps to enhance the efficiency of the government by reducing the discretionary powers of bureaucrats. One of the key measures implemented is the introduction of cash transfers and the utilization of biometric identification, which have significantly improved the distribution of welfare benefits.

According to The Economist, these initiatives have made the system more citizen-centric and empowering compared to its previous state.

However, the reforms have also provided an opportunity for politicians to portray themselves as generous leaders. Narendra Modi has dedicated the past ten years to presenting welfare entitlements as directly originating from him, going to the extent of displaying his image on various items such as vaccination certificates and sacks of grain distributed to impoverished individuals. This strategy has proven highly successful, leading many state chief ministers to adopt similar practices.

However, a significant portion of the Indian population, numbering in the hundreds of millions, does not receive any welfare benefits. To address this, the government has started portraying infrastructure development as acts of generosity.

For example, in January, when Narendra Modi inaugurated a temple in Ayodhya, he also presented the “gift” of a new airport and railway station. Similarly, the government proudly announced in the same month that Mumbai had received the “gift” of India’s longest bridge.

In March, Modi bestowed the “gift of development projects” worth $4.3 million upon the economically disadvantaged state of Jharkhand. Regional leaders are also catching on to this trend, with the chief minister of an eastern state offering a “new year gift for Odisha: a metro.”

According to Narendra Modi, India has long been burdened by the dominance and control of colonial powers. However, under his leadership, the country is striving to achieve true independence by breaking free from a state of subordination.

As a symbol of this shift in mindset, in 2022, his government decided to rename Rajpath, a major avenue in Delhi that houses government ministries, to Kartavyapath, meaning the Path of Duty. Similarly, during the early years of Modi’s tenure, Race Course Road, where his official residence is located, was renamed Lok Kalyan Marg, or Public Welfare Road.

These are promising indicators. However, significant changes beyond just language are required before the government ceases to view Indians merely as subjects and begins to acknowledge their rights as citizens.

About Author: Girish Linganna of this article is a Defence, Aerospace & Political Analyst based in Bengaluru. He is also Director of ADD Engineering Components, India, Pvt. Ltd, a subsidiary of ADD Engineering GmbH, Germany.

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