Diana Jue-Rajasingh

Is it Fair to Blame the Doors of Bureaucracy?

Posted in Fulbright, India, Traveling by Diana on September 4, 2012

A few days ago, Infosys founder Narayana Murthy dropped a unflattering words about India’s decision makers. He more or less blamed the nation’s economic ills on the doors of bureaucracy. From the Times of India:

“We have fallen far short of expectations and it’s no longer possible to sell the India story,” said NR Narayana Murthy, chairman emeritus, Infosys, in an interview to ET NOW.

“The world expected a lot from us. And compared to that expectation, we have fallen very very short. And therefore, I would say, this is worse than 1991,” Murthy said. “I meet a lot of CEOs outside India and earlier India was mentioned once every three times China was mentioned. But now, if China is mentioned 30 times, India is not even mentioned once,” he added.

Government indifference to the plight of business has brought decision-making to an unnecessary standstill, he believes. “A lot of decisions can be taken within the ambit of current legislation,” Murthy said, especially on several issues that impact the IT industry – one issue is that some I-T officials do not recognise a statement of work, and insist on a company negotiating a new master agreement for every project. “Now, this is not done anywhere in the world and we have been arguing with the I-T Department,” he said. “If this is my job, tough decisions have to be taken. We have to accept that.”

Murthy said he has submitted presentations to the prime minister, and written to (then finance minister) Pranab Mukherjee on such issues: “It has been fourteen months and nothing has been done. “Now, this is not in the realm of legislation. It’s not about ideology, politics. All that this requires is one senior bureaucrat to say ‘let’s adopt global standards’. And it can be done in a few hours.” Most of the problems faced by investors are of this nature, he said.

This past weekend, I met with Steve to lay out my Fulbright road map. He told me that a lot of IAS officers he knew were upset by Murthy’s statements, claiming that Murthy doesn’t understand what it was like to be a public administrator. In their eyes: Murthy is a businessman who only cares about profits. His only interaction with bureaucracy is through the paperwork he needs done so that he can go ahead with his business building. Contrary to Murthy, IAS officers are public servants. They are obligated to care about the “public good,” meaning that they cannot just give folks like Murthy what they want. For example, If an IT boss wants land for an IT park, public administrators have to worry about relocation and rehabilitation, environmental problems, general social unrest, and (although mostly unmentioned) the political implications of affecting a particular vote bank. Thus, there are some legitimate reasons for why decisions take awhile to make.

When I tell people that I’m researching public administration, they often reply that India is more of an example of what not to do. There’s too much corruption, and there’s little accountability. As a researcher, I don’t feel that it’s necessary to feed into this discourse by merely recognizing the presence of corruption. We all know it’s there, and we all know it’s unhelpful.

This year’s Fulbright research goal is to understand the few examples of bureaucrats who have made positive changes in Bangalore and in the state of Karnataka, despite the constraints from above (the big political bosses) and below (the public). I definitely don’t want to say that all public administrators are kind-hearted do-gooders, but I do want to conclude that positive change is possible, even in this antiquated, inherited system of public administration.

But what does it take? That’s what I’m here to find out.

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