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When will we get freedom from babudom?

Last updated on: August 20, 2010 20:11 IST

When will we get freedom from babudom?

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M R Venkatesh


The recent decision of the Karnataka government to ban iron ore exports once again points to the unholy nexus between the neta (leader), the lala (businessman) and the babu (bureaucracy).

Interestingly, while the first two -- the neta and the lala have consistently received our flak, the third -- the babu has virtually escaped public scrutiny.

To appreciate what has been stated above a reference to the events leading to the order of the Karnataka government to ban iron ore exports would be appropriate.

The recently concluded Assembly session in Karnataka had generated a lot of heat (and very little light) on illegal mining and export of iron ore. The government realised belatedly that the quantity allowed to be exported and the quantity actually exported did not match.

Obviously, something was seriously amiss. As facts come out to the open, one is appalled at the colossal failure of the state administrative machinery in checking this wrongdoing.

Simply put, the irrational response of the Karnataka government is symptomatic of a larger malaise prevailing in the country -- lack of administration bandwidth.

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Failure of the administration

But first let us consider the facts about the iron ore imbroglio in Karnataka. It may be noted that there are 10 minor ports in Karnataka of which Karwar is reported to have exported iron ore in the last 4-5 years.

Amusingly the ban order admits that it has come to its notice recently that the Karwar port has been operating 'without clearances from the Karnataka State Pollution Board and other departments'. So much for the quality of administration in one of the supposedly better administered states in India!

That is not all. The state government 'learnt' that the permits issued for the transportation of ore from the mines were recycled for the movement of ore from mines to ports. It is indeed surprising that the state government did not anticipate such recycling of its permits. Given our penchant to be environmentally friendly, one wonders why this was not foreseen.

Ostensibly, in order to stop illegal exports of ore the Karnataka government has planned modernisation and improvement of computerised permits with hologram, and development of Internet facilities at check posts so as to monitor the movement of ore effectively. Pending implementation of this plan, the state government has come out with this ban order.

Be that as it many, our track record suggests that any sophisticated system can be rendered dysfunctional by the lala-neta-babu triumvirate within a matter of minutes. After all, every system requires a human interface which allows every sentinel at every gate to allow things to pass provided he receives his share of the graft. Given this quality of our administration, any discussion on systemic improvement is irrelevant.

What makes one take a dim view of the proposed range of solutions proffered by the Karnataka government is the surfacing of murky facts in the past few weeks.

It may be noted that the Deputy Conservator of Forests (DCF) of Karwar in a letter dated July 24, 2010 to the Commissioner of Customs, Mangalore had stated that Belekeri Port Conservator had forwarded the stock statement aggregating to 800,000 tonnes indicating the quantity of ore seized (suspecting it to be illegally mined) and disclosing the names of the 58 exporters, to whom the ore allegedly belonged.

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Interestingly, eight of the above exporters had approached the high court claiming ownership and release of approximately 200,000 tonnes. The other 50 exporters (claiming ownership of the balance quantity) had not yet come forward to lay claim on the seized ores.

The explanation for the same is shocking as well as amusing. The reason why no one came forward to claim ownership of the said ore is because they had already removed the same from port area.

These stocks it may be noted, as per local court orders, were to be seized and kept in the safe custody of Port Conservator of Belekeri. And yet someone managed to remove approximately 600,000 tonnes (roughly equivalent to 60,000 truck loads or three ship loads!) from the port is a telling commentary on the state of affairs.

Commenting on this theft of iron ore stock, the DCF in his letter states that 'during the course of investigation, it is credibly learnt that the clandestinely removed quantity of seized iron ore appears to have been kept concealed at nearby locations/destinations and possibly stored at unidentified pockets close to the ports and some minor ports on the west coast, which is being attempted to export outside the limits of India along with regular exports permitted through Mangalore port officially.'

The DCF goes on to elaborate: 'It is very difficult to identify, verify and scrutinize the clandestinely removed seized iron ore, if regular exports are operational at Mangalore port. It is also very difficult to cross verify the records and documents in the custody of port authorities vis-a-vis the physical stock of iron ore currently stored within  the port area of Mangalore, who are obliged under law to maintain the same in accordance with law.'

And to effectively carry out these reconciliations, the DCF sought to prohibit regular export of iron ore from all ports in Karnataka for a period of 30 days.

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The Karnataka government used this as a ruse to ban exports from all its ports.

It would thus appear that some politicians, businessmen and several layers of administration must be a party to this.

Fundamental questions that remains unanswered

Even as the ban is enforced, little do we realise that the fundamental reason for the same is the colossal failure of the local administration. And it is this angle -- the role of our bureaucracy in many scams -- that escapes our attention. In every disaster, a businessman or a politician is named and shamed, no rarely ever is one from the administration even targetted.

This requires some elaboration. The Chinese aggression of the early sixties cost the then defence minister his job and the then prime minister his health and reputation. But pray, who was the defence secretary then? Not many can recall his name now.

But that is probably because that was approximately five decades back. Let us take a recent example. The 2008 Mumbai terror attacks cost the chief minister of Maharashtra and the Union home minister their jobs. But pray, who was the home secretary of Maharashtra or at the Centre then? Even this time around not many can recall their names.

After every rail or air disaster as we seek answers from the concerned minister, have we ever cared to question the railway or the civil aviation secretary? The point is that whenever things go wrong, our systems are skilfully structured to instantly protect our bureaucrats.

The reason for the same is intriguing and interesting. While our bureaucracy practically rules the roost by taking almost every administrative decision, their role theoretically speaking is formless. Several of these bureaucrats profit from the scams that hit the nation. Yet when things go wrong, they are constitutionally empowered and skilfully trained in washing their hands of completely.

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Crucially, quite often their competency is suspect. Not many are employable gainfully outside the government. Yet their pay scale rivals the best in our private sector. Naturally, their poor ability reflects in our poor administrative bandwidth.

This mess in Karnataka is merely an illustration of the challenge faced by the country. For all the chaos faced by the country since Independence, the role of the bureaucracy is palpable yet un-scrutinised.

Given this paradigm, it is easy to blame the polity and our businessmen when administrators are as much villains of the piece. And should our political class attempt to get at them -- as the former chief minister of Tamil Nadu Jayalalithaa attempted to do -- they just get back in packs.

No wonder, people believe that at best a few sentries at the Belekeri Port would probably be suspended. Meanwhile their administrative superiors -- both in Bengaluru and New Delhi -- would continue with their mess, mischief and malfeasance without any let up or fear.

The problem is that political parties and businessmen do not realise that they have become prisoners of the administrative class in India. Even to get routine things done, both, the political class as well as trade and industry have to entice them in one way or the other.

And when the going gets tough, the political class loses its credibility and the businessmen lose their money. But for the bureaucracy it is business as usual. (If it is Sunday morning it has to be golf at the local gymkhana.)

They are faceless yet omnipresent, unaccountable yet omnipotent. The earlier our political parties and businessmen realise this, the better. It is time we overhaul the functioning of our bureaucracy.

On August 15, 1947, we liberated India from the white sahibs. Let us now pledge to liberate the country from our brown sahibs.

The author is a Chennai-based chartered accountant.



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