A recent discussion with an IAS officer from one of the southern states turned out to be thought-provoking after he remarked that the "steel frame" - the IAS - in certain less well-reckoned states had begun to do better than their counterparts in the southern states in terms of administrative reforms over the last two decades.
Digging deeper, I realised he was right. At one stage, administration in the southern states was considered to be a model and effective, independent of the political party and leadership in power. If one overlooked corruption, the southern states were ahead in terms of governance, administration and delivery. One could always feel the difference - be it in law and order or transport or municipal services - when one visited Chennai, Bengaluru or Hyderabad. The administration used to be visible, it used to be person-independent and, to some extent, self-driven.
Not anymore. One, administration in these states has become lacklustre and perfunctory. Worse still, it looks as if these cities, and their administrators have lost the ability to even visualise or envision. Meanwhile, administration in states like Gujarat, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh have taken the lead. These states have ushered in more reforms than states like Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Kerala, Telangana and Andhra, and Maharashtra, which used to be the vanguard of administration.
One can surmise the reasons for the decline of administration in the peninsular states, including Maharashtra. Perhaps, one reason is that the quality of administration goes through a life-cycle. These states are probably fatigued and in the state of entropy, thanks to complacency after a decent run of effective administration. These states rest on the critical mass of economic development they enjoy, and have stopped innovating and keeping the pace, with no contribution from policymakers or administrators.
Cities like Chennai, Bengaluru, Mumbai actually needed decelerators on growth, but they have run on auto-pilot as it were. Lacklustre administration is beginning to tell on urban services. Bengaluru developed even as the city was catching up with its growth run, a classic case of how infrastructure and services fell behind growth.
It is difficult to generalise across these states. Each is at a different stage, and the bureaucracy is exhibiting different facets of entropy. One common factor is the historic steep hierarchies in these states, now combined with centralised power, wherein fewer people make the decisions. In one state, in the absence of the power centre, even routine transfers are on hold. The bureaucracy let it pass, and did not rise to self-manage the situation. In Andhra, it is a case of administrative leadership lagging behind political leadership.
Second, these states have had a run of regional parties, or national parities mimicking regional parties - like the CPM in Kerala. Could regionalisation have played a part? Do strong regional leaderships stifle bureaucratic leadership, rather than empowering it? In Tamil Nadu, for long, irrespective of the party in power, the bureaucracy could not assert itself under strong leaders. As political leadership became more concentrated, administration became more hierarchical as access to the former became regulated.
One way to prove the point is to see what states IAS aspirants indicate as their preference to serve in. We should look at their second preference state, given that their home state is a natural first preference for at least a majority of them. It is reasonable to assume that near-perfect information exists among the aspirants about the fate of IAS cadres in various states, information that they are able to gather through mechanisms including coaching classes.
The second preference is therefore like a polling and will indicate the trend. Second, we can look at how many people from the various states have made it to the central pool. We observe that increasingly officers from the reform states have made it to central pool, rather than from the traditional southern strongholds. The central government increasingly looks for officers with experience in state-level reforms.
What do we mean by reform states in terms of administration? The progress of states like Rajasthan, MP, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat is appreciable, considering they started with low growth and poor infrastructure. Delivering reforms in these states, given their low economic base and social equations, is credible indeed.
These states have ushered in reforms in governance and administration in various sectors like PDS, education, health, transport, industrial policies, etc. It is not about outcomes; first let the innovations happen. These states have pursued aggressive policies ahead of even the Centre, for example, in industrial policy.
Their leaderships have been supportive of administrators. They understood responsiveness is important and empowered their administrations. The administrators feel empowered in these states and are driven because of the perceived support, especially access to the power centre, they get from their boss.
The chief ministers in these states have to depend on their ability to deliver, than on their charisma or ideology or chauvinistic appeal. This is a challenge to them, and their success in elections depends on their performance. In this situation, they know that they can deliver only by empowering the bureaucracy and making it accountable, not by stifling it. This seems to have made a difference, unless there is compelling counter-narrative.
The southern states, because of their strong tax base, have become expenditure-driven in the name of welfarism. Expenditure-orientation affords no incentive to economise or reform. The thrust on "schemes" has made administration shift focus to spending and targets - be it on canteens, subsidies or relief.
The performing states, because of a lack of tax base, have had to focus on revenue mobilisation as well as efficient performance for the political leadership of the day to be seen as performing. What seems to have worked in the reform states is actually the development orientation of both political and administrative leaderships.
(The writer is Professor, Centre for Public Policy, IIM Bangalore)