Sucheta Dalal :fr<x>amed: Indian Administration
Sucheta Dalal

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Framed: Indian Administration  

July 7, 2005

The photograph of that police officer riding a constable is emblematic- K. P. S. GILL


K. P. S. Gill was asked to write about the Gujarat riots of 2002 by an European magazine, I was groping for images to convey the abject and inexcusable failure of the police to an audience not familiar with the functioning of the Indian police and the context they operate in. It was at this juncture I came across the photograph published on the front page of /The Indian Express/ on July 2, of a joint commissioner of police—his name deserves to be reiterated here for his “exemplary” conduct, K. Kumaraswamy—riding on the shoulders of a constable in Vadodara, his trousers rolled up, appearing the more arrogant in dark glasses, looking smug and comfortable as the man carrying him wades through flood waters. Had he been carrying the constable, I would have commended him highly. An officer is meant to take care of his men. As it stands, he has disgraced his rank, uniform and service.

This image graphically reflects the utter collapse, not only of the Gujarat Police, but of the entire national administration, and is a slap in the face of the complete administrative echelon, right from the PM down to the lowliest babu. It is evident our system is now creating a race of “palanquin commanders”, indolent men, utterly enslaved by the privileges of rank, but equally incapable of meeting the challenges of their sworn duty. We have a police leadership afraid of getting its trousers wet; that treats its men as mules; and that has become soft, unwilling to get its hands dirty, unable to face adverse situations. And the problem extends to the top administrative hierarchy across the country. This is why, in crisis after crisis, the public complains about administrative failure, a failure located squarely at the leadership level, for the rank and file of our forces remain unreservedly willing to do their utmost and put their lives at risk.

If this endemic failure of leadership needed further evidence, it was provided by the case of the Shanti Express, stranded at Dakor for over 36 hours. The most the administration was able to manage was to airdrop four tonnes of food packets after the train had been marooned in flood waters for over 28 hours. Most of these packets fell into the water. And while the entire state remained impotent, Rajesh Seth simply drove up in a truck to the train, rescued his wife, child and another 70 stranded people!

The problem is not just of the floods in Gujarat, but goes to the very root of the administrative collapse in ever-widening areas of India. It is increasingly evident that we cannot even cope with the most routine of natural calamities. What, then, can we do when the unexpected happens? I have repeatedly stated that the failure to contain the riots in Gujarat was a consequence of the intellectual and moral bankruptcy of police leadership; political interference fed on their willingness—in some cases, eagerness—to bend the law, to succumb to pressure, to neglect their sworn duty to the Constitution, and to ignore the wide range of powers vested in them to act without any directive in such emergencies. There were police officers who simply withdrew their forces from Muslim majority areas, not because their men apprehended any particular threat from the residents, but because they were, as one officer put it, “not comfortable” in these areas.

That is the character of the average officer today—where he does not “feel comfortable” he tucks his tail between his legs and buries himself in his files, waiting till time has taken care of the crisis and he can resume his relatively grand lifestyle at state expense. Many of those who presided over the unforgivable paralysis of the force during the Gujarat riots are today holding some of the senior-most positions in the state, their acts of commission and omission having no bearing on their careers.

Such men should, in fact, have been explicitly punished under the provisions of the Service Conduct Rules, as well as the criminal sanctions under Sections 166 and 167 of the IPC, for their failure to obey the law, and to accurately record reported offences. Instead, they are rewarded with high office and the impunity conferred by an incestuous, parasitical and collusive administrative community. This was not always the case. The administrative “steel frame” of the British imperialists invested enormous power and pelf in each civil servant, but demanded the most extraordinary services. While the decline of the administrative structure in the post-Independence era has been precipitate, its basic character survived for several decades, and I have served with officers, both from the police and civil services, who were not afraid to soil their hands, to trek through unyielding forests and swamps in Assam, to wade through the slush of the swollen Brahmaputra every year, to bring rescue and relief to civilians, and to confront the most extraordinary dangers in the face of terrorism unleashed in the state. Indeed, I recall a karamchari strike at the Guwahati Medical College, where the deputy commissioner, I and other officers personally cleaned the hospital toilets because patients’ lives were at risk from the state of unhygiene. This is significant because, in India’s caste and status-obsessed society, you may get a man to risk his life but fail to convince him to clean a public toilet. Nor were things different in Punjab, where both floods and terrorism have taken their toll at different times, but, while many turned away from their duty, there was always a core of committed men who stood by their posts at grave personal risk, doing thankless jobs for which the nation has, far from expressing gratitude, often heaped harassment and humiliation on them.

These attitudes are progressively disappearing, as the entire task of governance is increasingly identified with pushing files in offices. But the real character of the administration is seen in the face of national calamities; it is then that training, attitudes, and orientation are brought to test; and it is there that the most manifest failures are now becoming almost habitual. Though we may select the best available talent, training emphasises academic achievement and institutional conformity; we are failing to prepare officers for leadership and the challenges they will have to confront. There is a great deal of literature on the rising dangers facing India in the foreseeable future: terrorism, including chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear threats; resource wars; environmental degradation and the growing intensity of natural disasters. If we still lack the administrative leadership to deal with floods and riots, where will we find the capacities to deal with these other and unprecedented calamities?

India’s national leadership must see in the photograph of Vadodra’s joint commissioner mounted on a constable, a mute but vivid symbol of the disastrous state of the national administration.

(The writer is former director-general of police, Punjab, and former security adviser to the Gujarat government.)



-- Sucheta Dalal