Meghalaya and the new bureaucracy

By Avner Pariat

On the May 27, 2022, Patricia Mukhim wrote a rather timely editorial, “Meghalaya Incorporated: Where are the shareholders?”, in which she shone a light on the role played by the Bureaucracy in the mess called Meghalaya. This was something quite rare because the public generally thrives on blaming the politicians, and not the much vaunted IAS. Now, I must quickly say before anything else, that I am very grateful to the IAS, IES, ICS and other iterations of the civil services which this country has had. My own family’s material and immaterial comforts are all owing to their inclination for and love of government service. For this I am grateful, but, again, I must say that Kong Patricia was not totally off the point when she decided to highlight the activities of certain IAS officers who run their Departments like a corporate entity.
One such officer who I have met a few times is Dr Vijay Kumar. In meetings, I always found him to be knowledgeable, modern and energetic—all admirable traits. As a young person myself, I look out for those qualities in people. I was very impressed by him. I suppose I was not the only one. Many of his staff hold him up to this same level of esteem. It is evident that the present Chief Minister thinks this way as well. Perhaps, because of this, Mr Vijay Kumar now holds sway over the following departments:-
Commissioner & Secretary for Finance Dept, Planning Dept, CM’s Secretariat, Tourism Dept, Cooperation Dept, Sports & Youth Affairs Dept, Soil & Water Conservation Dept, and the Agriculture Dept. In addition to this, he is Director-General, MIE; Chairman, MSWC; Deputy Chief Executive Officer MBDA; Commissioner of Division, Garo Hills; CEO, MSSDS and Chairman, MSWWDA. That is a lot of work to heap on one person’s shoulder! (By the way, this information is from the Official Government of Meghalaya website.)
A cursory look shows that these are vital roles in any government. The Finance Dept itself is arguably the single most important department within any setup. This list also highlights how everything in the state, in effect, needs Mr Vijay Kumar’s go-ahead in some way or form. Is it really humanly possible to hold on to so many portfolios and do them all justice? Why do we expect superhuman abilities from our IAS officers?
But this case, though strange in Meghalaya, is hardly an outlier. Today, across the country, there is a new breed of IAS officers who seem obsessed with turning the sarkari office into a corporate boardroom. It is, perhaps, associated with the consumerist cultures these individuals encounter in their own lives and respective societies. Or maybe it is a new component of their training at Mussoorie. In any case, this is happening throughout the country.
As part of the steady corporatisation of the Government, we have seen more and more IAS officers foster and favour agencies where they have a free hand, and where they are not encumbered by the political appointees and laid-back salaried staff who are ubiquitous in government. Agencies like MBMA, FOCUS, MIDFC, etc allow officials, like Mr Vijay Kumar, to exercise complete control without the interference of the political class. Now, this might be considered desirable given that political interference is usually detrimental and self-serving, but with no checks and balances, these agencies become too powerful for their own good. Most of them tap into Open Market Loans (World Bank, ADB) which are taken in the name of the state but which the state really has no say in, except for, say, a few Cabinet ministers.
In my opinion, these agencies are a big cop-out and a let-down when we remind ourselves that one of the most important functions for any IAS officer is to REGULATE wayward activities in government departments. For instance, FOCUS cannot fix the gaps and pitfalls of the Agriculture and Horticulture departments, it can simply give a nice shine and polish to certain “success stories”, but it has neither the mandate nor the authority to interfere in the Primary Sector. That right is reserved for the government department; Government of India does not recognise FOCUS, it recognises the government department in charge of that sector. Yes, the departments are filled with slow-coaches and nuisances, but I fear this escapism will be the downfall of these officials. Please Mr Vijay Kumar and others reading this, get thine hands dirty and clean up the mess in the departments; don’t shy away from the muck. There is no need to always innovate, nor to re-invent the wheel. Being an “ordinary, old school” IAS officer might be boring but it is a vital task nonetheless.
Many people will be annoyed with me and will point to the hard work put in by these agencies as proof of their viability. I am in no doubt that a tremendous amount of hard-work goes into many of these agencies; but I am asking if the actual work is worth doing in the first place. I’m being philosophical. We all say that we are busy people; we run, run, run but is it actually useful work? Does it serve the greater good? I can sweat a lot in one day and sift through dense piles of data and give a wonderful summary and whatever else I wish to convey based on the data, but does it actually HELP PEOPLE? Does all this money which is being talked about actually reach the people at the last point of the last line on the last mile? Or is it still obscurantism by other means?
This government claims to be building 2 kilometres per day of road, but empty stomachs are more important, no? This government claims they are building epic infrastructure on a huge scale, but not one labourer has become a millionaire, only the NPP contractors seem happy. So I direct this question to the officials especially Mr Vijay Kumar: Are people becoming better off materially? Is poverty on the way to extinction in Meghalaya? If not, then we should halt all the “busyness” and review what it is that we must do to achieve these goals.
My uncle, WMS Pariat, served as an IAS officer for a very long time. He was very different from Mr Vijay Kumar in many ways. He was old-school. His track-record as an officer must be reviewed by unbiased persons unlike myself. But one thing I always remembered was that Mr Pariat always made time to meet people. He did not give his secretarial staff gate-keeping powers. It was not impossible to meet him even when he was Chief Secretary of the State. As Public Officials, IAS officers must meet people and not just their consultants; they need to be in the field not just the CM’s Secretariat. I think the criticism around Mr Vijay Kumar is around this rather moot point. That not only is he super-powerful now (which should not be encouraged in a democracy) but that he is also super-inaccessible. We commend talent and ability but no man is an island. In closing, I want to say that this article was not written to offend anyone. I would gladly have said all of it in private if I were permitted to meet the person in question once in a while!

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