Last week in one of India’s many government offices, the elevator was broken, stacks of files gathered dust, and potted plants drooped in the heat. Worse, when the new boss showed up for an impromptu inspection at 9am, he found rows of empty desks. Dozens of his employees hadn’t shown up on time.
“There were no people in their offices,” said the newly appointed minister of information and broadcasting, Prakash Javadekar, sounding pained. “They must come on time and they must work. This whole government mind-set needs to be changed.”
India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, has not been in office 100 days. But he arrived in the capital with more than a dozen years of experience as a state leader who governed with control and knew how to get work out of India’s famously inefficient bureaucrats, known as “babus.” (Woe to the citizen whose government file is “lost in Babudom,” they say. It may never be recovered.)
Babudom is now in peril. Modi signaled as much in the early days of his administration, when he summoned about 70 of the government’s top civil servants, gave them his personal cellphone number and e-mail address, and said it was time for work. A circular appeared the next day with what has been called Modi’s “11 Commandments” - orders to clean work spaces, shorten forms, weed out old files and review goals.
The cleanup has already begun. Workers have been throwing out broken furniture and equipment and mounds of paperwork that accumulated over the previous administration’s decade in power, during which India’s inefficient and corrupt bureaucracy became a symbol of the country’s stalled progress. When the Home Ministry cleaned its cabinets of 150,000 files recently, the Times of India reported, workers unearthed historic documents dating to the British Raj.
Modi has gotten into the act by performing spot-checks himself and calling ministers on their land lines to see if they are at their desks. The prime minister’s habit of working long hours - he’s up at 5:30 most mornings for yoga and works far into the evening - has meant his underlings are working 18-hour days, too. And Saturdays. (Many government employees are now expected to come in on Saturdays, but a proposal for a formal six-day workweek has been scrapped.)
“Yes, we are all working 10 to 12 hours every day. There are no Saturdays or Sundays anymore. I have told my family there will be no holiday for me,” Ravi Shankar Prasad, the new law minister, said at a news conference Tuesday. He praised the prime minister for restoring a sense of “sanctity and purpose to the bureaucracy.”
There are more than 5,500 elite officers in the Indian Administrative Service. They are considered the crème de la crème of the country’s university graduates and get their jobs through an extremely competitive civil service exam. The central government itself has 3 million employees, but the elite officers - the babus - are often targets of resentment because of their privileges, which include use of government-paid cars and drivers, accommodations and even golf club memberships.
According to a story on Powerbuzz.in, a Web site devoted to the comings and goings of India’s civil servants, the Home Ministry has gone so far as to allegedly compile a list of bureaucrats known to frequent golf courses, five-star hotels and private clubs and forwarded it to the prime minister’s office.
“The new government is sending a message to the senior bureaucracy, which is: You can’t switch off,” said T.S.R. Subramanian, a former cabinet secretary, the highest-level civil servant post in India.
The impact of the rumored list has already been felt at the historic Delhi Golf Club, where about 200 bureaucrats used to tee off on cooler afternoons amid Mughal-era tombs and strolling peacocks. Many babus have now canceled their memberships, according to one executive board member, and a few die-hards have switched their tee times to 5:30 a.m. so that they can play and still make it to work on time.
“What will happen because of this list? God knows,” said Sanu Nair, the managing editor of Powerbuzz. “At one level it seems to have performed its trick, which is to keep the bureaucrats under check.”
As chief minister of the western state of Gujarat, Modi was known to favor the workhorses over show ponies on his staff and instilled a mix of fear and awe in his underlings by keeping them in the dark about his plans until the last minute, according to one of his biographers, Uday Mahurkar.
The element of surprise worked last week at the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, where more than 90 percent of its employees are showing up on time since Javadekar’s spot inspection, staffers said. The minister had his personal secretary take photos of the empty rooms, then called the absent workers to his office. He made some take personal days as punishment.
Some employees rolled their eyes when asked about Modi’s new regime and wondered aloud how long the efficiency show will last.
Even in Modi’s home state, some government offices are still cluttered with paper files.
“The government should think about their employees,” grumbled one staffer, who didn’t want to give his name for fear of offending his new boss. “Not everybody has an official car at their disposal. Most employees have to take public transport. Now they have to leave their homes early.”
Subadra, 40, a senior accountant who uses only one name, said that she had been late for the surprise check but managed to avoid the “interrogation” that followed. She said she likes the new spirit in the air in her formerly moribund office.
“The atmosphere is more brisk and active. People are becoming more busy,” she said. “I don’t know quality-wise what’s happening because we’re still doing the same work. But we start early now!” Rama Lakshmi and Jalees Andrabi contributed to this report.
Annie Gowen is The Post’s India bureau chief and has reported for the Post throughout South Asia and the Middle East.–Washington Post