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Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Hail the note maker (pun intended)

Well, this has been discussed on this blog earlier –


here, and


Mr P Lal, IPS, provides some more insight into the issue in a middle that appeared today in The Tribune’ which is worth reproducing :

The babu and the bureaucrat

P. Lal

IAS officers generally take umbrage at being called babus! They prefer being referred to as bureaucrats.

But who is a bureaucrat? And who is a babu?

As commonly understood in India, a babu belongs to a lower echelon in the official hierarchy. A clerk in an office may be referred to as a babu, and a head-clerk as the bada babu giving the latter a touch of respectability.

Historically, however, bureaucracy emerged as a dominant mode of human organisation in factories, offices and industrial establishments, more than 300 years ago in the wake of the Industrial Revolution. It proved to be an effective tool of management in business organisations, factories and industrial empires. Thus, the bureaucracy was born in the private sector and effortlessly travelled to the government sector where, too, it showed its efficiency, deliverd goods and services and conformed to rules. By doing so, it acquired power. One who held an office in the system came to be known as a bureaucrat.

Thus, the branch manager of a bank or the Chief Medical Officer of a district is as much a bureaucrat as a Deputy Secretary in a ministry or the SHO of a police station.

Max Weber, the political thinker and social scientist, who researched ‘bureaucracy’ extensively in private and government organisations, prophesied its triumph and declared its three important characteristics to be permanence, hierarchy and a division of labour.

The element of permanence led C. Northcote Parkinson to propound, as far back as 1957, his famous law: “work expands to fill the time available for its completion.” He deduced as a corollary that there was little or no relationship between the work and the staff for its execution. Therefore, the rise in work-force would be much the same whether the volume of work were to increase, diminish or even disappear. To prove his point, he showed that the men in the colonial office in London increased from 372 in 1935 to 450 in 1939, to 817 in 1943, 1139 in 1947, and 1661 in 1954, whereas the size of the British Empire shrunk rapidly.

But, who is more important — the babu or the bureaucrat?

‘The law of inverse importance’ is relevant in this connection. According to it: “Exceptions apart, the real importance of a functionary in a bureaucratic organisation in regard to the nature of decision on a case, is inversely proportional to the rank that he occupies in that organisation.”

Thus, a note put up by an assistant, in a majority of cases, would be approved by the competent authority who is mostly an officer-bureaucrat who would just initial the file ( a more practical-minded one may write ‘ not approved’, to be changed, at an ‘opportune’ time, to: ‘note approved’). If the assistant doesn’t put up the note, there is no way a decision can be taken. And, therein lies his power!

A record-keeper clerk is even more important than the assistant, though lower in hierarchy. It is he who maintains the files, puts up the PUC (paper under consideration) and adds the precedent case files. He can make the fresh receipts (PUCs) disappear, make the whole files perform the vanishing trick or only such pages of them as are inconvenient. He can add precedent cases — favourable or unfavourable — depending on which party he wants to favour. After all, the decision makers find it safe to tread the path shown by precedents.

So, officer-bureaucrats (in all bureaucracies), cheer up. There is nothing to crib about being called babus!


Kaps said...

A clerk or an assistant might be handling the file, in my mind, it has to be the officer who must be responsible or accountable for that file (most likely a decision). If the clerk or assistant has failed to bring up the file, it is the duty of "officer bureaucrat" to ensure that the file and the decision therein reaches its logical conclusion. This lack of accountability and spread of work force has ensured that clerk-assistants have begun taking charge of official decision making.

To my mind, an officer-bureaucrat is no different from the lower level if he/she has to only scribble on a noting. So they very much deserve the tag babu, in a real derogatory manner, if you may.

For this tag to go, the "public servant" has to stop being public ruler and start providing "service" rather than taking cuts and shortcuts.

Anonymous said...

But it is a fact that we all call them baboos just to take out our frustration on them or just to curse them.

Anonymous said...

Dear Readers,
While all this may be interesting to read and may also provide fodder for those with drawn swords, may we pause to ask what purpose is served by deriding the functionary?
Now someone else will write another salvo from the purported 'other side' and so hopefully the kind Major will publish that also.
Let us thus divide our meager resources and fritter away the opportunity bestowed upon the privileged to serve the beloved country.
Is this possible?

Rajan said...

Dear Anonymous May 26 @ 10:53.
Why so serious? Surely Maj Navdeep is allowed some fun. And with his great literary style, he does add some great value to facts. The books he quoted are ages old and hopefully our bureaucrats have read them. And he is not against bureaucrats (Bureau - Table in French- Table Walahs literally) as he has brought out too many times. Remember, most of them are doing a fantastic job and we faujis do grudgingly accept it despite our swords drawn. So there will be no response except from some lower order babu if ever. Jokingly remember Navdeep's* Rule 1 - our bureaucrats do not do their own typing. They require babus for typing.
Navdeep's Rule 2 - If something cannot be typed by a Babu, it means matter can be ignored or is priveledged info and should remain so.
@ Kaps, Have you ever worked in an office handling Civilian Clerks? I don't think so. Have you ever tried to take a clerk to task (in India?, teaching them bringing forward a file or proper filework)? Try it. Try it if you have some graduate (barely reads English) and govt pays them peanuts. Stop looking at Clerks with your "Yes Minister" glasses. They are mostly dumb (80%)or act as such (20%).
* After Parkingson's Law I hereby grant two laws / rules here and now to be known hereafter by name of the lawmaker Maj Navdeep.