ASIA’S monumental sporting events change nations; indeed, that seems to be the point of the billions lavished on them.
Tokyo’s 1964 Olympics heralded Japan’s revival from World War II, and its future as a tech-savvy economic power. Likewise the Seoul Olympics in 1988 signalled a new trading giant also rising out of war’s ashes, then confirmed by the 2002 World Cup in South Korea and Japan. Malaysia’s Commonwealth Games in 1998 symbolised the developing world’s urgent vault to development, and the 2008 Beijing Olympics opened an ominous window of what is to come.
And so it was supposed to be for India and its Commonwealth Games that have just come to a close in Delhi, the biggest single global event yet staged by India.
But the games were far from being the symbol of the economic arrival of India into the modern world that Delhi had hoped for. Nonetheless it may be that the problem-plagued and at times embarrassing games were a game-changer after all, though in a manner far more profound for Indians – and the world – than some fleeting gee-whiz headlines in the world’s media.
”It just may be that this could be the catalyst for the long-overdue reform of the Indian bureaucracy,” says Deutsche Bank’s chief economist for Asia, Michael Spencer. ”It’s a major impediment and this is the golden opportunity to undertake the real root-and-branch reform that has been long promised. That would be a massive step forward; to clean it up comprehensively.”
The Delhi games showed the world just what can be done when its daunting civil service takes control – and the result wasn’t pretty. Corruption, waste, inefficiency, obfuscation and a cancerous lack of accountability in officialdom – and all of it on an Olympian scale.
Delhi’s dramas may have been revealing for observers who briefly touch India but sadly these are the common issues daily confronting and long bedevilling a billion Indians and the foreign investors urged to invest their money in business there. Some economists have calculated that India’s bureaucratic inefficiency costs the country 1-2 points in annual growth.
India’s daunting civil service is supposed to be the pride of the nation – just ask its privileged nabobs – but instead its malfunction and malgovernance hold India back. Enter any average government office in India and one is struck by the mountains of yellowing paperwork, years of filing and unfinished work ground down by the sheer scale of chaotic India’s myriad issues that overwhelm.
Part of the problem is its size and power. India employs about 4 million civil servants, with another 7 to 8 million in its 35 states and territories. It is the world’s biggest civil service, bigger even than China’s, which has about 15 per cent more people to administer than India. And India’s numbers don’t include the armies of non-paper shufflers; the personal staff of senior bureaucrats who manage the household and perks. And what perks they are; cars, foreign travel, generous pensions and those rent-free immaculately maintained Lutyens-era estates that make up much of New Delhi. Once the bureaucratic nose is inserted in the trough, it’s near impossible to remove. The Indian bureaucracy with its perks is a job for life and much energy is spent on keeping one’s job.
Bangalore is a case in point. The southern city is a world leader in technology, but that had little to do with government. As the private sector propelled Bangalore to Silicon Valley status, until recently visitors to the city arrived at a stinking airport prone to blackouts and delays, its dysfunction poignantly symbolised by a baggage retrieval system involving armies of attendants literally carrying luggage bags from the plane to a wooden shelf for passengers to pick through. It’s better now but it took years for the state to get around to replacing it.
India isn’t just plagued by bumbling bureaucrats – though many are bumblers. It’s more serious than that. With its confrontational reputation – a default ”no” is a civil servant specialty unless an inducement is offered – the Indian civil service is a power unto itself, a hydra-headed monster that has conquered a succession of governments. Today, it has developed to the point that it presents as a major obstacle not just to India’s economic growth and private-sector efficiency, but to the world’s as traditional Western engines struggle to sputter back to life. American economist Lant Pritchett of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government has described the Indian bureaucracy as ”one of the world’s top 10 biggest problems”, up there with AIDS and climate change.
When he took office in 2004, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh pledged that administrative reform ”at every level” was a key concern of his government. But little has changed in the intervening six years. India vaults ahead but that is primarily because of a restless, energetic private sector.
Now Singh has a chance. He took charge of the games a few days from opening and the event bumbled through as he made sure things got done. Now as the opposition describes the $6 billion games as a ”very big scam” Singh is going after senior games officials, to make them accountable before the courts, ”pour encourager les autres” in the civil service. Investors long burdened by the weight of bureaucracy but believing that a new India can emerge should hope he nails his quarries.