Apathy, cynicism of babus harms well-being

Anyone who has encountered the Indian welfare state will attest to this, but for a group of militant bureaucrats, most regard the social function of the state with apathy and cynicism, as nothing more than a corrupt cesspool imposed by politicians motivated by electoral incentives. The widely held view is that, at best, the welfare state should be ‘reformed’ and limited to ‘target beneficiaries’.

Development scholars have long analyzed the roots of this apathy, but recent conversations I have had with retired bureaucrats have added to the puzzle by highlighting the changing profile of the Indian Administrative Service (IAS).

The IAS today is mostly populated by officers trained in science, especially engineering. Data collected by the Trivedi Center for Political Data on India’s bureaucracy attests to this. In 2020, 80% of new IAS recruits come from STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) streams, compared to 18% in 1980. At the same time, the social base from which IAS is recruited has democratized, more representative of the social realities of India. A survey conducted by former IAS officer and public policy scholar Anirudh Krishna on the 2009 IAS cohort found that up to 85% came from smaller towns and villages. A total of 24% were educated in public schools and 23% completed their studies in rural areas.

How does this relate to bureaucrats’ perception of welfare? Upon closer examination, an interesting hypothesis emerged. First, at the risk of some generalization, STEM training favors a mental model that, to borrow from a former IAS officer, interprets the world through algorithms. It reduces real-world complexities into clearly defined problems that require technical (usually technological) fixes. But the real world and, in particular, the deeply structural challenge of poverty is shaped by multiple layers of unique and often unpredictable political interactions with people and institutions, and the underlying power dynamics that govern them.

When welfare is approached as a technical fix, it correctly identifies all that is broken – corruption, absent, inefficient and apathetic bureaucrats, the greedy elite seeking to grab the largesse of welfare. But the patches do not resolve the complexity that caused the breakage. Aided by advancements in technology, wellness failures are reduced to technical failures, to be repaired with data platforms, GPS surveillance trackers, command and control centers. Among the many challenges of this mental model, the most significant is that it reinforces a worldview that sees the welfare state as corrupt and inefficient, caught in webs of distortion that fuel electoral cycles.

This perspective legitimized a deep disenchantment with the possibilities of well-being. This is why the bureaucracy is constantly anxious to “identify” the poor, lest the money be wasted. Thus, direct benefit transfers (DBT), which cross layers of people and are predictable (money moves from bank to recipient), matter more than investment in public goods and safety nets. security such as food subsidies and Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment. Guarantee scheme. But for DBTs to work, they must be built on data platforms that require citizens to be “verified” and “authenticated” to prove their legitimacy as “beneficiaries”. The welfare function of the state is thus reduced to a limited palliative available only to those who can be “verified” by the state. It is this belief system that drove the bureaucracy at the height of the lockdown crisis to actively resist cash transfers to migrant workers. How can we give money when workers cannot be identified, it was said. Inevitably, the focus was on creating a new database.

The second hypothesis is linked to the evolution of the social base of the IAS. The IAS is today much more representative of the social realities of India. But does succeeding, come hell or high water, influence perceptions of what it takes to “escape poverty”? And does it shape perceptions of well-being? After all, the IAS exam is designed to identify the crème de la crème. For those who do, does success lend itself to a belief system that privileges individual ability and entrepreneurship beyond the limits set by structural inequality, which underpins the logic of the state? -providence? And is this one of the reasons why “growth” and “well-being” are positioned as trade-offs?

I offer these hypotheses not as definitive conclusions, but as provocations to better understand why the welfare state systematically fails. Bureaucracy, as political scientist James Wilson argued in his classic study of American bureaucracy, is not a black box. Rather, bureaucratic behavior is shaped by the belief systems, attitudes, and professional standards of the individuals who populate the system. Yet our debates on civil service and welfare reforms rarely address this topic. Much of the reform debate focuses on technical skill sets, technology, better monitoring and performance incentives. But no reform can succeed if those responsible for providing welfare simply do not believe in it. The Indian state urgently needs new frameworks to address norms, values ​​and build a collective sense of purpose. Reforming the welfare state will first require bureaucrats to start believing in welfare. Only then can he find the right algorithm.

Yamini Aiyar is President and CEO of the Center for Policy Research Opinions expressed are personal

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