What explains the successes and failings of India’s bureaucracy

Hearing it from Horse’s mouth. Gulzar Natarajan, an IAS officer (and a terrific blogger) has a piece on Indian Bureaucracy:

The Indian states’ struggles with getting stuff done are well documented. Even when programs are apparently well designed, they generally stumble at implementation. This implementation deficit has become a reflection of weak state capability.

This malaise afflicts government agencies at all levels and across states in varying degrees. It is as much applicable to service delivery with welfare programs as it is to the large-scale regulatory failures and resultant corruption scandals that dominate headline news.   

So how it is that Indian bureaucracy delivers spectacularly with programs like Pulse Polio, elections, and Kumbh Mela? What explains the handful of outstanding examples of successes with improving maternal and child health outcomes, or women’s empowerment, or increasing access to sanitation that occasionally come from various corners of India? There are two possible answers.  

One, and relevant to the first question, is that our state is exceptional at doing things that have short duration and clearly defined destination. A common thread that goes through all these activities is meticulous planning which maps functionaries to task and time, simple and clearly defined monitoring goals, rigorous supervision, and insulation from political influence. This is generally achieved through a massive mobilization of the entire local administration, often augmented with external manpower. It helps that the short duration of these activities allows for such cross-departmental mobilization. All this is underpinned by a strong political and bureaucratic commitment at the highest levels to achieve the objective. 

The success with these activities stand in stark contrast to the egregious failure with implementation of regular government programs in the same area by the same personnel. It shines light on the sources of their implementation failure. An apolitical, adequately staffed and appropriately trained bureaucracy, when monitored rigorously gets things done. It is no surprise that all these ingredients are deficient in regular administration of government programs.  

The other examples of success are, most often, a result of individual initiative. A few fiercely committed officers bring great passion and effort into planning and implementing programs. Their energy and leadership masks the chronic deficiencies in state capability and results in the positive deviance.


A bureaucracy is an impersonal rules-based organization of a group of people who work together to achieve certain defined outcomes. Bureaucracies therefore have to work on their systemic strengths rather than the personal initiative of individual bureaucrats. A capable bureaucracy is one which delivers outcomes when administered by the average bureaucrat, rather than being reliant on the serendipitous presence of an exceptional bureaucrat. The typical Indian bureaucracy, at all levels, is most likely to end up short on this test.   

Powerful words indeed. There is a reason why most programs eventually fail after showing some initial positives.

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