Columns Indian Scenario

Understanding bureaucracy

L S Shashidhara

One time a science teacher from the local city college came around and asked me if I’d give a talk there. He offered me fifty dollars, but I told him I wasn’t worried about the money. That’s the city college, right?” 


I thought about how much paperwork I usually had to get involved with when I deal with the government, so I laughed and said, I’ll be glad to give the talk. There’s only one condition on the whole thing” – I pulled a number out of a hat and continued – that I don’t have to sign my name more than thirteen times, and that includes the check!“

This is how starts an interesting anecdote in the life of famous physicist Richard Feynman and it ends thus,

Finally, it got straightened out. It took a long time, and it was very complicated – but I used the thirteenth signature to cash my check.

Every time, I hear complaints on Indian bureaucracy, I remember this Feynman’s story. Can we run any organization, however small or large, without any organizational set up? Isn’t any governance set up, by default, bureaucratic? Looks like bureaucracy is a necessary evil. Unfortunately, in all large organizations bureaucracy very soon becomes so complicated, no one can comprehend the meaning and purpose of most rules and regulations. They often look too strange, more often highly illogical and irrelevant and at times ridiculous. But, do these rules and regulations really hinder academic growth/​performance? Or are they just minor irritants? If former is true, how is then so many universities all over the world are doing so well? Even in India, how is that some institutes and Universities function much better than others?

My feeling is, while all institutions in India are equally bureaucratic, some individuals know the real meaning of the prevailing rules and regulations and make best use of them. If you look at the powers of governing body of any institute/​university, you notice a statement that the Governing body has the power to prescribe rules and regulations for the management and administration of the Institute/​University”. This means, we have” the power to make and to modify our rules. Typical role of the head of any organization is to exercise general supervision and control over the affairs of the Institute/​University and implement the decisions of all the authorities of the Institute/​University”. By law and by default, all Institute/​University depend on several committees to decide on a policy and implementation of the same. Then, how is that head of an Institute/​University can become a dictator?

One of the problems of Indian organizations, more than anywhere else in the world, is lack of wholehearted participation by most faculty in the deliberations and implementation of various policies/​rules related to their organization/​work/​professional life. Naturally, heads would depend on few willing people, who put in extra time and the powers soon be in the hands of a small bunch of people. These people, mainly because they put in enormous amount of time for administrative work, may also happen to be poor in their academic performance. Heads, being dependent on them, want to reward them for their help to the organization and often they are promoted at the cost of the promotion of those who have done well academically. The organization would be soon on a slippery slope.

What is the solution? I think solution mostly lies amongst us. Just compare your own set up/​institute/​university with the other such organization in India, which are better than yours. Ask the question why is that X institute or Y university is better than yours? They may not be as big as M or H or C of west. But they are better than yours. That is what matters most. In most cases, X institute or Y university is better because, there is faculty participation in decision making process.

All of us, who blame the system sitting in our offices and send caustic remarks over e‑mails should participate in decision making processes and contribute to all activities of the institute. Just because some wrong decisions are taken or heads have committed some mistake does not mean that they are all with vested interests. Giving up our participation in institutional affairs would only worsen the situation.

In complete contrast to this attitude, I found through a blog a new faculty in a new institute, who is very positive about functioning of various committees of the institute and about her/​his role in administrative matters of the institute. Wish more such kind of people work in this country and steer their organizations to perform better.