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Friday, 13 September 2013 00:00
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Sibal is right. Too many bureaucrats are happy to simply kick the can down the road.

One of the more damning indictments of bureaucratic decision-making has come from Telecom Minister Kapil Sibal. On Wednesday, he threatened to take away bureaucrats' powers in his ministry if they did not behave in a rational manner. Sibal was responding to a complaint by Bharti Airtel's CEO, who asked how the company could be fined Rs 650 crore for an alleged violation where, eight years ago, the company had a revenue of a mere Rs 8 lakh. Since the alleged violation took place across 13 telecom circles in which Bharti Airtel was operating, and the law allows a maximum penalty of Rs 50 crore per circle, telecom ministry bureaucrats chose the easy way out: just multiply the Rs 50 crore by 13 circles. If Bharti Airtel feels the fine is too high, their argument probably is, let it contest this in court. In other words, why should the bureaucrat impose a more reasonable fine, since there is always the possibility that someone — the CAG, CBI, or CVC — will level a collusion charge? While Sibal's solution is to transfer the powers of penalty to the telecom regulator, this is not a solution available in all ministries.

This episode, though, goes to the heart of the policy paralysis and the impression that the government is anti-industry. Take a look at the claims levelled by the taxman, and the success he has in enforcing them, to know how true this is. Direct tax arrears nearly doubled from Rs 2.5 lakh crore in 2010-11 to Rs 4.8 lakh crore in 2012-13. Yet, over 60 per cent of the appeals filed by the taxman were dismissed by various courts in 2011-12.

The kick-the-can syndrome, sadly, applies to almost every ministry. In the case of RIL's KG Basin gas, similarly, the issue of whether or not the company should be penalised for supposed shortfalls in gas production, even whether it is guilty of suppressing production till such time that prices rise, is surely something the petroleum ministry should be deciding upon. Yet, the matter is to be sent to the cabinet, so that a collective view can be taken. In something as technical as a new bidding document for the power sector, the matter was referred to the cabinet instead of the ministry's bureaucrats taking the decision. This is the bureaucracy's way to slow down decision-making. Sibal has realised this. His colleagues also need to figure it out.

 
 

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