India’s prime minister reins in bureaucrats

Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India, in office less than 100 days, has a reputation for cracking down on officials.
Mukesh Gupta/REUTERS
Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India, in office less than 100 days, has a reputation for cracking down on officials.

NEW DELHI — On one recent day in one of India’s many government offices, the elevator was broken, stacks of files gathered dust, and potted plants drooped in the heat. Worse, when the new boss showed up for an impromptu inspection at 9 a.m., he found rows of empty desks. Dozens of his employees had not shown up on time.

‘‘There were no people in their offices,’’ said the newly appointed minister, Prakash Javadekar, sounding pained. ‘‘They must come on time and they must work. This whole government mind-set needs to be changed.’’

India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, has not been in office for even 100 days. But he arrived in the capital with more than a dozen years experience as a state leader who governed with control and knew how to get work out of India’s famously inefficient bureaucrats, known as ‘‘babus.’’ (Woe to the citizen whose government file is ‘‘lost in Babudom,’’ they say. It may never be recovered.)


Babudom is now in peril. Modi signaled as much in the early days of his administration, when he summoned about 70 of the government’s top civil servants, gave them his cellphone number and e-mail address, and said it was time for work. A circular appeared the next day with what has been called Modi’s ‘‘11 Commandments’’ — orders to clean work spaces, shorten forms, weed out old files, and review goals.

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The cleanup has already begun. Workers have been throwing out broken furniture and equipment and mounds of paperwork that accumulated during the previous administration’s decade in power, during which time India’s inefficient and corrupt bureaucracy became a symbol of the country’s stalled progress.

When the home ministry cleaned its cabinets of 150,000 files recently, the Times of India reported, they unearthed historic documents dating to the British Raj.

Modi has gotten into the act by performing spot checks himself and calling ministers on their land lines to see whether they are at their desks.

The prime minister’s habit of working long hours — he’s up at 5:30 most mornings for yoga and works far into the evening — has meant his underlings are working 18-hour days, too. And Saturdays. (Many government employees are now expected to come in on Saturdays.)