NEW DELHI: The vast quadrangle at the centre of a sprawling complex of ministerial offices in Delhi has become a rubbish dump for broken furniture, discarded water coolers, broken air conditioners, abandoned telephones and large bags of discarded paper.
Nearby, two clerks from India’s ministry of women and child welfare wheel piles of brown, bedraggled office files on swivel chairs toward a waiting van bound for the central records office. Inside, another keys into a computer the details of several more files before they too are sent for storage.
On orders from the new prime minister, bureaucrats are busy clearing rooms, corridors and staircases of the rubbish accumulated by previous administrations over the last 67 years, especially useless paper files and broken furniture.
“All ministries are supposed to review and reorganise their offices every four years, but nobody bothered, and old files and broken furniture just piled up everywhere,” said a clerk.
“But now that Narendra Modi has ordered it, ministers and top officers do the rounds at 9am every day, personally supervising the cleanup and reorganisation drive.”
With his obsession for order and cleanliness, Modi has been able to energise bureaucrats to take ownership of their working space to make it more presentable — and potentially more productive. Like a stern housekeeper, he has roamed from floor to floor in government buildings, casting disapproving glances at the litter, the sloth and the lack of discipline. He found one office filled with cigarette smoke, despite “no smoking” signs everywhere. In another, he saw dirty tea cups lying around. “He just mentioned them and walked out, but it was enough for us to get the message,” a bureaucrat told a reporter.
Clean, well-ordered offices is not the only thing Modi is demanding from Delhi’s bureaucrats. He also wants them to come to work on time at 9am sharp, rely more on computers, abjure extended lunch and tea breaks to play cards in nearby parks or golf at the club, say no to foreign junkets, be more responsive to the public and resist political interference by ministers and MPs.
The new prime minister has made it clear to the top bureaucrats in government that if they have a good proposal that is blocked by their own minister, they can pitch it directly to him.
“The top, secretary-level officers are feeling empowered for the first time and are hoping Modi succeeds in putting the new system in place,” said Soma Chakravarthy, deputy editor of Bureaucracy Today.
After Modi ordered a clean-up, the home ministry discovered 150,000 unwanted files in its cupboards. One of these was from 1948, the year after Indian independence, and related to Lord Louis Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of British India. The document records the sanction of “Rs 64,000” as travel allowance to Mountbatten for his final return to Britain. The file went straight to the National Archives.