Garbage In, Garbage Stays

There is a lot of breast-beating over the disposal of 150,000  government files on PM Modi’s order. Alleged historians and self-styled history-buffs are outraged. Siddarth Varadarajan (of Gujarat crusades fame) called it “vandalism”. Even some Modi-voting Twitterati are upset.

The facts of the matter are as follows.

Like in any government office in India where large, decaying piles of paper get stacked up one over another without ever disappearing, a  large number of files accumulated over the years in the offices of North Block. They apparently spilled over into hallways and balconies. Newly sworn-in Prime Minister Modi, given his fetish for cleanliness, was appalled. He knew, like any good  people manager with or without reading his Maslow knows, that a pleasant working environment is an essential “hygiene factor” in employee motivation.  So he ordered the clutter to be cleared.

What sort of files were ordered to be destroyed? Every file, indiscriminately? Does government policy permit indiscriminate shredding in the first place? The detail is sketchy. Times of India, whose report is most widely quoted on the subject, offers no clue.   The New Indian Express’s story is slightly better, giving us a brief overview of MHA’s record archival and disposal policy, which is as under.

Category A Files: “General” documents. “Preserved” for one year.

Category B Files: “Important Decisions”. “On record” for 5 to 10 years.

Category C Files: “Most Important”. “Reviewed” every 25 years.  Material deemed in this review to be of “historical importance” is retained and sent to National Archives.

Clearly, the policy allows for retiring documents. A category-A file can be destroyed one year after closure, a Cat-B after 10, and a Cat-C after 25 years (with caveats). Destroying them earlier than their prescribed period of storage, (and additionally, in the case of Cat-C, not assessing historical importance), would be a policy violation. Nothing in press reports suggests that this violation happened.  In fact, NIE report adds: “Files of historical value will be sent to the National Archive as per procedure,” an official said.”  The Mountbatten TA Bill is illustrative:  it was found in a Cat-C file.

So what’s the ruckus about? If a document ended up in A or B category, it was already judged to be historically worthless. If it is in C, a babu will, presumably based on some criteria, take a decision if it should be archived.

There is a mindset issue here — the mindset not only of the rulers but also of the ruled. Policy paralysis happened in the UPA government’s later years because everybody, including bureaucrats, were unwilling to take decisions. The government was mired in scams and controversies because of vested interests driving decision-making. It put paid even to decisions that would be in national interest. I believe that junk accumulates government in offices partly for more or less the same reason, laziness not being the only one. Even though policy allows for disposal of expired documents, no official wants to stick his neck out and order shredding: What if some future court enquiry calls for an old file, the absence of which then may land the officer who ordered it be destroyed in controversy? “Let sleeping docs lie” (pun intended) is the idea.

If that’s the rulers’ mindset, the ruled have an attitude issue. Some of us believe (just the way NGOs do) that we have a veto on every minor decision of the government, especially if it happens to be a BJP government.

Modi did what he is admired for:  took a decision swiftly.  A few days earlier, in an interaction with senior officers, he gave them his assurance that he would stand by their decisions.  In other words, he assured them that unlike his blue-turbaned predecessor he won’t pass the buck, so they need not fear the Damocles’ sword of a future controversy. But what he cannot get around having to contend with is the likes of  Shri Siddarth Varadarajan  (not to mention the expert criticism of his own supporters) who know that Modi cannot be trusted to know better on an issue as important as disposing off garbage.

(Update: MEA’s record archival policy is here. Thanks to Prasanna who pointed it out).

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About auldtimer

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