The Herculean task of governing India

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The cover of the Economist this week asks “What’s Holding India Back?” This account of the challenges facing governmental reform is one of the standout pieces, a character study of one of India’s elite public servants that conveys the Herculean nature of the task of running this country.

A four-year veteran of the elite Indian Administrative Service (IAS), Mr Samphel is the district magistrate of Jalaun, in Uttar Pradesh (UP) province. More often called the collector, or district officer, the district magistrate is the senior official of India’s key administrative unit, the district. In Jalaun, an expanse of arid plain between the Ganges and Yamuna rivers, Mr Samphel is in charge of 564 villages and 1.4m people.

[In his office], beneath a portrait of a beaming Mohandas Gandhi, Mr Samphel receives a stream of poor people. A turbaned flunkey regulates the flow, letting in a dozen at a time. Many are old and ragged, or blind. Paraplegics slither to the collector’s feet on broken limbs. Most bring a written plea, for the resumption of a widow’s pension that has mysteriously dried up; for money for an operation; for a tube-well or a blanket. Many bear complaints against corrupt officials. One supplicant wants permission to erect a statue of a dead politician: a former champion of the Hindu outcastes who comprise nearly half of Jalaun’s population.

Mr Samphel reckons he spends 60% of his time dealing with individual supplicants—also outside the collectorate. … Mr Samphel works 16 hours a day, seven days a week, and reckons he has had two days off since 2003. But this is hardly an efficient way to minister to a needy population almost half the size of New Zealand’s.

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