Why govt should expand its sarkari papers beyond printed words
India’s vast trove of sarkari papers — circulars, surveys, office memoranda and reports — are still written in the most convoluted manner and abstruse jargon.
“Remember Shruti Kakkar from the movie ‘Band Baaja Baaraat’ where she says the famous dialogue, ‘Main India ki best wedding planner banungi’? As the adjoining map from chapter 2 of the Economic Survey shows, such Shruti Kakkars are mushrooming all over India. And, in fact, all are helping India significantly by contributing to economic growth in the districts where they work. Using data from over 500 districts in India from 2006 to 2019, this chapter shows that a 10 per cent increase in new firms in a district increases the district GDP by 1.8 per cent.”
This is a rough transcription of a section of a 2-minute video released after the tabling of the 2019-20 Economic Survey in Parliament in January 2020. Sporting a dark blue suit with a yellow tie, the then chief economic adviser (CEA) KV Subramanian explained in the video the gist of a chapter on entrepreneurship and wealth creation. During the last three years, he and his team in the North Block made chapter-wise video explainers of the Survey, bringing in analogies from Bollywood, cricket and everyday life to illustrate intricate macroeconomic theories and jargons. In the Survey’s print versions, too, he placed multiple hashtags and experimented at times with non-sarkari headlines, such as “JAY Ho” to explain the health ministry’s flagship programme, Jan Arogya Yojana (JAY), in Volume 1 of the 2020-21 Survey.
“I rarely use jargon without telling what it is,” Subramanian told ET, days before his three-year term as CEA ended on December 17. He is returning to academics, as professor, finance, at ISB Hyderabad. “Simplicity is elegant and it comes from absolute clarity. You say things in a complex manner when you don’t understand something well,” he added.
While the last three economic surveys broke free in some ways from the straitjacket of GoI’s method of presenting facts by bringing in cricket and Bollywood analogies, India’s vast trove of sarkari papers — circulars, surveys, office memoranda and reports — are still written in the most convoluted manner and abstruse jargon. Even replies to parliament questions often read as if those are meant to hide facts instead of disclosing them.
Three serving officials whom ET have spoken to say something similar — most government papers are complex and are at times incomprehensible because they are loaded with rules and legal provisions. Back in 2011, GoI prepared a handbook on how to write conceptually clear and lucid cabinet notes. In fact, cabinet notes are considered the fulcrum of good policymaking, it helps in evaluating existing schemes and projects and facilitates decision-making. A series of workshops were then conducted to train officers in good writing skills. The handbook advises: “The language of the notes for the Cabinet/Committees of the Cabinet should be clear, concise and incapable of misconstruction. Style of presentation is as important as the content of the notes.”
“Many documents deal with law, which necessarily will seem arcane because law has to be worded very precisely. Circulars and instructions are also not difficult to understand even though too many directions by diverse authorities, as in the case of the pandemic, can be confusing”
— KM Chandrasekhar Ex-Cabinet Secy
Officers were told, one, to avoid verbosity and, two, to use short sentences and correct spelling and grammar. “Foreign or classical words and expressions should be avoided as far as possible,” the handbook added. Fast forward to 2020. Amid the national lockdown imposed to curb the spread of Covid-19, when migrant workers walked hundreds of kilometres to reach home, an order issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), dated May 3, went viral on social media. It was the Centre directing states and Union territories to facilitate the movement of distressed citizens, including migrant workers, pilgrims and tourists, but its stone-cold and confusing language provoked the ire of netizens.
Part of the order is as follows: “It is clarified that the MHA orders are meant to facilitate movement of such stranded persons, who had moved from their native places/workplaces, just before the lockdown period, but could not return to their native places/workplaces on account of restrictions placed on movement of persons and vehicles as part of lockdown measures. The facilitation envisaged in the aforesaid orders is meant for such distressed persons, but does not extend to those category of persons who are otherwise residing normally at places, other than the native places for purposes of work etc., and who wish to visit their native places in normal course.”
Rather than clarifying matters, such notes, unless read repeatedly and understood, can often add to the confusion.
Former cabinet secretary, KM Chandrasekhar, seeks to distinguish documents dealing with law from press releases, reports, etc. “Many documents deal with law, which necessarily will seem arcane because law has to be worded very precisely,” he says.
But does that mean a circular has to be written in a convoluted manner as was done by the MHA in the example cited above? “Circulars and instructions are also not difficult to understand even though too many directions by diverse authorities, as in the case of the pandemic, can be confusing,” the former cabinet secretary adds. He further says there are also extreme cases of arcane law, as in the case of income tax codes, which are riddled with provisos and explanations to provisos. Such a situation usually arises because there have been multiple amendments to such a law.
“Officers often prepare answers to parliament questions in such a manner that the replies won’t tell any lie, yet in most cases, won’t tell the entire truth either. What is kept in mind is that the reply must not haunt the government later””
— Ajay Dua Former Union Industry Secy
Another ex-bureaucrat, former industry secretary Ajay Dua, argues that some writings could be outsourced to writers, provided the government’s confidentiality is well protected. He adds that bureaucrats at times deliberately make writings complex and confusing. “Officers often prepare answers to parliament questions in such a manner that the replies won’t tell any lie, yet in most cases, won’t tell the entire truth either. What is kept in mind is that the reply must not haunt the government later,” he says. Dua also advocates that some of the circulars that are meant for the public should go through the information and broadcasting (I&B) ministry.
The I&B ministry has officers belonging to the Indian Information Service, a Group A service. As they are assigned to handle the government’s communication strategies, they are supposed to be proficient in writing too. But with newer forms of communication channels, including social media, gaining currency, it is only logical that the government will have to expand its reports and surveys beyond printed words and create add-ons in audio-visual formats.
Anuj Dayal, an executive director in Delhi Metro Rail Corporation, who has been handling its communication since 1998, says both formats of communication — traditional and technology-driven — will continue for some time, but communicating in a simple language will remain effective in all formats.
Using simple language in government circulars and notifications has one more advantage — it saves money. A commerce ministry officer says spotting accurate customs duties for a product from a maze of notifications is a humongous task for many businesses.
Small firms often end up shelling out extra money to engage experts just to decipher the duty rates. Ease of business will remain half-baked unless GoI champions ease of writing too.