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Tracking India’s Bureaucrats Becomes a Digital Dashboard Venture

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NEW DELHI — Beware, o lollygagging Indian bureaucrats. If it was not already apparent that Prime Minister Narendra Modi would display a schoolmaster’s intolerance for laxity, the recent introduction of an electronic monitoring system — capable of registering the daily entry and exit times of 100,000 government officials — has made the situation abundantly clear.

The system, accessible to the public on the website, began working in early October, providing a digital dashboard that so far displays the comings and goings of more than 50,600 employees spread across 150 departments.

Ellen Barry contributed reporting.

Voters approached last week expressed full-throated approval of the planned surveillance.

“My own uncle is a government servant and we see him go into the office at 11 and so on,” said Shubham Tiwari, 20, a graduate student. “What kind of work will they do when there is not one iota of self-discipline? As it is, all the babus do is pass on files,” he added, using a colloquial term for bureaucrats. “At least they should do that with punctuality.”

Vridhi Kapani, 21, an interior designer, complained that every time she visited a bank or government office, “we mostly find babus out for tea breaks or some other.” She called the notion of GPS surveillance “fabulous,” and complained only that it was too limited, recommending that political figures should also be tracked on hidden cameras, “to see how they are bribing people for votes.”

The new system requires government employees to register their presence at the entrance to their offices using a biometric scan of a fingerprint or iris. As the system went live, some longtime civil servants acknowledged to Indian news organizations the practice of “proxy attendance,” in which employees would fail to show up for long stretches but, with colleagues’ assistance, register as present in the department’s attendance diary.

There were also some voices of caution. Pratap Bhanu Mehta, a respected political analyst, wrote that biometric tracking of government employees might turn out to be counterproductive, establishing a system that “would probably produce more gaming of the system than genuine performance.”

“It is a mistake to think that discipline can replace the need for trust,” he wrote. “At most, it displaces trust. But the harm it produces is to create a culture of suspicion, where distrust becomes the norm.”

But Mr. Mehta’s warning was clearly not fully convincing to all the readers of the daily Indian Express newspaper, a number of whom posted incredulous online comments in response, lustily endorsing the surveillance plan. “Sir, Have you been to a Government office before?” one of them read. “If you have dealt with the same, I’m sure you’ll have a diametrically opposite view on this matter.”