Bureaucracy: Thou Shall Not Speak

Bureaucracy, specifically All India Services, is in the news again.  It is being flogged for all the unjust and unfair reasons.  A young lady IAS officer of two years seniority was suspended in a northern state without proper inquiry only to be reinstated when baseless charges came in the public domain.  Fortunately, media took up the case and debated the implications of such an arbitrary action.  The actors in governance did not pause or were concerned to take stock of the impact it will have on the morale of junior civil servants.  The debate in media reached a crescendo when an important political leader stated that the State could do better without All India Services.  The latest FIR in coalgate scam involving the then Coal Secretary Mr. Parakh is alarming and painful because it raises the basic issue of advice and recommendatory role of civil servants.  Fortunately, the political master in this case has risen above the controversy to confirm the transparency, propriety and integrity of the decision. The letter sent to the then Cabinet Secretary in 2005 by Mr. Parakh highlights the political culture of trampling the system. The undercurrent message of this episode is being debated in many smaller groups in bureaucracy regarding the hazards of decision making.

The real story of retired civil servants facing investigation and charges has not been highlighted or explored by mainstream media.  Such retired officers facing charges are compelled to engage defence attorney who may charge Rs. 1-2 lakh per appearance.  The justice in most of these cases is rendered after a long trial period.  The unfortunate retired civil servant exhausts all his savings in protecting his image. There is lack of systemic mechanisms to screen the charges with reference to prevailing circumstances and the delivery expectations.

Of late, the officers are being subjected to a draconian provision, section 13(1)(d)(iii) of the Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988 for criminal misconduct.  It reads, “While holding office as a public servant, obtains for any person any valuable thing or pecuniary advantage without any public interest”.  Simply interpreted, it will invite prosecution if a decision results in pecuniary gain to any individual, corporate or any organization.  The interpretation of public interest is often ‘subjective’.  In today’s scenario, public servants take a decision for development and growth.  Private sector is invariably a partner in such endeavours.  It is difficult to imagine a decision which would not impact in terms of gain or loss to economic actors be it private, public or both.  There are any number of economic decisions which are made, reviewed, amended, depending on the circumstances and economic challenges.  Very recently, spectrum prices have been revised downward.  It could be argued that such a downward revision was too steep and helped private sector.  It is also possible to interpret that unutilized spectrum is a greater loss in terms of revenue to the country.  It also affects consumer satisfaction as the quality of service for want of adequate spectrum suffers.  This draconian provision can be applied with the benefit of hindsight without appreciating exigencies at the time of decision making.  In spite of repeated recommendations of various committees, this provision in the Prevention of Corruption Act is yet to be omitted.   Hon’ble Prime Minister promised to put in place a system and create an environment in which civil servants are encouraged to be decisive.  He further promised to protect honest and well meaning civil servants.  Unfortunately, there is a huge gap between the promise and the delivery.

The Second Administrative Reforms Commission has observed that “Governance is admittedly the weak link in our quest for prosperity and equity”.  The consistent end performance in achieving the growth targets points to poor governance.  While it may not be a feasible proposition to achieve major reforms in the civil service due to lack of consensus at the political level, a minimal agenda of reform in civil service should not be out of bounds.

It is not denied that there exists a ‘spoil’ system where transfers and postings have been described as an industry.  Political interference and pressure on civil servants has become cancerous.  More than 600 committees and commissions, according to Second Administrative Reforms Commission, have looked into different aspects of civil service reforms.  It is important to eliminate the ad-hoc and non-transparent transfers and postings which often reflect the whims and caprices of political functionaries.  There is a need to do away politicized transfers and assure officers a certain security of tenure and demand accountability.  There are States where the District Magistrates and Superintendents of Police have an average tenure of about six months.  The implications of such a decision are well-known; but little has been done to check the rot.  The transferred officer is demoralized.  Knowledge and expertise gained during short stint is wasted.    There is a huge financial burden both on the State as well as on the officer concerned.  It is common knowledge that the States with administrative instability find officers keeping two establishments – one for the work station and the other for the family.  Its negative impact on the efficiency is self-evident.  The conference of Chief Ministers has passed resolutions for the constitution of civil service boards to depoliticize the so called transfer/posting industry.  Unfortunately, these have remained on paper and no one has questioned the gross political interference in the transfer/posting and also in disciplinary matters.  A Civil Service Board properly constituted could be entrusted with the task of managing the personnel matters and advise the Chief Minister on administrative matters.  It is important that all pre-mature transfers should be accompanied with a detailed reasoned order so as to become a subject matter of scrutiny for legislature, media and civil society.  Normally, a civil servant should be given a fixed tenure of minimum three years to foster fair and objective decision along with accountability and performance.

In recent controversies, there have been references to different forms of communications including oral orders for compliance from superior to the junior. There should be a blanket ban on any communication which has not been formally recorded.  Even urgent communications not conveyed in writing should be referred for confirmation as early as possible. Once implemented, the above suggestions would positively contribute to the quality of delivery and implementation of policies and programmes and overall, ensure efficiency and transparency in governance.

By Nripendra Misra, former Chairman of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India & Director, Public Interest Foundation

(This article was published in Dainik Jagran on 31st Oct, 2013 and The New Indian Express on 5th Nov, 2013)