Bureaucracy, specifically All India Services, is in the news again, thanks to the Supreme Court order seeking to insulate it from the political executive. It is being flogged for all the unjust and unfair reasons. A young woman 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, the 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 said that the state could do better without All India Services.
The latest FIR in coalgate scam involving the then coal secretary P C 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 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 the mainstream media. Such retired officers facing charges are compelled to engage defence attorney who may charge Rs 1lakh-Rs 2 lakh per appearance. The justice in most of the cases is rendered after long trials. 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, 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 outfit. The interpretation of public interest is often subjective. In today’s scenario, public servants take a decision for development and growth. The 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 the private sector.
It is also possible to interpret that unutilised spectrum is a greater loss in terms of revenue. 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. Despite repeated recommendations of various committees, the provision in the Prevention of Corruption Act is yet to be omitted. The prime minister promised to put in place a system and create an environment where civil servants are encouraged to be decisive. He also promised to protect honest and well-meaning civil servants. Unfortunately, there is a huge gap between promise and 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 growth targets points to poor governance. While major reforms in civil service may not be a feasible proposition due to lack of consensus at the political level, a minimal agenda of reform should not be out of bounds.
It is not denied 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.
Over 600 committees and commissions, according to the 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 politicised transfers and assure officers a certain security of tenure and demand accountability. There are states where the district magistrates and SPs 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 demoralised. Knowledge and expertise gained during a short stint is wasted. There is a huge financial burden both on the state and the officer.
It is common knowledge that states with administrative instability find officers keeping two establishments — one for the work station and the other for the family. Its negative impact on efficiency is self-evident. The conference of chief ministers has passed resolutions for the constitution of civil service boards to depoliticise the so-called transfer/posting industry. Unfortunately, these have remained on paper and no one has questioned the gross political interference in transfer/posting and also in disciplinary matters. A Civil Service Board properly constituted could be entrusted with the task of managing personnel and advising the chief minister on administrative matters. It is important that all premature 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. There should be a blanket ban on any communication that has not been formally recorded. Even urgent communications not conveyed in writing should be referred for early confirmation. Once implemented, the above suggestions would positively contribute to the quality of delivery and execution of policies and programmes and overall, ensure efficiency and transparency in governance.
N. Misra is ex-chairman,TRAI and director, Public Interest Foundation;
Email: director@public interestfoundation.com