Civil service morale — a Jacobin tragedy

Dear Prime Minister,

I went through your speech on the occasion of Civil Services Day on April 21 this year. The recent rash of arrests of senior civil servants in states like Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh has certainly caused disquiet in the civil services. The merits of the charges against them in cases ranging from Adarsh to Emaar and the NRHM will be decided in the appropriate judicial forum. What causes greater concern is the failure to address the root causes of what I can only term as a growing tragedy. Tragedy not because of what it portends for individual civil servants but because of its implications for the health of the administrative system and the country as a whole.

There were three issues you touched on in your speech: neutrality, system and process change and bold decision-making (with no witch hunting for bona fide mistakes). Let me start with neutrality. Successive political leaderships at both the central and state levels have, over the past thirty years, diluted this concept almost to the point of no return. While proximity of the bureaucracy to the powers that be has always, to some extent, promoted individual advancement, the wholesale dominance of the political element in postings has sent a very strong message to the bureaucracy. Can we deny that postings even in the Government of India are very largely dependent on the fancies of individual Ministers? Gone are the days when a powerful Establishment Officer would send a panel of names to the Ministry, which could only accept one name or reject all of them and send them for reconsideration. Today, it is no secret that a word from the Minister decides the posting in a Ministry at the centre. The less said about the state governments, the better. The concept of a “committed bureaucracy” (first touted in the 1970s) is the norm in all states, give or take some honourable exceptions. If we really want neutrality, we should seriously implement the concept of Civil Service Boards in both the centre and states (with representation from outside the bureaucracy as well) so that postings are made on merit and suitability and not on political proximity.

System and process change is another area where there has been more talk and superficial action rather than any desire for deep-rooted reform. We still have extremely centralised (hence, discretionary) systems of procurement for items from supplementary nutrition under ICDS to arms purchases for the defence forces. Apart from some tinkering with e-tendering and the like, there has been no attempt to delegate procurement to different levels to check the temptation of centralised corruption. Moving to computerised systems, especially in areas of public interface, has been halting and disjointed, dependent more on flashes of individual brilliance and dedication. To give an example, the Bhoomi initiative in Karnataka is yet to be replicated on a national scale. Vested interests in different departments work against the implementation of such system-transforming changes. Our penchant for ascribing deeper motives to any effort is being manifested once again in the UID, where expert views are being trotted out to defend privacy and raise security concerns. We are in danger of letting the “best become the enemy of the good!” Thank God we were able to withstand the criticism of EVMs, which (as anyone who has participated in the election process will affirm) has, along with electoral ID cards (another system reform), greatly reduced the scope for booth capturing and bogus voting.

Of greatest concern is the pattern of politician and bureaucrat-chasing that we are seeing over the past two years. A PIL or a CAG report is used to conduct a trial by media, where guilt is proclaimed even before all facts and the legal position have been examined and before judicial or political processes have worked themselves out. A period of pre-trial incarceration in jail seems to have become the norm, even where the accused is unlikely to evade investigation or tamper with witnesses. The tortuous course of police (or CBI) investigations and subsequent judicial processes guarantee at least a decade or two of court attendance for a bureaucrat implicated in any such case. It would be in the interests of both the system and honest bureaucrats if all such cases were brought to a closure within a time frame of two to three years. The system would benefit by cleansing the Aegean stables of corrupt elements and the honest bureaucrat would be reassured that even if s (he) is charged in any case, s (he) would get justice fairly quickly. In the Adarsh case, the charge sheet has been filed well over a year after investigation started. The Kerala palmolein case has dragged on for over eighteen years with no hint of closure. In the 2G case, even a decision taken ten years ago has been made a ground for launching investigation against a former Telecom Secretary. Contrast this with the speed of the investigation and judicial process in the insider trading scandal in the USA! In such a scenario, no bureaucrat will go in for any decision (leave alone a bold decision).

In some ways, the situation is reminiscent of the period of Jacobin Terror in France after the French Revolution, with the bureaucrat in the place of the French nobility. A lynch mob mentality (with pre-judged guilt) seems to have become the social norm in recent times. It is not the corrupt bureaucrat who will suffer in such a situation. The honest bureaucrat, who lives only on his reputation, and does not have the resources to fight a protracted legal battle, will be the victim. The consequences are obvious: decision making will slow down at a time when the challenges confronting the country are growing at an alarming pace. Mr. Prime Minister, unless we address the basic causes of the current malaise, we are condemning ourselves to a period of continued ineffectual governance. The real sufferers will not be the bureaucrats: as in the case of post-Revolution France, it will be the people (in this case) of India.

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