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Saturday, November 29, 2003

Recently, a media report quoted the Karnataka Chief Minister, S M Krishna saying, “I don’t have the power to punish corrupt civil servants” and making a case for amending the Constitution to enable state governments to act against erring civil servants.

 I was both elated and distressed. Elated as, the chief minister of a progressive state saw the morass we are stuck in and is seeking sensible solutions. Distressed because the union and most state governments’ track record doesn’t augur well for such an initiative. In fact, the Union Government’s recent legislation giving the CVC statutory status is clearly antithetical.

 The “Single Directive”(SD) policy which earlier made it mandatory for the CBI to seek prior permission of the government to prosecute senior civil servants is given a firmer footing by incorporating it in the new legislation.  This was done contrary to the earlier Supreme Court (SC) ruling that the SD is illegal as it is discriminatory in nature and blurs the distinction between decision-making officers and other civil servants. The SC again sought the government’s explanation for retaining the provision in the CVC Act.


 The notion of protecting civil servants from consequences of any untoward official decisions was originally intended to protect honest and upright bureaucrats from harassment. Such a policy was premised on the need to nurture an impartial, upright and independent civil service as crucial component of our democracy. However, Art 311 of the Constitution regulating the dismissal and removal of civil servants has been grossly abused over the past five decades and is being routinely interpreted as the civil servants' guarantee of tenure and protection from prosecution.

Defending the inclusion of the SD in the CVC Bill, the Union Minister for Law, Arun Jaitley, argued that this enabled bureaucrats to exercise their discretion without fear of harassment by malicious investigations. This is exactly the argument that bureaucrats employ to defend the Directive which they portray as a necessary protection against an investigating agency more than capable of misusing its powers.

It is common knowledge that AP government has been sitting tight on files seeking permission to prosecute scores of civil servants for alleged corruption and other misdeeds. Due to both collusive and other factors, the civil services are largely perceived to be above law. This has created an aura of invincibility among the bureaucrats leading to an utter lack of accountability in their functioning at all levels. The governments and courts have made it impossible to remove an officer resulting in highly unprofessional and unaccountable behaviour.

It is indeed a startling admission by the civil servants and politicians that crime investigation agencies can be manipulated to settle scores with political opponents. That being the case, what faith can citizens have in the crime investigation and governance process? The solution lies in separating the crime investigation process from political control and placing it under quasi-judicial control.

Needless to say, a competent, dedicated, non-partisan and accountable civil service is vital to our governance system. It is in our best interests that such a bureaucracy is in place and the requisite systems and instruments to hold them accountable are adopted. Only then would competent and honest governance be ensured. Anything short of it will only confirm the lordly civil servant's belief in his being above law, without any will to mend his ways. There are no holy cows in our democracy except freedom, citizen sovereignty and rule of law.

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