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Saturday, August 10, 2002

The Civil Servants thought of themselves as Guardians, in the Platonic sense : “ All who are in any place of command in so far as they are indeed rulers, neither consider nor enjoin their own interest but that of the subjects on behalf of whom they exercise their craft….” (Republic)


Philip Woodruff : The Guardians


The history of the civil services in this country is replete with outstanding tales of courage, toil, sweat and blood. Great civil servants played a pivotal role in building a modern infrastructure from scratch, maintaining law and order and preserving the unity and integrity of the country. It is indeed a tragic fall for the services from such heights!

Recently, in a rare journalistic scoop, a list of civil servants who were under investigation for corrupt practices by the Anti Corruption Bureau (ACB) was made public by the media. It seems that this list was forwarded to the government seeking permission for prosecution some three years ago and nothing has happened– it does make one wonder about the true motives behind the government’s inaction! Most people were commenting that the list is very small and doesn’t include the real big fish. The truth is there are honest and decent civil servants who are sometimes wrongly implicated in such cases, and several corrupt ones who escape the net.

It would be worthwhile to examine two fundamental underlying issues here – corruption in civil services and political interference in the crime investigation process.

One of the key features marking the degeneration of the Indian state is that all governance is reduced to patronage, and transfers and postings of bureaucrats. As Robert Wade pointed out, there is a well-developed market for public office in India.  Money habitually changes hands for placement and continuity of public servants at various levels.  These public servants in turn have to collect 'rent' from the public.  The hafta paid to a policeman, the mamool charged by the excise official, the bribe collected by the revenue functionary or the corruption of a transport officer are all part of a well-integrated, well-organised structure.

On top of this, there is absolutely no accountability from civil servants. The governments and courts of the day have made it virtually impossible to remove an officer. As a result they have not only become unaccountable but also highly unprofessional.

The Anti Corruption Bureau’s (ACB) powers are limited, procedures are slow and levels of probity are unsatisfactory. The State government has to approve prosecution and take disciplinary action. Very often political considerations and bureaucratic apathy make it impossible to either launch prosecution or act against erring employees.

In case of All-India Services (IAS, IPS & Indian Forest Service), the ACB cannot start an enquiry or investigation without prior permission of the chief minister.   In most of the cases a trap cannot be laid without the government’s approval.  Similarly heads of the departments cannot be investigated without prior government approval.  All these make ACB ineffective and totally dependent on government. There is a directive to the CBI stipulating that they have to seek the prior permission of the government for initiating prosecution against any civil servant above the rank of joint secretary. Luckily this directive was made inoperative by the Supreme Court through a judgment in 1997. But the government is planning to roll back this judgment through a legislation!

Unless the ACB is made truly independent and autonomous, no amount of short term fixes will work. Political control of the crime investigation process has two consequences -  first, it leaves scope for favoritism and second, well meaning officials can be harassed by unscrupulous politicians, which is amply illustrated by the recent travails of the chairman of Vizag steel plant.

The pressing need of the hour is to make the bureaucracy truly accountable and separate the crime investigation process from political control. Only then will the citizen regain a level of confidence in the governance process. Until then, no matter how many times people reject a government or party, no matter how often they give vent to their anger and frustration through public protests, demonstrations, and at times violence, the real character of governance does not seem to change; the local public servant behaves in the same manner as always ¾ corrupt, greedy, arrogant and arbitrary.


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