Who will protect the honest bureaucrat? (Comment, Special to IANS)

If I was asked for a bribe by a government functionary, I would see red. My first reaction would be to have the culprit arrested and punished. However, this may not necessarily ensure that the next time I seek the same service, I will not be harassed again.

Also, I am not sure whether this approach can be adopted for suspected malafide in policy making and implementation. Should we guillotine every bureaucrat by using the same yardstick merely on suspicion? Is it possible that there such a thing as an Aam bureaucrat? Could it be that she/he is at least as deserving as us of a fair trial and protection from wrongful prosecution, if not as law abiding and honourable as we think we are?

Ever since Anna Hazare’s movement brought the Lokpal bill (soon to be law) into focus, an impression has been created that stronger and more autonomous vigilance and investigation organisations and fewer safeguards for bureaucrats can solve all India’s corruption related problems. As another stalwart of this movement assumes an important office, the public is ever hopeful for relief from bureaucratic corruption. However, if we are to achieve that objective, it is also time to awaken to a few ground realities apart from the romantic notion of policing errant babus.

We need to ask ourselves whether we can do without intelligent and dynamic bureaucratic decision making. Even the gentlemen leading the much talked about present political revolution in India, is on the look-out for this variety of bureaucrat. Would we like a bureaucrat to be as decisive as the CEO of a private firm even if public good rather than corporate profit is the goal? Would the latter be able to function at the risk of being vulnerable to damaging accusations and probes for well-meaning and well documented decision making and everyday actions (which could possibly be interpreted as falling foul of procedural rules)? Could the rampant corruption of petty officials and the cynicism of the affected public be exploited by the corrupt themselves and end up strengthening the hands of those who play the system? Are the personnel manning the organisations we seek greater autonomy for guaranteed to be beyond corruption and human frailties?

I can cite at least a dozen examples of areas where a positive change has taken place by making the system itself corruption proof and a hundred more where the same change needs to be effected. One can keep chasing thieves and corrupt officials and hope to bring them to book but a significant and long lasting change that improves the everyday lives of citizens necessarily requires positive transformations in the processes of government-citizen interface. This means reforms that ensure transparency, plug loopholes, remove unnecessary bureaucratic discretion and empower the citizen. Many of these require electronic or mobile governance as facilitators.

Once these are in place, effective complaint and redress mechanisms coupled with prompt and exemplary punishment would be the sufficient condition to prevent corrupt practices and harassment. The latter should also include the supply side of corruption by way of impatient citizens who try to beat queues and rules integral to the system.

Similarly, regulatory reforms are needed to prevent the larger issues of government scams such as the telecom spectrum or coal block doleouts. Very simply, mandating proper socio-economic analysis and competition audit of policies and major policy decisions and the need to place these in the public domain along with transparent implementation systems, such as bidding or auctions, would help ensure public interest and scrutiny and curb crony capitalism. More of government decision making processes and outcomes should be voluntarily placed on departmental websites obviating the need for RTI applications and encouraging probity at the same time.

Another very important issue that the public at large may not easily appreciate is that the very same bureaucrats whom they perceive to be corrupt also man CVC and CBI and will man the Lokpal. It cannot be assumed that the minute a bureaucrat is posted to these organisations she/he becomes perfectly honest even if she/he dons a mantle of honesty and can now stand on judgement with respect to actions of others. Is the public aware of how often complaints to CVC, prolonged enquiries and CBI cases thereof are used to harass honest bureaucrats who stand in the way of corrupt politicians and bureaucrats?

We read newspaper reports about CBI cases against M.Ps from the opposition and assume cynically that these are arm twisting tactics. However though they do not make it to national news, there are numerous instances of honest civil servants being harassed by unscrupulous elements, including colleagues who use NGOs and politicians to lodge complaint with the CVC. The existing procedures are vague enough to ensure that the CVC enjoys plenty of discretion to admit and act on complaints and is not bound by any sort of legal rigour in deciding whether a complaint would merit preliminary or further investigation. This can be misused by vested interests.

Many cases involve no personal gratification or pecuniary gain and their main beneficiaries are none other than the aam admi. The level of discretion that exists in these CVC decisions is unwarranted and itself a potential source of corruption unless checked by laws and greater accountabilty. Neither is there a legally binding requirement to complete the enquiry process with a specific time frame. This can do irreparable damage to the victim’s career. The honest bureaucrats who man posts in these organisations need also to be empowered to make correct decisions rather than go with the flow and be safe by allowing underserving enquiries to be prolonged for fear of sticking their necks out. A more legally bound functioning of vigilance organisations is the order of the day.

It would be obvious that the more honest a civil servant is, the more sensitive would she/he be to such an enquiry being conducted against her/him as reputations are at stake, apart from careers. Even an upstanding and courageous bureaucrat would shudder to take decisions if these may later be brought under scrutiny, thanks to such lax vigilance procedures which expose her/him to deliberate attempts to harass or settle scores. She/he would also understand the consequences of antagonising troublemakers within the system who are known to resort to such unethical pressure tactics. She/he may be discouraged from attempting the approval and implementation of the very projects that bring about systemic reforms for fear of faulting on procedures aware of scoundrels with vested waiting to misinterpret every well intentioned action.

While the astute ‘whistle blower’ would be guaranteed protection in the current environment the well-intentioned Aam bureaucrat who does not enjoy political patronage or access to the the upper echelons of the bureaucracy is most likely to be harassed and fear harassment in such a system. She/he is the one the aam admi should think about. Can we ever define policy implementation so rigidly that there is no room for flexibility or should we be required to look beyond processes at the integrity of the underlying intent and significance of outcomes? Needless to say this does not bode well for governance. Such lacunae are the making of an ultraconservative and apathetic bureaucracy which would prefer not to use their wisdom but would seek safety in precedents and procedures.

There is a pressing need to reform the vigilance and investigative organizations from within. They must be made accountable for their decisions too. They should be bound by laws that limit discretion, ensure fair enquiry and their functionaries should be severely punished for misuse of official position. If a case that should not have been investigated beyond the prima facie stage is pursued; if a case that does not involve criminality is referred to the CBI; if an enquiry is prolonged beyond a point on illegitimate grounds; if ulterior motives are involved, the concerned officials should be brought to book swiftly and this is not easy unless we revamp their own rules and processes and look into the quality of manpower of these organisations.

It is important to consider that the vigilance officer should himself understand the process of policy making and programme implementation rather than just looking at the processes in isolation. She/he should be able to understand the context of a particular decision and give due credit to transparency/authenticity of a decision making process. Further she/he should be able to interpret the presence or absence of mens rea if a bureaucratic decision leads to an unexpected outcome or flouts some inconsequential rule. This is not possible if she/he has not worked in such areas. Further, the integrity and orientation of these officers needs a thorough background check. Non-performers and power hungry bureaucrats would certainly be attracted to misuse such positions, so how sound is the recruitment process of these organisations?

Are the best officers opting to be posted to them if not, why not? These are questions that the public at large may not consider as significant; yet they are extremely important if the country is to rescue itself from the governance slump it has found itself in.

(12-01-2014-The writer, being a civil servant herself, preferred to remain anonymous as service rules did not allow her to air her views in public. The views expressed are personal. She can be contacted at absarkar_47@yahoo.in )

– Indo-Asian News Service

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