Autonomy is overrated

The CBI needs to be strengthened by reforms in recruitment,training and investigative techniques.

Written by Satyananda Mishra | Published: December 5, 2013 1:28 am

The CBI needs to be strengthened by reforms in recruitment,training and investigative techniques.

The Constitution and various statutes have created institutions like Parliament and state assemblies,Central and state governments,the

SC and high courts,Election Commission,CAG,CVC and CBI with clearly defined roles. Many of these are intended to oversee the functioning of government,especially the way it spends revenues and manages resources. Ordinarily,there should be no doubt about the scope of autonomy and independence such institutions should enjoy. This arrangement is also designed to create a healthy tension between the government and oversight institutions. How this tension is played out determines how well each of these institutions can function.

After the Supreme Court,the EC and CAG managed to secure a very independent and somewhat intimidating profile vis-à-vis the government,the CBI is attempting to secure a similar role for itself. Such desire for autonomy is very laudable,it may be even beneficial. However,as far as the government and many of these institutions are concerned,the complex web of relationships in which they work makes it impossible,or undesirable,for them to work in complete freedom from each other or under the oversight and control of only one institution,namely,the judiciary.

After the SC ruling in the Vineet Narain case,the CBI has been enjoying considerable freedom. The director and other senior officers are appointed and removed on the CVC’s advice. The director is appointed for a fixed term of two years,irrespective of his/ her date of retirement. Transfers and postings are entirely the director’s prerogative. The CBI is not required to consult the Central government at all about cases it is investigating.

The only area where the CBI is not free is in spending beyond its approved budget and in its decision to appeal against various judicial orders. It also needs,as per law,the government’s permission to investigate or prosecute certain classes of officers. Thus,it is clear there is no reason for the CBI director or officers to feel caged. In spite of this,if they continue to heed the Central government’s or ministers’ advice,it must be entirely of their own volition. There is nothing in the system that compels them to accede to any unlawful request from the government.

However,like most government departments,the CBI also suffers from a serious crisis of competence. Shortage of quality manpower has always been a serious problem. Since the CBI draws almost 100 per cent of its supervisory officers from the IPS,it never gets the full complement of officers at all levels. It is not sufficiently multidisciplinary and,with most supervisory officers from the IPS,it has a narrow orientation. These officers often have experience mostly in maintaining law and order and investigating ordinary cases,whereas the CBI is primarily meant to investigate economic offences,some very complex. At the crucial level of DSP,it has stopped recruiting directly for more than a decade. The experience of inspectors alone cannot substitute for the higher intellectual ability of a direct recruit. Its prosecuting arm is also not particularly strong. Able and competent lawyers would hardly opt for government jobs. Above all,the flood of cases entrusted to the CBI in the last few years — many of those under the judiciary’s direct supervision — makes one wonder how the agency could really do justice to them.

In the public discourse,however,the CBI’s competence or the lack of it is not the concern. The only demand is greater autonomy. The reported description of the CBI by the SC as a caged parrot has now become a cliché. With respect to all those having such an opinion,I can only say it is too simplistic to believe that the minister and officers of the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT) somehow control and regulate the CBI’s functioning and direct its officers to investigate a case one way or the other.

As a former secretary of that department,I can say with considerable authority that,in practice,control is completely nominal and limited to extremely routine matters. Rarely,if ever,has the DoPT overruled the CVC or CBI in the appointment of its supervisory officers or curtailed their tenures except on the express recommendation of the director or the CVC.

The government has provided a sufficient budget for the CBI’s functioning. There is very little institutional or structural basis for the CBI or its officers to feel shackled. If,in spite of all this insulation,the CBI or its officers sometimes heed the demands of some minister or secretary,the blame cannot be placed elsewhere.

The fact is that no amount of autonomy from government can help unless the organisation itself is sufficiently strengthened by increasing its manpower commensurate with its work-load,recruitment of competent officers at all levels from diverse disciplines,provisioning of quality training on a regular basis,adoption of state-of-the-art investigating techniques and induction of sound prosecutors. A rational correlation should be established between the number of personnel the CBI has and the number of cases it is entrusted to investigate at any particular point of time. All authorities should respect that correlation and not burden the CBI with additional cases.

It will be unfair not to discuss the permission the CBI needs for investigating and prosecuting public servants of a certain level. It is often claimed this inhibits the CBI and impedes its functioning. This may be true in some cases. In a perfect world,there should be no need for the CBI to take prior permission to investigate or prosecute a public servant.

However,we are not living in that paradise. People complain against public servants for both right and wrong reasons. CBI officials are not always the most impartial and competent. Also,the media treats every complaint and FIR as proof of guilt. If the CBI is allowed to inquire into every complaint or files an FIR,no public servant could work honourably. The report of a CBI inquiry,filing of an FIR or a raid at the public servant’s home is enough to destroy his reputation. No acquittal by any court of law can restore the loss. Therefore,if we want our public servants to take decisions,we should not place them entirely under CBI officials’ discretion and continue to retain a layer of insulation by way of executive permission — although we must make it mandatory by law that such permission should be granted or denied within a fixed timeframe.

We have failed to reform government because we have made only half-hearted efforts. Setting up administrative reforms commissions is not reforming government. We cannot hope to reform or improve governance by making oversight bodies like the CBI more independent or stronger. This is a desperate move and is bound to fail like such moves do.

The writer is a former chief information commissioner of India.

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