In need of a rewrite

The relationship between civil servants and politicians remains unreformed.

Written by Yoginder K. Alagh | Updated: January 7, 2014 1:13 pm

The Congress president has flagged the need to protect bureaucrats from arbitrary transfers. This must be followed through. It is in keeping with a tradition that began with the Administrative Reforms Commission. Some years ago, the prime minister, during a Civil Services Day celebration, had declared that arbitrary transfers of bureaucrats would not be allowed. That very day, in a state under governor’s rule, a report revealed that two young collectors, who were acting against orders to award contracts to close relatives of the governor, were transferred. The malaise runs deep. It is necessary to buttress this initiative because it is at the very heart of administrative reform and the fight against corruption.

During the last decade, a number of committees had recommended stopping arbitrary transfers. The courts have, in fact, gone further and recommended fixed tenures for postings and an empowered arrangement to decide on who gets which posting. However, such decisions remain on paper, unimplemented. They require some reflection.

In a parliamentary democracy, Central ministers are responsible to Parliament, and state ministers to assemblies. A civil servant, on the other hand, must be answerable to the minster. It would be strange if a secretary to the government could act according to his own will on policies and programmes while the minister defended them in the legislature. This is obviously impractical.

This issue was studied in some detail by a committee on civil service recruitment and training, which I chaired. Most of the committee’s findings have been implemented by the Union Public Service Commission and the department of personnel and training, and have also been incorporated in the training modules of the Lal Bahadur Shastri Academy of Administration and other such institutes. The section on management of the higher civil services delved into the issue of transfers in some detail.

The committee recognised that in a democracy, a civil servant is responsible to the political leadership, and is therefore obliged to carry out the political mandate. This is a bureaucrat’s calling and what he has been trained to do. If a minister finds that the civil servant is not carrying out his mandate, it could be grounds for transfer. The committee report recommends that the minister be required to record in writing, in clear and unambiguous terms, the “public interest” served by the transfer. In these days of RTI, the minister’s file noting would necessarily have to stand the test of the public’s scrutiny.

In the normal course of things, there would be no need for such a proviso. This clause would ensure both the independence of an honest civil servant and the implementation of public policy as designed by the political executive. A problem would arise only under exceptional circumstances —  for instance, when a minister attempts to follow certain extralegal objectives.

A young, bright joint secretary, who I am sure will go places, once told me: “Sir, your report is all wrong. Now the minister, when he wants to transfer me, will also have to prove that I am either incompetent or dishonest and will do so in his own way.” According to newspaper reports, this is exactly what is happening these days.

In fact, things are getting much worse. There are state governments which are laws unto themselves and are inflicting a lot of damage on administrative and legal structures. They bully and armtwist babus and policemen. The honest ones get punished and sidelined while those who can play the system are rewarded.

The government does not want the bureaucracy to raise questions on public programmes and policies. Civil servants are pressured to suppress information on the best way to get things done and the difficulties that a project or programme will face —  in the process, they could also profit from pushing plans through anyway and overlooking wrongdoings and illegalities. This leads to the so-called unholy nexus between the civil service and politicians.

We can only say that we don’t have the answers. Obviously, more work needs to be done. Until then, we can believe that public opinion in a large, fractious democracy will triumph in the long run. But who knows the price we will pay on the way.

The writer is chancellor, Central University of Gujarat.

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