When Prime Minister Narendra Modi held an informal meeting with all secretaries Wednesday evening, on the table was an agenda to “speed up the decision-making process”.
Many secretaries, however, used the opportunity to “apprise” the Prime Minister about the main reason for hesitation among senior officers to take decisions, especially those involving discretion or which could end up giving pecuniary benefits to a private party.
At least four secretaries present at the 80-minute meeting later told The Indian Express that secretaries asked the Prime Minister to remove the sword of Section 13 (1)(d) of the Prevention of Corruption (PC) Act hanging over them and allow them to work freely, without being afraid of legal repercussions at a later stage.
This section makes it a criminal offence if a public servant obtains for another person or corporate “any valuable thing or pecuniary advantage” without public interest.
The secretaries said there was real fear of getting entangled in criminal cases even if their action was in public interest. Without taking names, these officers spoke on the ongoing travails of former colleagues for actions they took while in office and against whom there is still no proof that their actions were the result of a quid pro quo.
The constitutionality of this PC Act section is already under challenge in the Supreme Court, contested, among others, by former coal secretary P C Parakh who was summoned by a CBI court for his role in awarding the Talabira-II coal block in Orissa to the Aditya Birla Group company Hindalco in 2005.
Finance Minister Arun Jaitley assured the secretaries that the government was seized of the matter and was sensitive to their concerns. He said the government was also studying the 254th report of the Law Commission with regard to proposed amendments to the PC Act.
The Prime Minister, on his part, was said to have spoken on the need to build opinion to remove the controversial clause. He, however, reiterated his view that officers should have freedom and protection for “objective, honest decisions”.
Incidentally, the previous UPA government had decided to revoke this clause from the PC Act after it was highlighted that fear of penal action for bonafide actions was preventing bureaucrats from taking even routine decisions.
Speaking at the Idea Exchange programme of The Indian Express Wednesday, Jaitley had acknowledged that there was need to take a fresh look at some provisions of the PC Act.
“I do believe whether it is disinvestment or it is defence purchases, because of the kind of interpretation which has been given to some of the provisions in Section 13 of the Prevention of Corruption Act . they have been a great deterrent and they require a fresh look in the changed environment. I understand that the Law Commission has already made some recommendations in that direction,” he said.