Are civil services being used and abused? Are the Enforcement Directorate and the Central Bureau of Investigation mere stooges in the hands of the party in power? Are taxmen deliberately hounding the businesses and the media which dare to differ with the government?
The common man, busy in satisfying the bare minimum needs of his family, may be unaware of the serious imputation of the above questions, but many of us — in comparatively comfortable positions — can only ignore it at our own peril. We engage in drawing room discussions about the country’s “rusted steel frame”, but with hardly any concrete measures to offer that can strengthen and refurbish it. Celebrating Civil Services Day is one such limp step we took and embellished it with rewarding young officers for their innovative work. The training academies in Mussoorie, Hyderabad, Nagpur, Baroda, Shimla, etc. are no doubt state-of-the-art and well-equipped to enhance the skills of trainees who reach there after passing a tough competitive exam at the national level. These institutes do labour hard to impart training in subjects specific to the job profile of each service.
But what about the spirit of the civil services? What about “the impartiality and incorruptibility of administration”, that Sardar Patel expected from us? What about the backbone to withstand the pressures of expediency, politicians, media, and mobs of different hue?
I have known examples of lone fighters: A commissioner of police who, when asked not to oppose the bail of a film star who was the son of a Mumbai politician, refused to comply, politely but firmly — a way to smartly salute the minister and walk away with his cap held high, his pride in the Indian Police Service shining through.
A young IAS officer who refused to write the interview marks of candidates appearing for a teachers’ interview in pencil — so the politicians on the board could “manipulate” them later. I have also known of a tax officer refusing to open a closed file to “teach a lesson to an unfriendly” business house.
However, these “principled stands” are known only to a few. While there are awards for innovation and achieving targets, has anyone thought of awarding an officer for standing by the principles she is supposed to be true to? Case studies have been developed for performance, but none exist for those who abide by their commitment to a just and equitable society, and, thus, dare to differ with “orders from the top”.
The result has been the poaching of the defined sphere of work of civil servants by self-serving politicians of all political parties. Being street smart, they identified the holes in the civil services and, following each election, they have dug deeper. A day will come when the civil services will sink and we shall have a bureaucracy committed to serve the politicians, not the society. Many fear that with lateral entry we have already reached that point in time.
Yet, no one is mourning the slow demise of the civil services. Perhaps, because we have been projected as slow in the delivery of services and tardy in the implementation of policies. Maybe because we have become corrupt and luxury-loving. Some would say that all of this is true and that the services lost their speed of delivery and idealism in the 1960s. That post-liberalisation, their relevance, in any case, is limited.
Yet, the common man we talked about earlier, sees a lot of hope in the civil services. His dream is to have his child join them for the prestige and power that the services still seem to carry. This man or woman in the street still clings to the prospect of a just, fair and prosperous society — the “Ram Rajya” he has heard of since his childhood. To him, the services represent a very important tool to establish an equitable society through which he hopes to better his life and the future of his children. He does not think of “using” the services for his selfish ends but for the common good.
For the sake of this man or woman, let the civil services perform their specific role earnestly. Let them spread the culture of performance and accountability, and punish the corrupt. Let them develop a spine to resist undue pressures from different players, and concentrate on delivery of services to the poor — for whom they are meant.
Let the civil services not forget that, at the end of the day, Justice H R Khanna remains the most remembered for his principled stand against Emergency. Very few have heard of the other four judges, and even if they have, is there any respect for their being party to the curtailment of our fundamental rights. The political breeze blew Justice Khanna away from the coveted chair of the Chief Justice of India. But I know about 50 law graduates of a Pune college, each writing about Justice Khanna for his refusal to toe the line of the selfish political leadership of the time.
Times have changed, but not the political parties. We need the likes of Justice Khanna to motivate the civil services to take a principled stand. We need the likes of that commissioner of police, in Mumbai, who lost his chair but refused to agree to the bail of a VIP. And, we need someone like the young officer who did not buckle to induct the “teacher of choice”. Wake up, civil services, as some are busy writing our epitaph. They may succeed in writing it too, if we do not break out of our slumber and stand erect, in the service of the nation.
This article first appeared in the print edition on September 6, 2019 under the title ‘Whose civil services?’. The writer is an IPS Officer who retired as DG Bureau of Police Research & Development.