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Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Drawing the civil lines

Let us treat the bureaucracy as our own with a degree of possessiveness

Written by Satyananda Mishra |
December 12, 2011 3:12:59 am

In 1947,the colonial authorities managing the Residency area in Indore in Madhya Pradesh had leased out a large number of residential plots to,among others,the rulers of the Malwa region. One such plot,measuring about 5 acres,was leased out to the then ruler of Dhar for 99 years. The house on this plot came to be known as the Dhar Kothi. Much later,after the then ruler died,his widow appointed someone on a power of attorney to manage the plot. Yet,many years later,that individual requested the district collector of Indore to permit him to subdivide the large plot and sell to others.

The collector forwarded the application to the state government for its advice and orders. The revenue department considered the proposal,found it contrary to the terms of the original lease and advised the collector to reject the request. Some months after this,the same individual repeated his request and the collector forwarded it to the revenue department. The department turned it down once again as unacceptable. The matter did not rest there.

In the run-up to the assembly election,the opposition party alleged that the then chief minister,now a general secretary of the Congress,had handed over the Dhar Kothi to his crony,the individual with the power of attorney we mentioned earlier,for a pittance. Some busybody lodged a complaint in the Special Lokayukta court against the then CM,principal secretary,revenue,and the collector of Indore,alleging them of criminal conspiracy to provide undue benefit to some private individual. The special court did not call for the file,did not hear the CM or the officers. It simply directed the Lokayukta police to register an FIR against these individuals. Even the Lokayukta police did not give any opportunity of hearing to the officers and routinely registered a criminal case. It took five long years for them to conclude that the complaint was baseless and many hearings before the court agreed with the police to close the matter and found out the truth. It was not the end of the ordeal. The busybody took the matter to the high court which rejected his appeal and finally brought the matter to a rest. Thank God,he did not choose to go to the Supreme Court.

What are the consequences for civil servants in such a case? The registration of an FIR and consequent prosecution stalls his promotion and all other career prospects,including a deputation to the Central government if he is an IAS,IPS or IFS officer. He loses his reputation. He can be reduced to a wreck. Many are.

I cited a case where the Lokayukta court and the Lokayukta police registered the FIR on a blatantly false complaint. But civil servants can also make mistakes of facts,of judgment,while taking decisions. If for every such mistake,they are criminally probed and prosecuted,what would remain of the civil services?

What are the consequences for the country if civil servants are so freely and casually probed and criminally prosecuted? No one in a decision-making position will decide. There are innumerable,very valid ways to not decide and keep deferring the decision till the successor comes. More seriously,no officer will give any clear and categorical suggestion in file and leave it to the next higher officer to decide. The paralysis the media is talking about has a major root in this pervasive attitudinal shift in the civil servants in the past one or two years.

It is now clear that civil servants will have no protection,with the decision to remove Article 311 of the Constitution. Some weeks or months from now,just a complaint,even a casual complaint,can plunge a civil servant into an unending spiral of probes,prosecution,disciplinary proceedings and destabilise his career and reputation,howsoever painstakingly he might have nurtured those. Many civil society enthusiasts — including retired and,therefore,wise former civil servants — are often heard saying that if you have done things right and without any favour to anyone,you need not fear and the Lokpal/ Lokayukta and the courts will vindicate you. When will they vindicate the good civil servant for his action,retrospectively found wanting,even if he did it in good faith and to the best of his ability? After years of public humiliation,back-breaking criminal prosecution and maybe incarceration? In the backdrop of such looming threats,which civil servant,public sector manager or banker will take a bold financial decision?

What should then be done? Corruption in government is pervasive and threatening to halt our growth as a nation. The public is rightly restless. The corrupt public servant has to be brought to book and at the earliest. We need a very strong oversight body like the Lokpal or Lokayukta. We also need a very efficient and fairly independent inquiry agency. We must establish those quickly. These bodies must have wide and diverse representation from all branches of public service,civil servants,police officers,tax officers,railway officers,engineers,PSU executives,bankers and legal experts. Competent and good people from these sectors in the Lokpal and Lokayukta will inspire confidence in good civil servants that their actions will be looked into by people having the relevant domain knowledge and not by people who cannot appreciate the nuances of specific decision-making. Not all complaints should be inquired into. Someone at the highest level in these organisations or a committee of two or three senior officers should evaluate if the complaint deserves to be further probed. Criminal prosecution should be as rarely resorted to as possible with most of the serious complaints ending up as disciplinary proceedings.

Instead of completely removing the cover guaranteed to civil servants in sanction for prosecution,it should be retained even if such sanction is to be given by the Lokpal or Lokayukta. In the sanction process,the Lokpal or Lokayukta must co-opt a very senior functionary from the organisation/ service to which the civil servant belongs to lend a realistic perspective and for a fair assessment of the wrongdoing. The discplinary proceeding or the trial,as the case may be,must be of a summary nature and completed within one year. The elaborate procedures laid down at present,mostly to protect even the wrongdoer,should be modified to a very simple charge-sheet-reply-inquiry-decision paradigm. Documentary evidence and not witnesses should clinch the case against the wrongdoer,the latter inevitably prolonging the proceedings endlessly. All consultation with the CVC and the UPSC,etc should be just one time and not again and again as at present. There must be only one level of appeal and not more. Rotten eggs must be removed fast.

Let us treat the bureaucracy as our own with a degree of possessiveness,and not take it for granted,and make positive efforts to improve it. Lokpal or Lokayukta whiplashes or daily berating on TV channels and at civil society gatherings will not transform it into a fighting fit machine. The Right to Information Act is the only positive and sustainable step we have taken after Indepndence in this direction. It can cleanse the system from inside without debilitating it. Along with the Lokpal,let us also demand urgent administrative reforms.

The writer is the chief information commissioner. The views expressed are personal,

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