Steeling the framehttps://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/steeling-the-frame/

Steeling the frame

Durga Shakti Nagpal’s case could trigger civil service reform

Durga Shakti Nagpal’s case could trigger civil service reform

As India debates creating smaller states to improve governance,what continually escapes the attention of its political class is the fact that the principal instruments for translating their political vision of good governance into concrete administrative action — the all-India services (AIS) — are increasingly being rendered dysfunctional. Perhaps it will always be so,given the growing intolerance across the political spectrum to a civil service that wants to play by the rule book.

The arbitrary suspension of a young IAS officer,Durga Shakti Nagpal,by the Uttar Pradesh government and its refusal to back down,notwithstanding national outrage,reinforces the lurking fear that with such blatant abuse of

political power,aimed at crippling the bureaucracy,rule of law and good governance may remain distant dreams.

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Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel,India’s first home minister and the principal architect of the AIS,had reasoned,“you will not have a united India if you do not have a good all-India service which has the independence to speak out its mind,which has a sense of security”. Over six decades after the republic was ushered in,it is distressing to witness the undoing of his great legacy through the systematic destruction of institutions created for the service of the people.

Why has the arbitrary political decision to suspend the young IAS officer evoked such widespread indignation? Nagpal is widely perceived to be a diligent,hardworking and honest civil servant. She was spearheading a sustained campaign against illicit sand mining in Greater Noida,but was suspended on the grounds that her action to demolish an illegally constructed wall of a mosque had inflamed religious passions.

The Australia-educated UP chief minister,Akhilesh Yadav,described the suspension as being “just an administrative action” and refused to discuss it further. His close relative Shiv Pal Yadav,a senior minister,justified the action by saying “hum sarkar hai (we are the government)”. It is now apparent that the suspension was ordered by the government at the behest of a local Samajwadi Party leader,Narendra Bhati,who shares close links with the local mining mafia. This was ordered even before the views of the district magistrate of Gautam Budh Nagar,which stated that Nagpal had never demolished any wall,reached the chief minister’s office. The district police also seemed unaware of a possible communal flare-up due to actions attributed to the suspended sub-divisional magistrate. The young officer also appears to have been failed by senior colleagues who advise the chief minister. It is not known whether the chief minister was advised against taking such a hasty decision,without even a preliminary inquiry into the allegations.

The decision to continue with the suspension and chargesheet the officer is almost understandable,given that it would be most embarrassing for the government to admit that the suspension was ordered on extraneous and unlawful grounds. This case reflects a much deeper malaise that afflicts our governance system,wherein the political executive through brazen abuse of power is willing to go to any extent to coerce conscientious public servants into abject submission.

In recent years,India has witnessed widespread public outcries against corruption. Creation of institutions,such as a Lokpal,is on the anvil. The Supreme Court is in overdrive to secure independence for the CBI from the government. Such actions would remain non-starters if governments were unwilling to grant the minimum requisite functional space to its highest civil servants,to enable them to discharge their basic duties in accordance with the law.

Unlike the higher judiciary,which enjoys constitutional protection from impetuous executive action,members of the all-India services have virtually no protection. It is worth noting that these services deliver their very best while functioning under the superintendence and control of constitutional entities such as the Election Commission of India. While working under governments of the day,many in the IAS display painful reticence in taking lawful decisions. This is because governments across the political divide have consistently used the threat of arbitrary disciplinary action and transfers to tame and maim the civil services.

Is there a way out of the monumental mess that has been created vis-a-vis the all-India services? One possible,oft repeated suggestion that could reverse the systematic destruction of the backbone of public administration is to make the AIS independent in terms of postings,tenure and conditions of service. This is the way it is in several advanced countries. There are explicit orders of the Supreme Court on creation of an independent Civil Services Board to manage tenure,posting and transfer of AIS officers. These have so far been brushed aside as governments are unwilling to let go of their clawing grip over the services.

As a faculty member at the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration,I have been witness to the fire in the belly of the youngsters recruited,through arguably one of the most difficult examinations in the world. Nagpal was my trainee and I am confident that she will come out stronger from this ordeal. There are many more in the system who retain similar grit and drive to do good for the people of this country. Will the Supreme Court take suo moto cognisance of this case? Will her case be a trigger for the much delayed public service reforms needed in the country?

The writer was a member of faculty at the LBSNAA

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