The civil disorder

With the CBI investigations into various scams gaining momentum in Andhra Pradesh, a number of businessmen, politicians and civil servants, more of the last category, are being questioned.
So far, apart from some high-profile businessmen, four officers of the rank of principal secretary have been indicted and two of them are under arrest. It would appear that in the present set of cases i.e. cases involving illegal mining, squandering thousands of acres of semi-urban land to private enterprise etc at least 16 other bureaucrats are likely to be questioned and some more indicted for facilitating these brazenly motivated deals.
While the businessmen and politicians seem to have taken it all in their stride, civil servants are a worried lot and are visibly rattled. A large delegation of IAS officers met Andhra Pradesh chief minister N. Kiran Kumar Reddy recently to protest against the alleged harassment. While they do not deny wrong-doing by their troubled colleagues, the grievance seems to be that the CBI is singling them out for harsh treatment while dealing with the ministers rather gently. While it is too early to say if the CBI will go soft on the ministers, civil servants would do well to contemplate why things have come to such a pass. What is happening in Hyderabad is symptomatic of what is happening elsewhere in the country.
In the 2G spectrum scam or the land scam of Hyderabad, what is it that compelled officers who belong to the constitutionally secured all-India services to do what they did? Could the politicians have given away the public largesse worth billions of rupees without the connivance of the civil servants?
Emergency of the ’70s was a watershed in the evolution of the civil services. Before Emergency, the politician would leave the civil servant alone and not make him/her a party to their actions. It was during the Emergency that the politician in power learnt to throw his weight around and reduced the administrator to an executive at his disposal.
Post-Emergency, one would have expected the civil services leadership to sit up, take notice and make a concerted effort to remedy the situation and define the space of the administrator vis-à-vis the politician in the overall scheme of governance. It has not happened. Not much has been done since to impress on the new entrants to the civil services that they are the custodians of public interest in an administration presided over by the politician of the day, with his eye on immediate gains, political or personal.
While retired civilians spend their time writing memoirs in the dated colonial style, appropriating credit for real or imaginary achievements and taking a potshot or two at politicians, those still serving in the top echelons are busy doing things that please their political bosses in the hope of securing post-retirement sinecures.
The all-India services are not self-governing institutions. At the middle and senior levels, officers depend on the political executive for posting, transfer, promotion, etc.
Unlike in the pre-Emergency days, their own senior officers have very little say in these matters now. Of late, it has become common practice that those who are found unsuitable for senior positions in the Central government come back to home cadres and secure promotions to comparable ranks with the help of those in power.
Most All-India Services (AIS) officers manage to reach the top of the ladder. Hardly anyone is sent packing midway for incompetence or even lack of integrity. Of late, some feeble efforts are being made at mid-career appraisal of civil servants. Experience shows one need not be very optimistic about the outcome.
We still do not have rational procedures to match the talent available to the jobs on hand. Postings abroad or to the more-important offices at home or selections to post-retirement situations largely depend on the patronage of the politician. It is, therefore, natural that an AIS officer realises by the end of the first decade of service that s/he cannot prosper in service without the “blessings” of the political executive. The nexus that starts about this time continues till superannuation and beyond.
How do we stem the rot before it is too late? We have to remedy the present situation where the civil services are dominated by the political executive. But that does not mean the services, being part of the executive of the state, can be totally independent of political control. A “middle path”, which ensures both functional independence of the services and accountability to the political executive, has to be evolved.

A plausible solution, perhaps, would be to create a three-member autonomous Civil Services Commission both at the Centre and in the states with representatives from the three all-India Services — IAS, IPS and IFS — to supervise and monitor the performance of officers. The commissioners will have tenures of five years or retire at 65 years of age, whichever is earlier. They would be selected for the job by both the ruling and the Opposition party representatives, as is done in the selection of the Chief Vigilance Commissioner, but with a significant difference: the selection would be by consensus and not majority vote.
The commission would be the receiving authority of the annual performance reports of civil servants and replace the present system of the politicians assessing them. It would also take over the functions of empanelling and identifying officers for senior situations.
In respect of the later function, it would prepare panels of not more than three people for each situation, keeping in mind their suitability, and the political executive would be obliged to pick one of them. The commission would also take note of serious complaints against civil servants, initiate inquiries and recommend disciplinary action. They would advise the government on transfers pending inquiries and punishments; this advice would be binding on the political executive.
In short the cadre management of the civil services would vest in the commission and not the government. The new system shall be secured by a statute and not an executive order of the state or Central government.
The present system of managing all-India services in Independent India is 65 years old. It is time to retire it!

The writer is a former IPS officer

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