The image of an honest civil servant subjected to arbitrary transfer or suspension by the political executive at the behest of vested interests is etched in the public consciousness as a key archetype of the Indian bureaucracy. The rising public awareness of the importance of the bureaucracy in the delivery of basic services to citizens has received a welcome boost from the Supreme Court’s reformative verdict on insulating officers from political interference. Three significant administrative reforms arise out of the court’s verdict on a petition by more than 80 former bureaucrats: a fixed tenure for civil servants so that they are not transferred at the whims and fancies of the political executive; and a stipulation that all instructions by superiors be in writing, to protect officers from wrongful pressure from their superiors, political masters and vested interests. To prevent arbitrary transfers, the court has directed that the Centre and the States establish Civil Service Boards (CSB) comprising serving officers to advise the political executive on transfers, postings and disciplinary action, until Parliament enacts a law in this regard. These directions are meant to “ensure good governance, transparency and accountability” in governmental functions, the court has said.
A question that might be raised is whether the Supreme Court was overstepping its ambit by directing the constitution of a mechanism to regulate transfers and postings, especially when draft Bills are in circulation on such reforms. But it is evident that the court has taken judicial note of the various official reports and studies in this regard. It quotes extensively from past exercises — the reports of the K. Santhanam Committee on prevention of corruption, the Hota Committee and the Second Administrative Reforms Commission — that addressed these questions. These reports had recommended fixed tenures, insulation from political interference, avoidance of oral instructions, and a statutory board to decide on transfers. But these were not taken forward. The failure of the executive to frame a legislative framework to address these key concerns has forced the court to step in. The reality is that the phenomenon of the ‘politician-bureaucrat-industrialist’ nexus is so entrenched that it requires a sustained systemic effort to cleanse the administrative system. The real gain for citizens is that the Supreme Court judgment has raised the bar for good governance in this country by providing a framework to insulate bureaucrats from the pressures of a clutch of vested interests which act through the political system. Public confidence in governance is bound to rise as a result of this landmark verdict.