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Civil servants look back

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A. S. PADMANABHAN

The virtues of civil service, namely poverty, neutrality, and anonymity, have come under severe strain

BUREAUCRACY AND SOCIETY- The IAS at Work: Edited by Rakesh Hooja; Rawat Publications, Satyam Apartments, Sector 3, Jawahar Nagar, Jaipur-302004. Rs. 695.

Winston Churchill faulted them for “arrant pedantry” when it was pointed out to him that he had ended a sentence with a preposition. Margaret Thatcher would not regard them highly either. Nearer home, Jawaharlal Nehru found them “cutting the red-tape along.” Yet, none could either downsize or dispense with bureaucracy.

Experience

Fifteen officers of the Indian Administrative Service share their experiences at work in Rajasthan. Experience is the best school in that the test comes earlier and lessons are learnt later. One of the officers, Rajagopal, has specifically mentioned the lesson at the end of every episode he narrates. Since the early 1950s and ‘60s, the role of the civil servant has shrunk to the mere mechanics of implementing the policies of the rulers, and ensuring propriety of procedure and accountability to audit. The contributors, while in service, have been professional and objective enough to go along even with policies and programmes considered unviable and did not, as a rule, stick their neck out.

The three British virtues of civil service, namely poverty, neutrality, and anonymity have come under severe strain during the period covered. Everyone has commended these virtues: but rued that they had constraints especially about the latter two. Rajasthan had two mature and seasoned politicians as Chief Ministers in Mohanlal Sukhadia and Bhairon Singh Shekhawat. Problems were mostly with junior politicians who gave the impression of upstarts.

Character assassination

Kusum Prasad recalls the stories and rumours spun around her. One was that she was prowling around in disguise like a modern Razia Sultana to crack down on the hoarders and bad characters. Every civil servant is vulnerable to such character assassination by those affected by his (or her) actions. When the government institutes an inquiry on the basis of such baseless allegations, it comes as an added insult. An officer opened a computer showroom of his relative and later bought computers from there. All rules were followed and no loss was caused to the government. Yet he had to face an enquiry, at the end of which he was counselled to keep his ‘ anonymity'.

Inderjit Khanna regrets that “nothing seems to happen to those who are corrupt,” thanks to delays in investigation and legal processes; many of them, in fact, get promoted or retire. Speedy disposal of cases, stern action against the guilty, and setting personal examples at higher level are the remedies he suggests. Cloistered virtue is no virtue. One must be exposed to temptations, yet remain free from taint. Such cases may be very rare. But even a few will prove an inducement for the venal colleagues to re-think. And it is these few who answer the first virtue of British Civil service, namely ‘poverty.'

The other virtue of ‘neutrality' need not be overdone. Arun Kumar is of the view that as long as the recommendations made by politicians are within the norms and guidelines, one need not react sharply. Where the request is against rules or impossible to comply with, the position will have to be explained politely but firmly. He also cites an interesting example to show that strict, if not blind, adherence to rules can result in loss of income to government. It was a case of straw, a perishable commodity, rotting near a rail-head due to heavy rain. An attractive price offered by a strawboard manufacturing firm was turned down by the government, which opted for the open-auction route. And by the time the formalities were completed, the straw got further damaged and fetched only a very low price.

Rajagopal has this story to narrate. In Kota district, allthe lands available as ‘surplus' were assigned to the weaker sections to commemorate the centenary of Gandhiji. Ten years later, a similar exercise was undertaken and ‘surplus' lands were shown to have been assigned once again. He wonders where the excess lands came from, when the geographical area of the district has not increased. Thapar makes out a strong case for drawing more and more people from specialised services to the IAS so as to get the best out of them and give them due recognition.

Relevant

By their very nature, memoirs are self-centric. Some of the experiences recounted in this book relate to issues that are relevant generally to the whole of Rajasthan, like desert management. Civil servants are but a cross-section of society. As such,0 it will not be fair to judge or evaluate them without regard to the general socio-economic environment. Nor can their calibre be expected to be very much above that of other professionals such as doctors, businessmen, and teachers. Long ago, James Madison said: “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls would be necessary.” And that of course is a big IF. The stark reality is that, in the present context of our polity, the political executive and the bureaucracy — the two arms of government — have come to stay, although their image is losing lustre.


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