Dealing with the deadwood

It has taken more than 40 years for the Centre to administer a shock to a complacent civil service

Updated - January 23, 2017 12:31 am IST

Published - January 23, 2017 12:15 am IST

The Central government’s recent decision to compulsorily retire two Indian Police Service (IPS) officers and one Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer for ‘non-performance’ is bold and laudable. One of the officers is reported to have been under investigation for disproportionate assets. The compulsory retirements are in pursuance of the service rules that contemplate a review either when an officer reaches the age of 50 or completes 25 years of service.

Such action was a long-needed corrective. There was a similar, but feeble, attempt in the wake of the Emergency under Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. It has taken more than 40 years for the Centre to again administer a shock to a complacent and growingly dishonest civil service. Cynics may say this is a gimmick or a symbolic act that would hardly mend the ways of the bureaucracy. This is a defeatist approach. We need to uphold the basic democratic principle of a healthy executive control over the civil service, and actions like these, undertaken clinically and without malice, are a sine qua non if we want to enhance the currently poor standards of public administration.

Perks of the services

The public should know that our All India Services and the Central Services are paid well by Indian standards. Each Pay Commission has enlarged the civil service pay packet and perquisites. You don’t have to exert yourself on the job to earn a promotion. If you did not go to jail for some grave impropriety while in service, you still get to reach the peak and earn the maximum pension of ₹1,12,500 per month. After passing the Union Public Service Commission examination, the system takes care of you. Only around 10 per cent of officers remain current in their knowledge and exert themselves to keep the administrative system in shape.

If Prime Minister Narendra Modi is trying to change this, we need to support his effort to convert the bureaucracy into an accountable body that is sensitive to public demands. Except for a few dedicated officers, both in the higher echelons and in the lower rungs, it is a sad fact that ordinary citizens mostly cannot get through to any senior member of the bureaucracy, either in person or over the telephone, to express their grievances. Even if we concede that pressures on senior officers have greatly multiplied, is it too much to expect every government official to respond to the common man who pays his taxes to fund the bureaucracy? It is sad that the IPS is no longer the ‘service’ it was meant to be; it is now a mere ‘force’.

The malady of non-performance arises from the fact that not all positions in governments at the Centre and in the States are meaningful. You have a bloated bureaucracy, and portfolios are created only to accommodate officers. As a result, many officers do not have more than a few hours of work a day. A product of this is indolence, and a long spell of inactivity leads to loss of initiative and a desire to be productive. It is against this backdrop that one should study the phenomenon of how some senior officers become deadwood, and how only a few select ones get to be in important positions during their careers.

More appalling is the number of officers who choose to abandon integrity and line their pockets. Lack of integrity is undeniably not the monopoly of any one service. The IPS, IAS and the Indian Forest Service (IFS) each have their own sizeable number of dishonest officers. The tragedy is that many officers, early in their careers, fall into the trap and never retrace their paths. How else would you explain the large numbers of officers who had not completed even five years in government getting caught for corrupt acts? This rot has to be stemmed if our prized All India Services and Central Services are not to become the laughing stock.

Models of probity

The failure to show the right way to those getting into the services is of supervisory officers and not of the much-maligned politician who may be guilty of other misdeeds. If a District Collector or a District Superintendent of Police is himself not a model of efficiency and honesty, the trainee Assistant Collector or Assistant Superintendent of Police cannot go elsewhere to learn the virtues of hard work and probity.

If the system is functioning and has not collapsed, it is because we still have a handful of outstanding men and women in the higher bureaucracy, who are motivated by a spirit of service and have the conviction that they will be models to young officers. It is in this context that all of us should plead for an incessant drive against the deadwood in government services.

The only obstacle in the way of drastic civil service reform — like the one pursued by the present government at the Centre — is the judiciary that overturns or stays every administrative action against an erring senior officer. Courts would earn the admiration of a harassed public if they stopped interfering in disciplinary matters once they are satisfied that prescribed procedures had been followed in a case coming up before them and there is no malice writ large on a decision. Judicial overstepping, while correcting unjust action against a few honest civil servants, unwittingly promotes the cause of many unscrupulous elements. The track record of administrative tribunals in the country is a matter of great concern to those looking for a balanced and objective bureaucracy. There is need here for an immediate corrective by the Union Law Ministry.

R.K. Raghavan is a former CBI Director.

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