In a path-breaking verdict, the Supreme Court on Thursday said bureaucrats should not act on verbal orders given by political bosses as it sought an end to frequent transfers and suggested a fixed tenure to insulate them from political interference.
Suggesting sweeping reforms in the functioning of bureaucracy, a bench headed by Justice K S Radhakrishnan said Parliament must enact a law to regulate postings, transfers and disciplinary action against bureaucrats.
Holding that much of the deterioration in bureaucracy is because of political interference, it said that civil servants should not act on verbal orders given by political executives and all actions must be taken by them on the basis of written communication.
The bench also comprising justice P C Ghose said giving a fixed minimum tenure to a civil servant will not only promote professionalism and efficiency, but also good governance.
It asked the Centre and all state governments along with UnionTerritories to issue directions within three months for providing fixed tenure to civil servants.
The bench also said Civil Services Board be constituted at the Centre and state-levels.
The verdict, which is on the line of apex court's earlier order on police reforms for giving fixed tenure to senior police officers in Prakash Singh case, will go a long way in giving freedom and independence to the functioning of bureaucracy.
The judgement comes close on the heels of controversies surrounding Ashok Khemka, IAS officer of Haryana cadre over DLF-Robert Vadra land deal, and Durga Sakhti Nagpal, UP cadre IAS officer, who was targeted by the state government for alleged misconduct.
The apex court passed the verdict on a PIL filed by 83 retired bureaucrats including former Cabinet Secretary T S R Subramanian seeking its directions for insulating bureaucracy from political interference.
The petitioners also include former Indian Ambassador to the US Abid Hussain, former Chief Election Commissioner N Gopalaswami, former Election Commissioner T S Krishna Murthy, former IPS officer Ved Prakash Marwah, and former CBI directors Joginder Singh and D R Kaarthikeyan.
"This is a landmark judgement. Public servants are not private servants," said Subramanian.
"Today faith in our Constitution has been reaffirmed... our faith in the strength of democracy has been reaffirmed because the highest court of the land has recognised the problems," he said, adding "malgovernance affected people and quality of administration".
Krishna Murthy lauded the verdict, saying "Good governance is critical to good quality democracy.
"Most of us have seen in our career how most of the transfers, promotions, postings and foreign assignments, all of them are decided on whimsical basis very often," he said.
Singh said, "I am happy over this judgement but having said that I am aware that similar judgement was passed by the Supreme Court on September 20, 2006 on fixed tenure of police officers but all states are dilly-dallying".
The PIL had alleged that at present, the system of transfers, postings, promotions, disciplinary action and other personnel matters pertaining to the members of civil services are ad-hoc and non-transparent.
"There is an urgent need to make the civil servants accountable, sensitive and responsive. If this is achieved, there will be across-the-spectrum benefits...
"Transfers are often used as instruments of reward and punishment, with officials being frequently transferred on the whims and caprices as well as the personal needs of local politicians and other vested interests. Officers, especially those in the All India Services serving in state governments, have no stability or security of tenure," it had said.
The PIL had also said the civil servants at all levels should be given a minimum three-year fixed tenure on each post to foster functional freedom and independence.
Any premature transfer should specifically be authorised by the 'civil service board/commission' on specific circumstances to be brought out in writing, it had said.
At least four high-powered panels made recommendations for freeing the bureaucracy from political interference but the government had not taken any concrete step for implementation of the reforms suggested by them, it had said.
"Change of government invariably leads to new rounds of transfers as the incoming group of political leaders seeks to reward supporters and put its "own" staff in key positions.
"Moreover, the 'transfer industry' is backed by entrenched and powerful vested interests as frequent transfers generate huge amounts of black money for corrupt officials and politicians...," it had said.
The PIL had said that there should be an independent, high-powered and statutory 'civil services board' in each state which should process proposals of postings and transfers.