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India's curse: The unprincipled babu

May 16, 2005

Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel had famously described the all-India civil services as the 'steel frame' that would hold together the Union of India and ensure continuity of good governance irrespective of regime change.

Those were days of innocence when newly independent India's leaders actually believed in what they said and were convinced that a modern nation state could be built through grit, determination, hard work and large dollops of honesty in public life. They set for themselves a noble task in which the bureaucracy would be an active partner.

In this age of un-innocence, such notions of nobility in thought and deed are not only scoffed at in the most disdainful manner, they are belittled as impractical and out-of-tune with reality. Worse, those who practice what they preach are laughed at while those who regret the remarkable absence of rectitude in public life are dismissed as maudlin fools.

If you are able to manipulate your way through obstacles raised by the crooked and the corrupt, if you are gifted with the art of flattery, if you have no compunctions about compromising on values and principles, and, if you are willing to go to any extent to promote self over others, then you are sharp and street smart. In the Darwinian matrix of survival of the fittest, the worst are the best because they alone can survive.

Nothing else explains the astonishing impunity with which L V Saptharishi, a senior civil servant of the twice-born Indian Administrative Service, has flouted rules in his search for a post-retirement sinecure.

Since public memory is notoriously short, the bare facts of the case merit reiteration. Saptharishi is a West Bengal cadre officer, which means he should be working for the government in that state instead of the Union government in New Delhi. Normally, state cadre officers are allowed a stint with the Union government, but they have to revert to their cadre after three years.

This is a rule that is followed more in the breach than in practice. If bureaucrats are to blame for inventing disingenuous reasons to avoid being sent back to the state to whose cadre they belong, politicians are equally to blame for facilitating their extended stay in New Delhi's corridors of power.

Therefore, Saptharishi's continued stay in New Delhi well past the time he was entitled to is not something of which he alone is guilty -- there are scores of senior IAS officers in the nation's capital who should have been sent back to the states to whose cadre they belong many years ago. Such lapses are now considered minor acts of omission, to be ignored and winked at.

But we digress. Saptharishi failed to make it to the rank of secretary to the Government of India. Not one to give up easily, and to prevent being sent back to West Bengal, he pleaded with Chief Election Commissioner T S Krishnamurthy for a parking slot. If reports are to be believed, such are Saptharishi's persuasive skills, Krishnamurthy was willing to get him in as a deputy election commissioner.

That never happened because the two election commissioners, B B Tandon and N Gopalaswami, were reluctant to admit within their ranks someone who lacks the required professional skills. However, Saptharishi, made of sterner stuff, refused to give up his quest for office beyond July 31 when he is due to retire.

Last week, he maligned the Election Commission, accused the two election commissioner of caste bias, charged this constitutional authority with conspiring with the BJP. In return, it is alleged, he would be given an assured three-year tenure as director general of Council for Advancement of People's Action and Rural Technology in the Union ministry of rural development headed by Raghuvansh Prasad Singh, a close associate of Railways Minister Lalu Yadav.

Barring Yadav's Rashtriya Janata Dal and his henchmen, Saptharishi's allegation has been received with incredulity and anger.

The department of personnel and training, which is the nodal agency that controls the civil services, has served him with a show cause notice. It is entirely possible that he will be punished for his misdeed. It is equally possible that once popular indignation subsides, the UPA government will file and forget Saptharishi's act of indiscretion.

A narrow, dictionary definition of corruption will suggest that it is limited to accumulation of ill-gotten wealth, of pilfering money through foul means, of cheating for personal gain and similar activities by those who hold public office. Ever since Indira Gandhi encouraged the nation to accept corruption as a way of life, the loot of public funds by our politicians has come to enjoy a certain legitimacy.

We are reluctant to admit it, but in India, which has been ranked 90th, along with Gambia, Malawi, Mozambique, Nepal, Russia and Tanzania, among 145 countries where corrupt practices were scrutinised by Transparency International (the higher the rank, the more corrupt the country) corruption in public life is a reality. And, it is a reality that we cannot wish away.

Which is not to suggest that this reality cannot be changed. The most potent weapon to wage war against corrupt politicians is an honest bureaucracy. No matter how corrupt the political boss may be, if his or her bureaucrats are upright and not amenable to inducements, then corruption cannot flourish.

Sardar Patel had passionately argued in the Constituent Assembly for a bureaucracy whose members would 'express their opinion without fear or favour.' He had hoped that bureaucrats would succeed where the political class would fail -- primarily in upholding probity and rectitude in public life.

He was wrong. Today we are witness to IAS officers being exposed as equally if not more corrupt than the politicians they serve. Akhand Pratap Singh, who rose to the exalted position of chief secretary of Uttar Pradesh, is an example of how the system is being milked for personal gain. We are also witness to the ways of officers like Gautam Goswami under whose tutelage Rs 18 crore of flood relief funds were siphoned off in that wondrous state called Bihar.

At the same time, it would be grossly unfair to tar the entire bureaucracy. There are innumerable officers, both men and women, who have exerted to avoid plum postings and shun publicity because they want to serve the people by providing to them, in the best manner they can, some semblance of governance.

It is a pity that their dedicated service, but for which India's 'steel frame' would have collapsed long ago, rarely gets commented upon. And, it is a shame that all we get to hear and read about are bureaucrats like Saptharishi. They may not have pilfered money or indulged in financial misdemeanour. But they have corrupted their integrity, such as they had to begin with.

Saisuresh Sivaswamy

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Number of User Comments: 46

Sub: The unprincipled babu

The most recent administrative reforms initiated by Manmohan Singh in related to IAS officers is heartening and takes us in correct direction. this is the ...

Posted by Kiran B

Sub: The unprincipled

I would like to complement Kanchan Gupta for a very pertinent article. Though the article begins with a attention seeking headline about the corrupt \'babus\', ...

Posted by Rohit Kakkar

Sub: The unprincipled babu

The most recent administrative reforms initiated by Manmohan Singh in related to IAS officers is heartening and takes us in correct direction. this is the ...

Posted by Kiran B

Sub: Ineffective System

India has a huge bureaucracy, whose traditions were largely built up at a different time. The volume of public service that had to be delivered ...

Posted by Giri Girishankar

Sub: The unprincipled babu.

The author has stayed away from the root of controversy, the caste. We just have to note that Saptarshi began with a statement that the ...

Posted by Prakash


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