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'This government is particularly ruthless'

November 15, 2019 07:31 IST

'Today we see the worrisome phenomenon where honest officers who run afoul of the government being chased, hunted down and dirt being dug up on them.'

Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi confers with senior bureaucrats via video conferencing

IMAGE: Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi confers with senior bureaucrats via video conferencing.

If you are one who is confounded by the Indian bureaucracy, don't lose heart, even retired IAS officers are often clueless about its functioning if they have return to their old realm of babudom after retirement with a petition.

T R Raghunandan served in the Indian Administrative Service for 27 years before taking voluntary retirement in 2010. His book Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Bureaucracy But Were Afraid To Ask is a humorous deconstruction of the confounding Indian bureaucracy for all who have faced red tape.

A former joint secretary in the ministry of panchayati raj at the Centre and secretary, rural development in Karnataka, Raghunandan is a leading expert on decentralisation. He focuses on strengthening local democracy and is working on efforts to reducing corruption.

A resident of Bengaluru, he spoke to Rediff.com's Archana Masih about government schemes that have changed people's lives, the need for bureaucrats to remain ideologically neutral, whatever the provocation and why the present government is undemocratic towards civil servants.

The recent clashes between lawyers and police and the subsequent dharna is symptomatic of the disconnect between the leadership and the constabulary.
Is the lack of leadership from senior officers of the bureaucracy a big problem?

The Indian senior bureaucracy, with a few honourable exceptions, has badly let down the lower bureaucracy.

The Indian senior bureaucracy has become supine because it is totally and ruthlessly career oriented. It is also partly because the design of the system is extremely competitive.

So the higher bureaucracy is full of very intelligent people, but with very little room at the top.

In such circumstances, you are bound to have people who will sacrifice their morals to a larger commitment to certain ideals in order to pursue their careers.

What has led to this erosion of bureaucratic norms and ethos?

In addition to the points mentioned above, a breaking down of some long held conventions is one of the reasons.

In the earlier days, by and large, seniority was the main criterion for the top posts. Such a system had its drawbacks, because officers rose to the top just by being there, and occupied posts by dint of seniority even though they are incompetent.

Therefore, it was necessary that some degree of selection and discretion should be left to the political executive, to select officers for top post.

The courts have also endorsed the prerogative of the political executive to pick officers for the top, overlooking seniority.

Consequently, very few states follow the convention of appointing the senior most IAS officer or the senior most IPS officer as the DGP, respectively. These are as of now, considered as political appointees.

However, this has also led politicians to pick officers only on the basis of their willingness to be accommodative, regardless of whether they are competent of given good advice, and executing government decisions effectively.

The high levels of competition also ensures that there are officers who are accommodative of all political interests and hence survive throughout their careers.

Officers adept at switching loyalties are picked by all politicians. That is why senior leadership of the IAS and IPS have turned uninspiring and are quite useless when it comes to protecting the interests of their younger and junior colleagues.

The prime minister recently told bureaucrats that they had wasted five years of his first tenure and he would not let them waste another five years because of delays in implementing policies.

Statements like this are usually a bit of playing to the gallery. Politicians in the past also have tended to blame the IAS for failures in governance because they know that people also love to dislike the bureaucracy.

To some extent, statements such are these are true because politicians are impatient and want to cut corners while bureaucrats, by habit, are a little slow.

However, what the bureaucracy needs to be worried about is that this PM does not make empty threats.

Is it difficult to be an honest IAS officer?

Yes, it is more difficult today than before. Earlier, if one spoke out, one's career would not be in permanent danger. Earlier, you were only worried about being sidelined; today you could be punished.

Today we see the worrisome phenomenon where honest officers who run afoul of the government being chased, hunted down and dirt being dug up on them.

One problem about honest officers is that most of them are egotistic loners. Often they fight each other to decide who is most honest amongst them all rather than fighting the common enemy of corruption.

More often than not, the honest officer will see the next most honest officer as a proximate enemy, but not the corrupt officer.

Thus when honest officers fall out of favour, they are friendless and have to fight their battles alone in court. They do not have the resources to do this, when faced by the hostile might of the government.

So typically, if they are removed or sidelined, they have to just stomach it. Many become indifferent and pass time till they retire.

Officer associations are of precious little help and they drop honest officers like hot potatoes, if the latter are targeted.

Years ago, the Uttar Pradesh IAS association once passed a list of the most corrupt IAS officers, but now associations have fallen silent, because as a category, IAS and IPS officers are a terrified lot today.

Honest officers need to be recognised and supported not only by the system, but by society at large. However, a few exceptions apart, that does not happen at all, these days.

Two IAS officers resigned recently in protest against government policies.

Yes, and one of them, Kannan Gopinathan, has been charge-sheeted for speaking out. It is clear as daylight that the Government of India is quite anti-democratic when it comes to dealing with its officers.

It has realised it has got the strength to beat and browbeat officers who do not tow their line.

This government wants people to comply to its position whether ideological or strategic -- nobody should step out of line.

However, it must be stated that at the Government of India level, as has been the case always, there are a significant number of honest and good people in policy making positions, but there are certain lines that cannot be crossed. That message is being sent loud and clear down the line.

Officers who have ideological issues with the way this government is functioning have a very difficult life ahead of them.

Officers who are caught in the crossfire between parties at loggerheads with each other are the most uncomfortable of the lot.

This is to be expected. Political parties that follow either the extreme left or the extreme right have an ideological bias to everything they do, and that includes how they want all officers to toe their ideological line, or at best, not get in their way when they implement their ideologies.

On the other hand, a centrist party -- or a centrist person in an ideologically tilted party -- can contribute to a bureaucrat-political relationship that will survive the test of time.

What is that sacred line that civil servants should not cross?

At this current point in time, ideologies are very important. But having said that, it is not as if one can conclude that certain parties encourage a climate of trust and others don't.

It is not as black and white as that.

Typically, even if officers are generally known to not agree with the ideology of one or the other party, there are ministers within those parties who will hear one's point of view and won't harm one for taking a contrary view point.

But there are other ministers or powers who brook no dissent. If one dissents, one is considered an enemy. Dirt will be dug out and punishment meted.

It is easy to dig out dirt on officers. In a 30+ long career, IAS officers take hundreds of decisions. Even if the decisions of honest officers may not be corrupt, they might have been wrong ones, based on genuine misjudgements.

It is easy to put a spin on these and create the impression that these decisions were taken with ulterior motives.

If this dirt is put out and the media and social media engages in a public trial, it can devastate the officer concerned.

This government is particularly ruthless. Take the case of how they are gunning for Kannan Gopinathan or Election Commissioner Ashok Lavasa. Such actions sends ripples of fear down the spines of officers and demoralises them.

They are barred by the conduct rules from responding to such comments; they have to remain silent. This is the last nail in the coffin for the uprightness of bureaucrats.

Today there is certainly a climate of fear in the bureaucracy and the feeling that we have to comply or will be punished.

It is not good for the system if bureaucrats are generally browbeaten. They are not going to be innovative; they would rather wait out such storms.

What are the dangers when civil servants forsake their Constitutional duties?

The forsaking of Constitutional duties and compliance with its provisions is dangerous for all. There results a lack of accountability which eventually causes anarchy and mayhem.

Look at the way lawyers and policemen are clashing with each other, and how weak kneed has been the response of bureaucrats to this unfortunate development.

Earlier, there was an erosion in the political executive, then in the bureaucracy. Now you see erosion in the criminal justice system.

So, when the last domino has fallen, what is left? Anarchy.

The fault for the current state of affairs lies on both sides.

Politicians of all hues want bureaucrats to become their slaves, while some amoral and ruthlessly careerist bureaucrats are only too willing to sign up to this Faustian bargain.

Has the steel frame of Indian governance then corroded to a great extent?

Yes, I believe so. And this has been a long drawn out process; it is not something that happened yesterday.

Over time, if you let a system become so mediocre, finally, one day, it is going to implode.

Earlier, there was a critical mass of 30% of people who were courageous and maintained a high level of integrity whether they were politicians, senior officers, local constabulary or lawyers.

With these people working and networking behind the scenes, the system somehow plodded along and functioned.

But now I think we have reached a stage where after years and years of mismanagement, things are in a state of near total decay.

What are some of the government schemes that have been a real success and changed the lives of people?

My experience is limited to the social sector, which is where I worked largely, while in service.

The MGNREGA (The national rural employment guarantee scheme) introduced by the UPA-1 government has been a tremendous game-changer.

It put real incomes into the hands of millions of poor people and remains India's biggest antidote to the problem of rural unemployment, in spite of leakages and inefficiencies in implementation.

The current Union government hates it, but cannot do without it, as removing it will lead to large-scale adverse political repercussions.

The Ujjwala programme of providing gas stoves to women of poor households and the Prime Ministers Awas Yojna (earlier the Indira Awas Yojana) are good programmes that have been run very efficiently.

Both have used technology for better targeting and asset tracking, and delivery of benefits, and therefore the political benefit have also been good for the ruling party.

In addition, the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana has been run well and delivered excellent connectivity to rural habitations over a 20 year period.

Here too, systems of targeting and monitoring the quality of work has been excellent and this has had a huge impact on improving rural connectivity.

What are the three challenges facing the civil services?

1. The challenge of remaining honest, and to retain courage.

2. The challenge to remain ideologically neutral, whatever the provocation.

3. The challenge to learn constantly, improve and pick up new skill sets to deliver in today's world.

ARCHANA MASIH / Rediff.com
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