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Governing India's breaucracy

Governing India’s bureaucracy
By Ashok Coomar
Some recent developments have exposed serious issues Involving India’s top bureaucracy which implements the government’s policies from top right down to district level and the grave flaws that may be creeping in the intended purpose of these policy initiatives.
First grave news is the failure of more than one-third of our top bureaucracy, the I.A.S., to file their property returns even at the pain of losing future promotions that otherwise must naturally come their way. This state of affairs exists despite the conduct rules which require every one of them to file his/her property return every year even if no property was acquired/disposed during the year. This is no small matter as it clearly and unambiguously points towards integrity of defaulters numbering around eighteen hundred out of existing strength of five thousand or so. These officers have preferred to forego promotions rather than risk declaring details of the properties acquired. Actual numbers of those similarly affected may be much higher as many must have covered their tracks well to fear any back-lash even after disclosure. At any rate it may be safe to assume that two out of every five or six members of the service may be of doubtful integrity. Now consider the enormity of favours that may have been granted to acquire properties that must be kept under wraps, the financial loss to the exchequer and the incalculable damage to the purpose from which these funds were siphoned off! Why else would any one shy away from following the rules? Undoubtedly all these officers would have made it to the apex scale with corresponding responsibility but for this one-time insistence on disclosure.
The second matter, no less in gravity, pertains to the recent judgment of a Delhi CBI court sentencing three I.A.S. officers, the then Secretary, the then Joint Secretary and the then Director belonging to the Ministry of Coal, GoI to two years imprisonment each for “dishonest representation of facts” to the then PM in a coal-block allocation case.
The case, in a nutshell, was that the GoI could allocate coal-blocks situated in various states to private firms if eligible as per the guidelines laid down by
Ministry of Coal. Applications were to be routed through the state government to the concerned ministry of GoI such as Power, Steel etc to the Ministry of Coal. The state government and the concerned ministry were required to send them to MoC with their recommendations. Ministry of Coal headed by Mr H.C.Gupta, Secretary was required to scrutinise the applications and then put them up to the Screening Committee with its final recommendations. Screening Committee also headed by Secretary Coal, and having reps from State Government as well as the concerned ministry, was then to finalise the recommendations which were to be finally approved by the Minister of Coal in this case the PM.
It emerges from the judgment of the CBI Court as reported by an English daily that “While forwarding the file to PM as minister of Coal for approval of recommendations of the Screening Committee, it was nowhere mentioned by any of MoC officers, much less by accused HC Gupta, that the applications have not been checked for their eligibility and completeness. In such a scenario there was no reason for the PM to presume that the guidelines issued have not been complied with.” One cannot help but wonder that if the applications were not checked for completeness against the guidelines what scrutiny had been carried out by officials down the line to the initial receipt stage of the applications. In any case, MoC could not have mentioned on file that “. . . the guidelines issued have not been complied with” as then PM would certainly not approve any case.
The aforementioned developments have been widely reported in the media giving rise to numerous debates on TV channels where former bureaucrats have alleged that punishments meted to the trio mentioned above were highly unjust. They have stated that if a decision taken by a Committee is also to be questioned by the courts culminating into criminal punishments; it is bound to paralyse the decision making in the GoI. It has been emphasised that Mr HC Gupta was an outstanding officer of very high integrity and that it was well nigh impossible for a Secretary level officer to personally check each and every case about its conformance to laid-down requirements.
A very significant aspect was however neither highlighted by even the anti-corruption activists on most panels and therefore not debated which is indicative of the quality of debates that we witness. No one cared to inquire as to what “decision” taken by the Committee or an individual was questioned by the Court that will paralyse the decision making.
In fact no “decision” was required to be taken by any one at any level except separating chef from the grain by checking the conformance to the guidelines. As the MoC files were silent on this most vital aspect one wonders what filled their pages to justify recommendations favouring the applicants for coal-block allocation. Hypothetically, a procedure could have commenced with checking against the guidelines from the initial stages first for completeness and then at higher levels for merits of each parameter or specific requirement. A final picture for acceptance or rejection of cases would have then emerged at Director/Joint Secretary level. In such or a similar scenario the Secretary Coal, after going through the noting of Director/JS, could have approved or rejected the case. In a well functioning set-up the chances of error creeping in would be none barring an odd slip-up in consideration of merits in certain aspects.
Far from being helpless the Secretary had the authority and was duty bound to extract proper functioning from his subordinates. In instant case Mr HC Gupta not only failed to run his ministry properly but also recommended an ineligible case for approval of the PM.
Yet another aspect which appears to be superfluous and redundant is the very concept of “Committees” because, as noted in this case, if the whole lot of the concerned agencies such as state governments, associated ministries and the principal ministry do “nothing” what can such a Committee “screen” except act as a Post-office and later be used as a cover-up for gross mischief and manipulations! And that is precisely what is sought to be achieved in the instant case by threatening a “decision paralysis” in the Government of India.
Obviously the aim of those wanting total freedom from accountability is to pressurise the government to amend the Prevention of Corruption Act deleting the clause that makes any act of negligence or collusion that causes any loss to government property punishable without having to prove any personal gain.
PM Modi’s historic assurance to the bureaucracy has been invoked that bureaucrats should act fearlessly promising protection if any genuine mistakes were committed. That in this case the bureaucrats acted “fearlessly” but against the cannons of administration is being conveniently glossed over.
We all are well aware that young aspirants who make it to the Indian Administrative Service are without exception most brilliant minds among their contemporaries and deserve the best deal. The government has always been very magnanimous in granting them high status, perks, privileges and promotions which are almost beyond the reach of any other service. And most importantly they alone are accorded the privilege of being the sole representatives of Sovereign India and in public perception they are indeed The Government. That being the case it is also in greatest public interest that the members of I.A.S. be subjected to most exacting norms of discipline, conduct and honesty to guard their elite image. Conformance to the conduct rules must be exemplary as also the punishment for any violation.
Any tampering with norms in any manner to bail out any one in this case will send wrong signals to the rank and file in the government and may well open the proverbial floodgates of corruption and misconduct. As it is, the reputation presently enjoyed by the Indian bureaucracy is amongst the lowest in Asia! There is little room for any further down gradation.
(Author is a former Major General from the Mahar Regiment, Infantry and has served for more than two decades with Directorate General of Quality Assurance, Ministry of Defence)

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Ashok Coomar

Media/Journalist/Author

Madhya Pradesh ,  INDIA

Hails from a middle class family of Lucknow, U.P., educated at Allahabad and Gwalior.  Joined Indian Military Academy, Dehradun after passing Intermediate. Commissioned in Dec 1962 in the Mahar Regiment, Infantry. Saw active service in 1965 and 1971 wars. Retired in Dec 2001 and now settled at Bhopal, M.P.

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