GOVERNANCE | Disciplining Government Employees LABYRINTHINE NIGHTMARE

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Convoluted rules for government servants make it impossible to either exonerate the blameless or punish the guilty

THE second Administrative Reforms Commission (ARC) lamented that “dilatory disciplinary proceedings make a mockery of any attempt to instil discipline and accountability”. But the Commission, instead of recommending a workable alternative amenable to quick implementation, demanded the repeal of Article 311 of the Constitution, a provision that embargoes a government servant from being dismissed, removed from service or reduced in rank, except after inquiry. The repeal of Article 311 was not attempted even during the Emergency or during the Camelot years of Rajiv Gandhi and it would be impossible to achieve it now. Given the nature of political dependency which is integral to coalition politics, both Parliament and Opposition-led state governments would resist such a move as anti-sarkari mulaazim.
A more practical recommendation would have been for the Commission to have sought a time-bound revamp of the 45-year-old Conduct and Disciplinary rules which draw their authority not from Article 311 but from Article 309. They apply to all government employees, whether Secretaries to the Government of India or lowly peons. The convoluted rules require 31 mandatory stages to be completed in every major departmental proceeding and no power on earth can change that, once an inquiry has started. Within this saga, which lasts from two to 20 years,besides what goes on in the parent organization, on umpteen occasions the Department of Personnel and the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) are asked for “advice”. The process is fraught with endless delay, as the reference meanders from table to table, transcribed in hard copy on a “shadow file”, lest confidential opinions leak.

The convoluted rules require 31 mandatory stages to be completed in every major departmental proceeding and no power on earth can change that

The prospect is so frightening that most officers shun taking even the simplest decision, fearing complaints and their inevitable aftermath. The same charade goes on in the state governments, where honest officers have increasingly begun pushing files higher and higher up the chain of command, reaching the tables of Chief Secretaries and Chief Ministers for no earthly reason except to buy insurance against complaints and inquiries. The result? Decisions are delayed unnecessarily and there is little sense of ownership, leave alone resourcefulness or initiative. Projects and programmes, contracts and purchases get delayed for months – even years – with disastrous consequences.
What is not widely appreciated is the fact that because senior government servants are appointed in the name of the President of India or by the Governor of the state, only the Minister in charge of the Ministry or the Chief Minister of the state can approve the most important milestones in a disciplinary inquiry. But no member of the political executive, nor even an astute lawyer, understands the labyrinthine procedures of a disciplinary inquiry and hence treats them with contempt, leaving the bureaucracy to stew in its own juice.

By bringing in a new set of disciplinary rules, the government can change the way its officers perform. It can boost the morale of honest officers and restore lost initiative.

Why did India choose to adopt this rigmarole as its disciplinary system? Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, independent India’s first Home Minister, favoured giving civil servants protection to enable them to be frank and impartial. Hence Article 311 came into being. But the CCS (CCA) Rules, 1965 were not framed by Sardar Patel and their reinvention does not require a Constitutional amendment.
Nothing stops the government from abandoning the antiquated disciplinary rules with a simple notification and replacing them with three simple requirements: First, all inquiries should start with the issue of a written chargesheet; second, consideration of the officer’s response should be done in writing but thereafter orally, before an interview board (this is the system in the UK and has been mentioned by the ARC); third, the present judicial sort of inquiry should be favoured only if the misconduct is prima facie serious enough to warrant dismissal or removal from service. In all other cases, it should be a summary disposal. The finding of the interview panel regarding the culpability of the officer or his exoneration, as also the quantum of punishment to be meted out, should be final, except for one appeal. The appellate authority should have powers to mitigate the punishment but, equally, to enhance it if warranted. This would preclude the possibility of appeals being filed routinely to delay and defeat punishment

Kafka Redux

For the honest officer, once there is even a whiff of a vigilance probe, even if no inquiry has started, news percolates through the informal grapevine – the best barometer of reputation. A whispering campaign – “Do you know that he is phasaoed in a vigilance case?” – starts and the officer comes under a cloud. It shatters his morale and the ensuing despair percolates his family life, affecting the quality of his work and attitude to fresh challenges. To buy peace, he embarks on the humiliating process of “explaining” the facts to the CVC, the Cabinet Secretary and every influential and helpful senior officer he has worked with. Sadly, no one intervenes because, quite simply, they cannot. The conduct rules are cast in stone and God Almighty cannot tweak them to help an officer, even if he has been framed or wrongly nabbed, once the complaint has been docketed on file.

By bringing in a new set of disciplinary rules, the government can change the way its officers perform. It can boost the morale of honest officers and restore lost initiative. Prompt punishment, if awarded to a few, will straightaway work as a deterrent to wrong-doing and instill a respect for hard work and discipline –attributes which have become anachronisms. A change in rules would affect not just senior government officers but also nab, expose, and punish junior officials, particularly those that come into direct contact with the public.
Unless disciplinary proceedings are made summary, and conducted by an interview board (it could even be members of the UPSC or CVC) the corrupt ones will continue to wriggle out of the net. Meanwhile, honest officers (who also generally lack clout and connections) will live in mortal dread of taking decisions – hardly a recipe for government efficiency.

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