Make babus accountable

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The current system of endless procedural delay in deciding whether a Government employee has violated rules or indulged in corrupt practices ensures that the guilty are never punished. Often honest employees are needlessly harassed. We need a new system

If anything infuriates citizens, it is the absence of accountability among Government employees. Confronted with examples of this almost everyday, it is assumed that corruption within the system allows wrong-doers to get away. The real reason is because the disciplinary rules that govern the conduct of Government servants require impossibly long and cumbersome procedures to be observed, in the name of natural justice, leaving loopholes galore. The result: Not even a fraction of those that deserve punishments ever get penalised; instead a number of honest officers get stigmatised by remaining under investigation for years together. A simple, sensible and fair system of dealing with misconduct is badly needed.

The second Administrative Reforms Commission lamented that “dilatory disciplinary proceedings make a mockery of any attempt to instill discipline and accountability”. But the Commission instead of suggesting a workable alternative capable of immediate adoption grandiloquently recommended the repeal of Article 311 of the Constitution; also adding a new legislation under Article 309 to its wish-list.

First the history: Sardar Patel independent India’s first Home Minister favoured giving civil servants protection to enable them to be frank and impartial. So Article 311(which embargoes the dismissal, removal or reduction in rank of a Government employee without enquiry) came into being and has remained in the Constitution ever since. The ARC felt that the protection given by the offending Article had bred a false sense of security and given excessive protection to Government servants. Hence the recommendation that Article 311 be repealed — a step which was not attempted even during Emergency when the Article was amended to provide for specific situations when an enquiry could be dispensed with.

The recommendation to repeal Article 311 is just hot air. First there is the implausibility of Opposition parties ever unifying to pass a constitutional amendment and that when it is clearly anti-sarkari mulaazim. Second, the amendment process would require the co-operation of State Governments in respect of the All-India services which will never come. Third, the possibility that the repeal of Article 311 might be seen as an attempt to alter the basic structure of the Constitution (shades of Keshavanand Bharti) cannot be ruled out. Besides it is no one’s case that an enquiry should not be held at all. That would be untenable in a democracy and would straightaway militate against the principles of natural justice.

Instead, the ARC should have suggested urgent modification in the existing disciplinary rules. These rules notified in 1965 draw their authority from Article 309 of the Constitution and not Article 311. It is there that change is needed. If there is one thing that terrifies Government employees it is the fear of getting caught in the web of a vigilance enquiry — a predicament which by itself is worse than being penalised. It suspends the official’s chances of getting promoted or posted in a position of significance for years together — decades in several cases. The situation has a catastrophic effect on the social standing of the officer, distresses his family, and worst of all, it deters him and numerous others from displaying any initiative — ‘better safe than sorry’ as the saying goes.

But the more dangerous fallout of the vigilance enquiry phobia is the proliferation of the committee culture. Files and decisions move higher and higher up the hierarchy and in the process the purchase of essential equipment critically needed for defence, infrastructure needs, and health gets deferred, often causing irretrievable harm to our preparedness on vital fronts.

An overhaul of the CCS CCA Rules 1965 is, therefore, urgently required. Since the Rules draw their strength from Article 309 of the Constitution and not Article 311, the modifications can be effected straightaway through an executive order; as neither Parliament nor State Governments can or will impede the process.

All enquiries should start with the issue of a written chargesheet, and proceed to the consideration of the charged officer’s response before an interview board, (this is the system in the UK and has been mentioned by ARC also.) The present judicial kind of enquiry should only be preferred if at the end of the meeting the interview panel feels that the facts and officer’s defence points to something serious, which could result in dismissal, removal from service or reduction in rank.

For all other cases, the finding of the panel on the culpability of the officer or his exoneration as also the quantum of punishment to be meted out should be final — allowing one appeal where the appellate authority would have powers to mitigate, but also to enhance the punishment, if warranted.

By bringing in a new set of disciplinary rules under Article 309, the Government can change the way its officers perform. It would boost the morale of honest officers and restore lost initiative. Prompt punishment if given to a few will immediately instill a fear of wrong-doing and a respect for discipline-attributes which have become anachronisms in our feudal systems. When the upright can be dangled as criminals while culpable courtiers can get rewarded, where is the encouragement to demonstrate probity in public life?

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