TOP ARTICLE | People Come First

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The final touches are being given to a civil services Bill, which represents an improvement over the 2007 public service draft. People are alternately euphoric or cynical about the move. There is a need to analyse the ambit of the proposed law in terms of what is good about it and also highlight why this law cannot become a panacea for all the ills that beset the civil service, particularly in its interface with the public.

First, a civil service or public services law is not a new idea. It has already been introduced in Australia, New Zealand and several other countries. But in these places it was primarily aimed at orienting lateral entrants into the civil service towards understanding concepts like allegiance to the Constitution, law, democracy and the neutrality of civil servants. By contrast, members of the organised services in India are well-versed in such issues right from the beginning, although some choose to disregard the wisdom wilfully.
This is partly attributable to increasing the age of entry into the civil service, multiplying the number of attempts to get in, introducing an Indian language (read: the mother tongue) as an examination paper and holding interviews in regional languages, all of which have slashed the chances of finding young officers who can think beyond regional mindsets, whether nationally or globally. To expect such civil servants to become instruments of change is like asking for the moon.

Where the idea of a civil service law would definitely score is by the establishment of a Central Public Service Authority (CPSA). The CPSA will have the overarching responsibility to oversee the management of the civil service and, if media reports are to be believed, its role would not be merely recommendatory. There would be time and opportunity to look at suitability and experience of entrants. More important, the tendency of officers to brazenly curry favour with prospective secretaries and ministers to find a ‘good berth’ in a central ministry might end.

Another plus point is that independent scrutinies of key appointments such as that of the cabinet secretary and hopefully even the information commissioner’s and regulatory authorities’ might be subjected to bi-partisan scrutiny. This might also end the practice of making controversial appointments, which have discredited different governments and created immense resentment within the bureaucratic system.

At the state level, there could still be a snag. The proposed law would most certainly have to be individually accepted by each state. It has to be seen whether key states like Uttar Pradesh would play ball. Should they do so, it would free appointments and transfers from the ‘off with his head’ syndrome and rescue some innocent officers from the ignominy of public disgrace often prompted by whimsical politics. Nonetheless, at the state level, everything will depend on who heads the state PSA. A smooth operator can still fix things, and selections at the state level can be manipulated with little ingenuity. The central government is lightyears ahead in terms of its selection and transfer processes. The real need to rein in transfers is in the states where loss of morale and resentment is at a peak.

Finally, the problem with the public service law is that it can only encompass the organised services. It will, therefore, not impact on an exasperated public seeking assistance in accessing health care, electricity and water, food rations, traversable roads, unadulterated food and crime prevention. Indeed, it is the bureaucracy that comes into public contact that desperately needs a facelift if the label of India having “Asia’s worst civil service” is to be altered.

That would mean that a civil service law in a country like India also needs a supplementary law or regulation to deal with recalcitrant public functionaries that citizens confront everyday. The people need a forum to vent their grievances before an authority that can summarily deal with cases of harassment and corruption. The departmental system is too long drawn out and clumsy to get anyone punished in a way that sets an example.

In 1997, the Delhi government had set up a public grievance commission to hear complaints against any official of the government. The commission still exists. Summary proceedings are held and the commission can take suo motu cognizance of any issue that comes up during a hearing or even otherwise. As a result, any member of the public can bring a grievance before the commission which listens to complainants (minus lawyers), and makes recommendations by scrutinising the files and listening to what the department has to say. The Administrative Reforms Commission had recommended that a public grievance commission could be set up by all state governments.

Along with a civil service law, there is every need to introduce a fast-track mechanism to hear people’s grievances publicly and act on them promptly. While officers need protection, the legislation should also benefit the public for whose good all laws are made.

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