With many top civil servants at the Centre charged with financial wrongdoings, the Indian Administrative Service is passing through a disturbing phase. Prasar Bharti CEO B.S. Lalli and former UP Chief Secretary Neera Yadav are only two examples of the rot that has set in. There are many more across the country. Two former Chief Secretaries of Delhi and Punjab examine the crisis in the IAS
THE day Neera Yadav, the one-time Chief Secretary of Uttar Pradesh, was sentenced to undergo imprisonment, it was damning for the Indian Administrative Service (IAS). Not because corruption in the senior echelons of the civil service was either a new phenomenon or rare. But because, until then, there were handy excuses to deny and dismiss accusations — investigations under way, hindrances in obtaining prosecution sanction, political nexus at play; endless court processes — the very reasons that had prevented cases of malfeasance ever reaching finality, leave alone jail.
Denial of involvement in corruption continues even today when no one with even a few years into the IAS is unaware of those among his peers and seniors that are corrupt, the quid pro quos that have secured influential jobs and even the very middlemen and women that brokered the deals. Niira Radias and their ilk have operated at different levels right from the seventies manipulating their way through the chain of personal secretaries, family factotums, and relatives of people in power — only there were no tapes depicting how the deals were struck.
But most officers do not talk about these realities openly because they cannot predict which way the wind might blow as the years pass by. As happened with Neera Yadav in UP. Even after the UP cadre IAS officers ranked Neera Yadav among the top three “most corrupt IAS officers of UP”, it did not prevent her appointment as the Chief Secretary. And that was shocking because the Chief Secretary heads the entire public service of the state, acts as the Chief Minister’s chief policy adviser carrying overall responsibility for conduct of all government business. Most former British colonies still have Chief Secretaries in the states and provinces, considered next in line after the Governor or the Chief Minister and holding vastly superior powers in bureaucracy.
No Cabinet meeting can be held without the Chief Secretary who alone can minute the proceedings. The whole civil service of the state reports directly or indirectly to him. All senior postings, including statutory and constitutional appointments, are made with his recommendation and he has the final say. He is the main negotiator on critical matters of inter-state interest while acting as a dependable bridge between the state and the Centre. For performing these functions, the Chief Secretary has to possess acumen and integrity to inspire hundreds of officers that look up to him for guidance, strength and succour, when confronted with political perils.
But the Chief Secretary, unless imbued with zeal to preserve the public interest, can instead use his extraordinary authority to manipulate the system, offer patronage to vested interests, shield corrupt officers and politicise the bureaucracy. In short, he can proactively contribute to rotten governance. Over the years, the honour and dignity of being appointed Chief Secretary has been displaced. New attributes are increasingly sought and can be found quite easily — the ability to fall in line and help the Chief Minister, the political class and business interests to achieve their greedy goals — and to do it by hook or by crook.
Had the Noida Entrepreneurs’ Association not filed a writ petition alleging bungling in land allotment during Neera Yadav’s tenure as Chairman of the Noida Authority, she would have continued as the Chief Secretary and on retirement won the election and become a Minister.
For young officers desperately looking for the path to choose, it would have reinforced the belief that it pays to go the NeeraYadav way. Only in this case the Supreme Court directed that an investigation take place which ultimately ended in a jail sentence for her.
Corruption is rampant in many state governments where a plethora of projects and programmes are implemented through arbitrary exercise of power — all in the name of the poor. Most of India’s billion-strong population lives in the states and not in the metros. The disproportionate focus on the lives and times of New Delhi obliterate what is happening by way of abysmal governance in the real India. If there is still hope that India will one day miraculously reform itself, it will not come through panel discussions on national television. It will come by ousting corrupt officials in the state governments and replacing them with honest ones. But for that the responsibility for the appointment of top players must rest in safe hands — starting with the Chief Secretary of the state. The least that has to be done is to deny senior appointments to those involved in a Prevention of Corruption Act (PCA) case while simultaneously widen the ambit of corruption as recommended by the Second Administrative Reforms Commission.
The Second ARC had recommended inclusion of four kinds of misconduct to be termed as corruption: Subversion of the Constitution and democratic institutions (for example, shackling the freedom of speech and conniving with police excesses; unduly favouring or harming someone (the allotment of land, housing and scarce commodities on the principle of pick and choose as in Adarsh and Noida scams; obstruction of justice (delaying prosecution, issuance of charge-sheets and initiation of disciplinary action as in Neera Yadav’s case; and squandering public money by bodies like the Commonwealth Games Organising Committee.
A new section should be introduced under the PCA to include “collusive bribery” — “if the outcome or intended outcome of a transaction leads to a loss to the state, the public or public interest”, it would be corruption involving both the public servant and the beneficiary (for example, persistent maladministration of the public distribution system).
These recommendations, far from being woolly headed, are essential and practical. But it is unlikely that they will ever get implemented. If corruption is to be checked, the only way is to equate misgovernance with criminality. There is need for time-bound implementation of the ARC’s recommendations. We need a civil society leadership that can force the government to change the definition of corruption; backed by a PIL that can leverage judicial direction to make it happen