Government must do more to protect honest civil servants
Last Saturday, on civil service day, two former cabinet secretaries were singled out for public acclamation by former president A.P.J. Abdul Kalam. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, while encouraging the civil service to be “decisive”, promised officers that there would be no harassment for making bona fide mistakes or errors of judgement. But who will implement this change of heart? And how?
Civil servants take their cue from the head of the organisation, which means the secretary of the ministry or the minister — usually both. Does either of them respect frankness and objectivity? Do they, in reality, salute impartiality and integrity? When not even a fraction of those who deserve punishment ever get penalised and instead, a number of honest officers get stigmatised by remaining under investigation for years together — often because they dared to stick their necks out — annual adages about decisiveness hurt. An officer caught in the mesh of a vigilance inquiry has no chances of ever getting promoted, or getting a significant posting for the remainder of his career. A vigilance probe has a catastrophic effect on his social standing; worst of all, it prevents all those who have watched his predicament from ever displaying initiative, leave alone taking risks.
Inquiries have no time limits. Many alleged misdoings are found to be the result of motivated complaints or service rivalry. Procedural lapses and plain mistakes continue to be inquired into with the same degree of suspicion and fault-finding as probes into serious misconduct. No senior officer or politician actually helps an honest officer, lest it is seen as meddling.
The PM also talked about public perception, but this is generally based on day-to-day dealings with public officials — not the thousands that plod in the Central ministries, organisations and even state governments. Honest and conscientious officers seldom receive rewards, apart from a numerical rating in the annual confidential report, which is, in fact, insurance against exclusion from the empanelment process — hardly an incentive. In the ultimate analysis, all civil servants agree that connections and sycophancy overshadow hard work and probity.
If former cabinet secretary Prabhat Kumar got an honourable mention from Kalam, I would give him full marks — but not for setting up a committee of experts and pushing its recommendations (a part of his duty) but for actually picking up the phone and telling the CBI to back off from harassing an honest officer — something I witnessed.
The late Gopi K. Arora, secretary to prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, for whatever reason, fell out of grace. As a young officer, I worked closely with him and got early exposure on the need to show humility and sensitivity towards the public. As the all-powerful single deputy commissioner for the whole of Delhi, at a time when the judiciary was not separated and the police force also reported directly to him, Arora also went to great lengths to guard the interests of young officers. Later, I observed this diminutive man in a crumpled white bush shirt and chappals as he ably convinced every sceptic in the room as to why it was important to push a decision through. He soon became a force to reckon with in the prime minister’s office. But when he saw someone wronged, he also used his clout unabashedly, which is why I remember him today. When a stalwart like the late P.C. Alexander and the then cabinet secretary Krishnaswamy Rao refused to meet me for committing the cardinal sin of “giving evidence” before the Shah Commission of Emergency fame, it was Arora who asked the chief political factotum of Indira Gandhi what the problem was. He then ensured that I got my promotion, which had been withheld for having appeared as a duly summoned witness to substantiate records with the commission.
Another star in the firmament of the civil service has been Naresh Chandra, better known as the former cabinet secretary and later ambassador to the United States. What distinguished this man was, first and foremost, his ability to wear the weight of office with utter nonchalance. Not once during my forays into those imposing wood-panelled interiors of the defence and home ministries, where he presided as secretary, did I hear him bullying or browbeating officers. Not once did I hear the words “deadline”, “immediate” or “urgent”— three of the most misused words in the vocabulary of insecure senior civil servants. Even a jibe coming from Chandra was endearing, because it was devastatingly witty, yet devoid of malice. When someone complained to him that as resident commissioner of Goa, I had displayed rank indiscretion by allowing “sensitive” persons to intermingle over a Goan evening of wine and prawns, he summoned me, heard me out face-to-face and immediately turned his guns on the real culprits — officers in the ministry of external affairs who had vetted the mismatched guest lists drawn up by the governor and the chief minister of Goa.
The whole world thinks it can reform the bureaucracy. We expect initiative and creativity but it must never backfire. We want civil servants to take risks but slam anyone who as much as skids on a banana skin. We want out-of-the-box thinking, but it must never fail. We want solutions but no hint of problems. We extol the virtues of being bold, blunt and forthright, but woe betide anyone who actually calls a spade a spade.
Were the civil service day to be used to display how risk-taking has in fact been rewarded, it would inspire officers to think differently. Also, if the number of inquiries concluded and pending were to be announced publicly each year, it would give some hope. Most important, if an impartial board were appointed to hear every officer with a grievance, it might foster trust. At the end of the day, without a strong and motivated civil service, no government can function properly. Investment in levelling the playing field could give birth to some rare daredevils.