The suspension of Durga Shakti Nagpal has stunned citizens across the country. According to Naresh Chandra, former cabinet secretary and Indian ambassador to the US, “The ground situation in a law and order matter is not supposed to be decided by the chief minister or the politicians but by the designated District Magistrate and SDMs in the area. The statutory judgment made by SDM Nagpal and the order passed by her as a magistrate is being questioned by the chief minister even as the latter is not recognised under the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC)… this is the most colourable exercise of executive power by a chief minister.” This statement needs elaboration. As do the ramifications of suspending an officer who was only following the law.
The Indian Administrative Service (IAS) was established in accordance with the provisions of Article 312 of the Indian Constitution. The acceptance rate of candidates aspiring to the IAS is just 0.01 per cent, making their selection among the most competitive in the world. It also makes these officers the most envied and highly resented. A new brand of chief minister now views the humiliation of IAS officers as a feather in his cap.
A little about young IAS officers. Every district (there are nearly 600 rural districts) is subdivided into two to three administrative divisions, each headed by a sub-divisional magistrate (SDM). As soon as the initial training is over, the new SDM is expected to enforce a string of laws and oversee the implementation of scores of schemes. The young officer is usually treated as a member of the district collector’s family, and often of the divisional commissioner’s as well. Their mentoring helps the officer understand and respond to the complexities of maintaining law and order and of providing leadership.
Conferred with magisterial powers under the CrPC, the SDM has to issue prohibitory orders when a danger to public peace or public health is apprehended, and order the search of property when there is suspicion that stolen or contraband goods are being concealed. Every act or rule which involves the maintenance of public order refers only to the district magistrate and the SDM. Nowhere does the CrPC or the law mention a minister or a chief minister. In a democratic set up, the latter are responsible only for laying down policy guidelines in such matters. The legal assessment of a magistrate cannot be faulted, much less overruled, by the political executive. Another reason for the importance of the DM and SDM is their direct role in the conduct of elections, including the maintenance of electoral rolls and the registration of voters under the Representation of the People Act.
Unfortunately, the general perception about IAS officers is that they are corrupt and self-seeking. This fact has been validated by some of them. Their arrogance, aloofness and wilful cultivation of politicians and influential businessmen have resulted in irrevocable public disillusionment.
But the other side of the story must also be told. At least half the IAS officers, particularly the younger recruits, continue to be honest, dedicated to people’s welfare and fearless. Those with less than 10 years’ service are imbued with a strong work ethic; they exhibit extraordinary zeal and innovativeness in commandeering local resources for people’s benefit. Despite repeated harassment and humiliation, and peremptory transfer orders, they continue to stand up against wrongdoing. But the harassment they face is growing day by day. A 2010 survey commissioned by the Department of Personnel and Administrative Reforms found that nearly 80 per cent of the officers attributed the cause of harassment to a refusal to comply with unjust orders.
Durga Shakti Nagpal is just one example of this harassment, but her case is extreme and unprecedented. The suspension of an SDM, a junior scale officer, is unheard of in the annals of the IAS. The only redeeming feature of this sordid drama is the rectitude shown by Durga herself. She has not succumbed to the ephemeral joys of media exposure — expressly forbidden by the IAS conduct rules — and she has refused to let her family fight her battles or take advantage of her gender.
But the situation is no longer confined to this officer. It remains to be seen whether her example deters other young officers from going after mafias and crime syndicates, complying with court directives. If more young officers are treated like Nagpal, the rule of law will implode, and even the little that is being done in the name of development, governance and public order will stop.
It is essential to have a civil service authority that independently decides on the postings and transfers of IAS officers. Recommended by the Administrative Reforms Commission and promised by the Central government, it has been soft-pedalled for too long. Second, anyone who obstructs a public servant performing his/her duty or gives the wrong information about enforcement activities, needs to be arrested under the provisions of the Indian Penal Code. If the police do not take cognisance, the affected public should file collective complaints and pursue the cases in court. Finally, senior officers will only stop signing unjust orders if the court issues severe strictures. The sooner that happens the better.