Holding India back

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The unmet demand for contraception is the highest in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Jharkhand. Together with Madhya Pradesh, these States produce the maximum underweight, stunted and wasted children born to under-aged mothers
Were it not for the Hindi-belt States, India might well have been another country. Girl’s married before the legal age, high fecundity of adolescents, recurring childbirths and absence of birth spacing make tedious reading. But when the findings of the National Health Survey-3 are read alongside the Ministry of Human Resource and Development and National Population Commission data, a few surprises and some shocks emerge.

First, Orissa has crawled out of the BIMARU (now EAG) stranglehold. It has among the lowest annual growth rates (2001-2010) projected for the country — just a shade higher than Kerala and Tamil Nadu. As far as the age of marriage and adolescent fertility are concerned, Orissa is lower than Gujarat and Haryana. Female drop-out rates from classes’ I-X are better than the All-India average and far better than neighbours Assam and West Bengal. High infant mortality, however, pulls back other achievements.

Let’s move over to Himachal Pradesh. The female dropout rate from class I-X stands only slightly above Kerala. HP also has the lowest percentage of women married before 18 — far ahead of Kerala, Tamil Nadu or any other State. As a natural outcome the percentage of women that started childbearing before 19 was just 3 per cent compared with 27 per cent in Jharkhand and 25 per cent in Bihar and West Bengal. No wonder that the fertility rate of Himachal Pradesh is equal to that of Kerala. This also blasts the belief that only the Southern States have the commitment to propel population stabilisation.

Another shock is how poorly West Bengal performs when it comes to the age at which girls start childbearing. The State is at the level of Bihar on this index with 62 per cent of girls married before 18, belying lofty claims that women’s welfare has pervaded the proletariat. In terms of educational attainment, the class I-X female dropout rates are worse than even Madhya Pradesh.

When it comes to the use of contraceptives, Andhra Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh and Punjab come out the best. Predictably the unmet demand for contraception is the highest in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Jharkhand, with the gaps in contraceptive cover resulting in high fertility and appalling levels of maternal, infant and child mortality. Together with Madhya Pradesh these States also produce the maximum underweight, stunted and wasted children in India.

Ultimately, faster development cannot take place unless fertility rates come down much sooner. Much as education, electrification, safe drinking water and toilets are necessary, absence of these can hardly be an alibi for denying reproductive rights, now. Pushing up the age of marriage as exemplified by Himachal Pradesh is a single achievable goal which can make the biggest difference. If we could simply ensure that girls do not get married before the legal age of marriage, up to 3.4 million births each year could be averted. That is 12 per cent of the total annual births in the country. Is it too much to ask Governments to ensure that marriages are stopped before the legal age? The road to population stabilisation need not be preceded by citing the education first approach all the time. Important as education is, Himachal Pradesh and Orissa have shown that other things too can make a difference to fertility and population growth.

The new Prohibition of Child Marriage Act 2006 was notified on 10th January 2007. With its enactment, the Child Marriage Restraint Act 1929 was repealed. Legally and administratively no law exists today to restrain or stop child marriages in States that have failed to notify the rules that accompany the Act. In effect no cognisance can be taken of those who marry off their daughters before 18.

According to information available with the Ministry of Women and Child Development, only Rajasthan, Karnataka, Kerala and Manipur have enacted the rules which are necessary for enforcing the Act. This despite a lapse of nearly 20 months and repeated exhortations to speed up the process. Chief Ministers need to be confronted with their perfunctory attitude to an all important subject which directly affects the health and well-being of mothers and children.

Laws apart, when did the Chief Ministers of Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Chattisgargh, and West Bengal last review early marriages or order an audit into high levels of maternal mortality? What directions did they give? With what result?

None that is apparent from any published work.

Laws alone will not change the face of India. But in the absence of law and with more than 65 per cent of the girls in several States being married before 18 it is shocking that Chief Ministers can ignore what is happening.

A year ago on the World Population Day, 500 adolescents were brought to Delhi to be sensitised about population issues. It was a sad commentary on the prevailing situation when they stepped on the stage to castigate their Chief Ministers for incentivising more and more deliveries by offering saris and other goodies to reward every birth. If only Chief Ministers cared to listen to what the youth of this country seeks, election manifestos may start caring about fulfilling population goals and reproductive rights.

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Women at work

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If adolescents watch women employed in various professions, it will sensitise them on the gender issue

Another Inter-national Women’s Day has come and gone. Celebrities and celebrations once again cemented women’s solidarity. Twenty years ago, such a phenomenon was unthinkable. Ten years ago, it was a Page-3 fling-time for elite women. But things are fast changing, at least in the metros. Recently, when a woman Secretary to the Government of India quipped as she replaced her Minister who was held up, “Once again the woman stands in place of the man”, the audience burst into appreciative laughter and after a momentary pause, applause. The jibe had gone home, although the audience was mostly male.

Around the same time, a presentation on the status of maternal and infant mortality in the country was heard in pin-drop silence. Ten years ago, those present would have said: “That is Health Ministry’s problem.” Five years ago, it would have evoked the mantra – first provide literacy and education to women. This time there was universal recognition that something drastic was needed to be done.

The waning sex ratio, the huge percentage of early marriages in nearly half the districts, anaemic teenagers mechanically forced to produce babies, the growing spectre of underweight children evoked disquiet. Instinctively, people rallied around and promised to involve their organisations and associations in bringing these issues to the forefront. Uneasiness was beginning to show, at least in public.

But what would generate a change that penetrates into homes and bedrooms? While men may not proactively promote sex determination tests, they do remain passive partners and acquiesce silently to female relative’s wishes and wants. They happily embrace early marriages for their daughters on the plea that they have to “fulfil a responsibility” – quite forgetting that higher education, the acquisition of greater skills and competencies, necessarily requires pushing up the age of marriage.

How many men would abandon the prospect of marrying a daughter to the proverbial “bada sona munda”, if she insists on pursuing a career instead? How many in-laws would actively encourage sons to delay the birth of the first child, instead of raring to announce a pregnancy to busy-body relatives?

Fourth of April is celebrated in the US as “take our daughters and sons to work”. It was created by a foundation for women to provide an educational experience for America’s children. I witnessed this phenomenon at work in an office in Washington some years ago.

Recognising that adults continually face challenge of balancing work, family, social and personal responsibilities, including late sitting, making time to pick up a child, providing care for a sick parent and taking decisions that are difficult to explain, the “take our daughters and sons to work” day encourages children to think about these questions. The programme is designed to expose children to what adults do during the working day, to show them the value of education, hard work and the occasional price one has to pay for others.

Of course, America is the land of celebrations and gimmicks, ensnaring the gullible consumer to spend slavishly on cards, gifts and SMS messaging – all part of a multi-million dollar business. But the point about drawing attention to a situation is well taken. The younger generations do need to know the pressures and deadlines at work, the environment that surrounds their parent in office, and more importantly, why work has to take precedence at times.

Taking a positive cue from that idea, if today’s adolescents could watch professional women at work, scientists, doctors, lawyers, sportswomen, TV anchors, it would sensitise them as nothing else can. When they grew up (which will happen very soon,) they will shun sex determination and understand the value of careers for their sisters, daughters, daughters-in-law and daughters-to-be.

A cacophony of voices will no doubt chastise me for thinking only of urban elite and health hounds and activists would decry such simplistic ideas. That is precisely why I write this article. Because sometimes even lip service can make the point.

Even if a few schools, teachers and parents were to make a beginning, providing children the opportunity to watch parents at work, even the values of a good citizen might yet get imbibed, creating just the impact we seek. No father would treat his job with disrespect in the presence of children. If he shows off how important the task before him is, perforce his sense of pride would percolate into the psyche of young onlookers. A man’s self-esteem at work be he a bus driver or a CEO, would make children understand the importance of every kind of work, while imparting dignity to those who perform thousands of dead-end jobs that are none-the-less critical for our lives.

Abhorrence for nepotism and bribery could all be woven into the theme of “take your daughters and sons to work”. We can yet change mindsets if we focus on important principles seen through the eyes of children. Who knows it might still restore the sense of self worth we all seek – an infinitely superior strategy to holding out threats of hanging minions, while the master continues to make hay.

Womenomics revolution

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Affluent countries have recognised the power of professional women who are now increasingly playing an important role in shaping their economies. Sadly, despite the clear advantages, India’s top corporates, are not yet ready to take advantage of the ‘womenomics revolution’

A day after International Women’s Day, women’s empowerment received a huge boost with the passage of the women’s reservation Bill in the Rajya Sabha. But, apart from rejoicing over future political representation, little was done to celebrate Indian women’s present achievements which are by no means small. Today, thousands of professional women are occupying decision-making positions in the corporate sector, in senior bureaucracy, in IT, in the media, as engineers, doctors and lawyers. Affluent countries having already recognised the power of professional women have begun forecasting Indian women’s (spending) power by drawing a parallel with Western developments.

Aviva Wittenberg Cox is the author of Women Mean Business which was named the business book of the year. Last week she was the keynote speaker on gender equality at a workshop organised by OECD in Paris. I listened to her as she presented fact upon fact which has begun to make business sense in Europe and the US. According to independent research as well as surveys and data collected by Goldman Sachs, Mackenzie and her organisation ‘20-first’ which works with companies around the world, BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China )women will become an increasing force on account of their spending power.

In the US women now make 80 per cent of the consumer goods purchasing decisions; they were responsible for starting the majority of new business initiatives in Canada; in the UK they are expected to own more than 3/5ths of all personal wealth by 2025. More than half the university graduates in Europe and North America are women and the majority of the eight million jobs created in the European Union since 2000 have been filled by women. Since 2007, more than half the managers and professional staff in the US are women. No wonder then that top consulting and investment banks have been busy identifying companies that can benefit from increased female disposable income. According to Goldman Sachs, the Indian middle-class will throw up millions of new consumers with expanded purchasing power. And within that women’s purses are going to become increasingly significant as they become economically more successful.

With greater influence, and an ‘edge’ of a different kind, women are also destined to rise higher as members of the board of management of companies whatever be their current representation. Studies in Canada have shown that women board members contribute immensely because they pay a lot more attention to important areas like audit and risk oversight. They take into account the needs of a wider variety of stakeholders. They are prepared to go into the details of management and organisational performance. They have been more responsible than men for insisting on conflict of interest guidelines as well as performance evaluations. Makes for good corporate sense.

But according to Aviva Wittenberg Cox, despite these attributes, the boardroom may not be the best way of judging gender balance in decision-making. According to her, it is relatively easy to appoint a woman or two onto a corporate board but it is very difficult to actually groom women to exercise power. Boards are oversight bodies which do not operate the levers that actually run the company. Cox has, therefore, demanded more representation for women on what she called the executive committees, which she identifies as those members of senior management that report directly to the chief executive officer. But according to her, even within the executive committees there are those occupying ‘line’ or ‘staff’ roles with the former having direct responsibility for profit and loss decisions-to be distinguished from those that function in staff areas like HR, communications or legal-with no responsibility for operational judgements.

Seen in that light, she has exposed how India’s top companies, despite clear advantages are yet not ready to take advantage of the “Womenomics” revolution. A survey of the top 10 ET500 companies undertaken by her organisation, using published data, showed that Indian Oil Corporation had one woman on the executive committee as a line manager and ICICI bank also had just one. The rest of the top industries, Reliance, Tata Steel, Bharat Petroleum Corporation, Hindustan Petroleum Corporation, State Bank of India, Oil and Natural gas Corporation, Tata Motors and Hindalco Industries had zero women on their executive committees, responsible for line responsibility.

At the 54th session of the Commission on the Status of Women held on March 5 at Geneva, India’s permanent representative harked back to the mother goddess of the Indus Valley civilisation and the special place that women have occupied in the Indian psyche since times immemorial. Followed by a resolve to provide literacy, education and health to bridge the gender divide, he ended with a quote from Manusmriti:

“Yartra naryastu pujyante ramante tatra devataha.”

(Where women are worshipped, there the gods reside.)

Instead of worshipping women as goddesses, perhaps a mention of the expanding Indian middle-class and women’s achievements within that might have better signified the prospects that lie ahead — whether women get worshipped on merit or on the potential of their purse. As India grapples with improving women’s health, literacy and education, the possibility of gender equalisation within the middle-class is definitely cause for celebration.

Whistling away your life

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Whistle-blowing in India is likely to be rendered comatose unless it is enabled differently. An independent body, which does not have to depend on Government for either funds or staff, with the authority and the means to extend legal protection to whistleblowers, is needed

An empowered group of Ministers is reported to be finalising the Whistleblowers Bill with the intention of tabling it in the Budget session of Parliament. This article recounts how 29 other countries encourage whistle-blowing. Second it explains why whistle-blowing in India is likely to be rendered comatose unless it is enabled differently.

Whistle-blowing essentially belongs to a culture where public officials have confidence in the system and feel motivated and fearless enough to report their concerns. In most OECD countries, public officials are now obligated by law to report suspected misconduct and corruption. In effect this places the onus on the bureaucracy to proactively report instances of corruption coming to notice. The French Penal Procedure Code even makes it compulsory for public officials to report suspected cases to the Public Prosecutor. In return all OECD countries extend legal protection, anonymity and safeguards against retaliation to the whistleblower. Some countries like Korea also give financial incentives to encourage whistle-blowing.

The trouble with the Indian system is that even the Supreme Court could unearth the Central Vigilance Commission as the best available repository to handle whistleblowers grievances — for the time being. This despite the CVC having no counterpart agency at the State level, exposing the whistleblower to divulge volatile information to a faceless, Delhi-based organisation. Added to this is the fact that CVC does not have the authority or the means to investigate and launch prosecution and has perforce to depend on an agency like CBI, the Central Ministries and the State Governments. This exposes the whistleblower to either a generally suspicious and unsympathetic police mindset or the ambivalence that typifies the reaction of Government Ministries where fear of political ramifications take precedence over all else.

If Satyendra Dubey instead of writing to the Prime Minister, had written to any of the watchdog agencies of the Government, his letter would have been marked ‘down’ with a curt ‘confidential, process urgently’ scribbled on it. But nothing in the system would have required anyone to actually ‘process’ anything, until the paper had found its way, first down, then up the organisational hierarchy, transcribed on to green Government stationery and submitted ‘for orders’. On the upward journey, several questions would no doubt get raised about the credentials of the writer, his own reputation and the unkindest cut of all — what’s in it for him making these complaints?

Seeking comments from State Government is an even more futile exercise. Serious complaints are usually addressed to the Chief Secretary of the State who, despite commanding vast paraphernalia of officers has no way of giving an opinion, except by seeking the comments from the very organisation reported against. If the complaint involves a political functionary, the answers would take that much longer to be sent. Consultations with the political executive (Chief Minister) would definitely take place having their own ramifications. This makes a mockery of the poor whistleblower’s efforts and prevents others who might be inclined to place the public interest before everything else, from ever taking up cudgels.

If the proposed Whistleblowers Act or what the Law Commission called the Public Interest Disclosure (Protection of Informer’s) Bill 2002 is to have real teeth, it would have to be implemented not just by a Government created ‘competent authority’ but by an independent body which does not have to depend on Government for either funds or personnel. The structure of the organisation should necessarily be different from all other constitutional and statutory bodies because of the highly personalised and dangerous ground it is expected to cover.

First, the selection of the chairman and members of the organisation should be through a process of nomination by civil society organisations that have worked in the area of exposing corruption, assisted by the Central Vigilance Commission in narrowing down the selection. Ten names should be presented before a multi-party committee of Parliament which should select five, including the chairman, to function for a five year term-extendable only by the Parliamentary Committee.

Second, the organisation should have the authority to investigate and prosecute independent of any Government organisation.

Third, the organisation should have the authority and the means to extend legal protection to the whistleblower and where necessary, police protection to the whole family.

Fourth, the members should not be answerable to the income tax authorities, RTI, the C&AG or CVC for the limited period of five years. Accountability should, however, lie to an oversight committee appointed by the Supreme Court but to no one else. However, since taxpayers money would be used, the chairman and members should remain accountable for expenditure related decisions for five years after completion of their tenures. On all other matters they should be immune from investigation.

To avoid even the smallest revolving door from opening, members should be debarred from public office and acceptance of private employment should be open to public scrutiny wherever conflict of interest is alleged.

What’s the need for this extraordinary dispensation as yet unavailable in the annals of our institutions? Only because, to quote Thomas M Devine, “Whistleblowers protection is a policy that all Government leaders support in public but few in power tolerate in private.”

Dhoom-dham of shaadis

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Ostentatious weddings are the starting point of dowry extortion. But the situation cannot be altered either through rhetoric or law. For laws to work, more than governance and enforcement, the ethos of society has to change. Respect for simple living and high thinking needs to be inculcated.

Wedding preparations are in progress in a family I know well. Dozens of clinging georgette creations embellished with velvet, lace, shimmer and sequins are spread on a king-sized bed for my preview. Looking at my face, the proud mother of the bridegroom decrees, “The days of traditional saris are over” even as she lays her son’s sparkling shervani alongside umpteen jewellery boxes cradling chandelier look-alikes.

Ostentatious weddings have become a part of societal expectation no matter which class of citizens one looks at. A lavish display of wealth is considered necessary, not just to avoid disparagement but more importantly to gain recognition, improve social standing and receive the endorsement of family and friends.

The Guinness record-holder for organising the most lavish wedding worldwide is billionaire Lakshmi Mittal. Sant Chatwal now renowned for the Padma Bhushan controversy, organised a 10-day wedding celebrations spread across three Indian cities where guests from 26 countries flew in on private chartered jets.

With such examples why do some of us balk if the bride’s father is willing to spend the cost of a car on the bridal lehenga, and the cost of a house on creating the aura of Arabian Nights as a theme for the festivities?

But unlike the Mittals and Chatwals who live and earn in countries where salting away black money is unworkable, in the case of the big, fat Indian wedding it is understood by those present and absent that black money has substantially funded the celebrations. Society far from conveying disapproval accepts that ostentation is a befitting use of do numberi. When undeclared income stashed away for years together is utilised in the noble pursuit of kanya daan it is the fastest method of disposing of the proceeds of kala dhanda — giving immense satisfaction to the spender and starting another cycle of keeping up with the Jones’ — integral to present Indian culture.

Activists have pointed out that a demand for extravagant weddings is the starting point of dowry extortion; but when society itself is not bothered, the situation cannot be altered either through rhetoric or law. Governments have to be seen to do the right thing and therefore find it prudent and expedient to enact stronger laws that activists demand. It makes great news and accompanied by platitudes about shunning ostentation, provide memorable quotes on television too. Those responsible for women’s affairs and social justice swiftly learn to use the language of activism but never refuse to attend flamboyant weddings or eschew vulgar display of wealth when it is comes to nuptials in their own family. Stories about 500 air-conditioners cooling the wedding pandal for a Minister’s 10,000 guests hardly created a ripple when it happened down in interior Karnataka.

The Chief Minister of India’s most educated State, Kerala recently kicked off a year-long campaign against dowry and ostentatious weddings, castigating these evils for swelling suicides, domestic violence, debt and harassment. A Minister of his Government went as far as to demand that a cess as well as a fine should be imposed on extravagant weddings and the money used for marrying girls from economically backward families. Which arm of Government is going to tot up the costs of lavish weddings when its chief watchdog — the Income Tax Department does not consider the flaunting of unaccounted wealth a matter for action?

Singly or collectively the 44 legislations which have been enacted over the last 70 years to promote women’s rights and empowerment have failed even to reduce decadent practices like dowry and female foeticide. Research figures posted by CNN IBN indicate that acquittals in dowry cases have been five times more than convictions. Meanwhile Bollywood, television, bridal fairs and a fast growing event management industry ensure that wedding flamboyance far from declining proliferates.

Taking pledges, adding more laws and arm-twisting people with threats of penalty are rendered infructuous where society universally condones — even blesses a practice across the board. Only when such a practice appears to be deviant from accepted social behaviour does society join the law enforcers to pro-actively stop the menace and ostracise the offender.

For laws to work, more than governance, and enforcement, the ethos of society has to change. If respect for simple living and high thinking is to replace vulgarity and crass consumerism, society needs role models to show the way, not speeches, threats and more laws. There was a time when the Ranades, Gokhles and Jyoti Phules gave that inspiration. Today we do not seem to have any role models with the ability to inspire through sacrifice, leadership and personal example. Only when such giants stand up to change the social ethos will the majority see sense. Only then can we expect change. Otherwise, laws will continue to remain on paper and provide but tiresome statistics.

Given this depressing background, would we instead be willing to follow our derided neighbour Pakistan whose Supreme Court has ordered a ban on ostentatious weddings specifying “No meals or edibles other than hot and cold drinks could be served to guests.” No way!

Needed, culture of ethics

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Societal pressure forces us to exhibit success by society’s standards. It’s time we shun corrupt practices and realise that ethical principles lead to responsible business

I have often wondered why there exists a compulsive need in our society to display oneself and one’s family as always being on top of the world. Why is it necessary to make known, howsoever subtly that one has achieved more than one’s peers? Why is there a societal need to conceal failures — lost jobs, broken marriages, wayward children, financial difficulties, and career and post-retirement frustrations? Why is there a societal obligation and an internal pressure to conform, to compare, to judge and to comment on the performance of others, while suppressing what is murky in one’s own world?

Increasingly the world is looking for ways of admitting the truth, be it in viewing relationships at the level of the individual or the relationship of large multinationals with their clients. That being so, there is a need to think differently about so-called successes and achievements and to take a look at how efforts are being made elsewhere to face the truth and build a climate of trust.

Recently I was asked by a French television company that had been conducting thousands of interviews around the world to participate in an impromptu interview. First I saw the preview. It could be a farmer in Cambodia, a scarfed Sudanese student, a French grandfather or a Swiss fisherman. All the interviews were recorded straight into the camera and the questions were extremely basic but actually seeking answers to what people across the world were asking to be told. Because no one had ever asked these questions of me and because I was certain none of my friends and acquaintances would ever see the photo exhibition, I found myself opening up to a complete stranger and the camera.

The questions went like this: What is your earliest memory? What does family mean to you? Which was the happiest day in your life? Which was the saddest day in your life? What is the meaning of love for you? Did you feel inferior to your husband when you were working? Did you feel superior? Is there someone you have never forgiven in life? Do you feel that your life has been happier than your parents’?

The idea of such video-based interviews was to capture what people actually thought and how they responded when asked personal questions when the mask was down. Unexpectedly I found myself answering what I would never have admitted, face to face. Because all of us are conditioned to fall into stereo-types and wear a mask of contentedness before the outside world; because there is societal pressure to exhibit success by society’s standards of success. And because I knew I was not being judged by viewers across the globe, and there was little likelihood that anyone in India would ever see my responses, I spoke from the heart and truthfully.

And soon thereafter another unrelated but relevant experience came my way. I was a part of a conference on Re-Introducing Integrity and Trust in Business held at the Asian Plateau at Panchgani. Again I heard a constant plea to shun the mask that businesses don in the quest for winning the battle to lose the war. The managing director of Siemens, Mr Armin Bruck and Mr JJ Irani from the House of Tata shared the dilemmas that had beset their companies and laid bare examples of how success pegged to unethical practices was ultimately a disgrace to the company and no success at all. Attended by participants from Japan and a few other countries the underlying theme stressed the need to stop judging success by man-made standards and instead nurture more trustful relationships. Because in the ultimate analysis ethical principles lead to responsible business — companies that respect not just shareholders but a wider world of stakeholders. In the long run, adherence to principles was shown to have earned respect and better business.

The conference highlighted how in 75 countries covering over 2,50,000 employees, the strength of ethical culture was being reassessed. ‘Tone at the top’ openness of communication, whether unethical behaviour was addressed quickly and fairly, comfort levels in speaking up had become the new benchmarks to judge the integrity quotient of companies-not cutting corners for quick profit making.

In this it was important to understand what misconduct in business included. Harassment, inappropriate behaviour, fraud, stealing company property, accounting irregularities and business information violations were higher across Asia than overall in the world. On the other hand Asian countries fared better than the rest of the world when it came to aspects like avoiding conflict of interest, following health and safety policies, avoiding alcohol and drug abuse and insider trading. So there were cultural differences in attitudes to conducting business which ultimately stood rooted in individual behaviour.

It is evident that there is now an effort both at the individual and collective level to respect frankness and truth over subterfuge. It will take decades if not centuries for this ethos to percolate into politics. But in everyday life it is possible to salute honesty and integrity when we see it. Only then can these attributes get the nourishment they need to grow and spread.

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?