When I was driving home one night recently with my family in Bangalore, I met with a minor accident. It was raining heavily, street lights were off, roads deserted and I could not see the road ahead.
Before I knew what was happening, my car came to an abrupt halt with a couple of thundering noises. Did I hit somebody, I wondered with a thudding heart. I got down and realised that the car had climbed up a road divider. Luckily, everyone was safe.
Later, when the Maruti Service Centre people came and got the car down, I was told that this was the tenth similar incident on the same spot during the past one and a half months! Had there been an iridescent sign marking the beginning of the divider, no untoward incident would have taken place.
What about the accountability of a public servant in such a situation where not doing one’s duty could actually endanger the lives of others? Hence this piece.
Path of honesty is never easy to travel
After the initial hype, we have now all but forgotten Durga Sakthi Nagpal, the young IAS officer from Uttar Pradesh who was quietly reinstated from suspension last week. As a positive fallout, this case has helped in galvanising public focus on the necessity to provide sufficient safeguards to those public servants who do their duties without fear or favour. Prospects of immediate course-correction look bleak. But this time, for a change, there have been murmurs of disapproval and muted protests by several associations of All India Service officers.
Before we start demonising the political executive, here lies another important question to ponder over. Are only the politicians to be squarely blamed for all that is wrong with our bureaucracy today? Has the conduct of the members of the higher babudom in India been above board? What has made the civil servants servile? Are they not equally, if not more, responsible for the failure in governance?
This is the feeling I get when I see the newly paved/repaired stretch of roads in Bangalore becoming un-motorable after a few hours of drizzle or after one month of regular traffic. Who approved the estimates of the road repair? Who performed the works? What were the specifications? Were they adhered to? Who inspected the work? Who passed the vouchers? Who was the contractor and how much was paid to him? And finally, who is accountable for the bad roads?
It is pertinent to mention here that the president of a contractors’ association in Bangalore recently confessed on a national television that they have to pay 40-50 % of the total work outlay to bureaucrats, engineers and politicians. Ashok Khemka hit the nail on the head when he told last month that ‘If the bureaucrats were really public servants, there would have been no 2G or coal scam’.
‘Indian bureaucracy worst in Asia’
A recent survey in Hong Kong by a reputed agency has rated India’s bureaucracy as the worst in Asia. ‘They have terrific powers’, noted the report and observed ‘doing business in India is frustrating and expensive’.
So, when I read an article by a bureaucrat recently (Mr Srivatsa Krishna on 15-08-13 in Times of India) about IAS being, by and large, one of the finest higher civil services in the world, I was truly baffled. The article blamed the lower bureaucracy for red-tape and dreaded their ability to stymie any effort towards progress. Amazingly, the piece went on to fault the Hazare-Kejriwal movement for the reluctance among the honest officers to take right decisions.
The Human Development report of 2013 released by UNDP ranks India at an abysmal 136th position out of 186 countries surveyed. After 66 years of independence and innumerable billions spent on development, we are decades away from providing to the citizens the basic necessities of clean drinking water, reasonable healthcare, good primary education, responsive justice system, durable roads and working drainage.
How does the game change?
Isn’t this a bit of a paradox while having one of the ‘finest higher civil services’ in the world? When young men and women enter bureaucracy at the age of 23-35, their minds are no more impressionable. They come into the service with their own baggage of ideas and ideologies. Once on to their field postings, they taste unbridled power, control over huge government finances and face scant accountability. There are numerous subordinates, contractors and businessmen who try to appease them with flattery, gifts and cash for favors in return. Most succumb easily.
For the honest, there are challenging times in the form of political pressure, stress from the superiors to bend rules and the threat of repeated transfers. Only the truly principled and disciplined survive this test of character and come out clean and unscathed.
It is a miniscule of officers, not more than five to ten percent by any stretch of imagination, who remain steadfastly honest, ethical and just throughout their career. The rest accept and adapt to the system of complacency and commissions. This is the tragedy not only of the IAS but also of other services as well.
Glimmer of hope in gloomy scenario
In several states, officers pay money or promise favours to the political executive in return for prized postings. If some upright officer refuses to kowtow, there are many waiting with suitcases and stooping backs at the doorstep of ministers. And we keep blaming only the politicians! Steel frame, did anyone say?
Officers like Durga Nagpal of IAS and Sanjiv Chaturvedi of Indian Forest Service are exceptions and we are in dire need of such rarities. There are many more officers from the entire spectrum of civil services who are struggling hard under trying conditions to make a difference to the life of aam admi. Even though their number is considerably small, it is they who offer a glimmer of hope in this gloomy environment that is so all-pervasive.
Today, our bureaucrats have scant regard for providing good quality of life to the public. Being on a higher pedestal from the common populace makes them oblivious to their sufferings. Babus have no scruples in pocketing commissions from the line departments like health, education, public works, irrigation etc. Several officers display abject dearth of courage in the face of pressure from seniors and politicians.
Timidity in the face of pressure isn’t a virtue
When the officers enjoy perks like government quarter, chauffeur-driven vehicle, attendants in office and at residence irrespective of repeated transfers or place of postings, timidity cannot be accepted as a virtue. The lack of basic quality like courage to speak the truth and act accordingly cannot be blamed on Hazare-Kejriwal movement. The bureaucracy has been cocooned for decades in shrouds of secrecy and now when the prism of accountability is flashing at them through RTI and assertive and demanding public, they are feeling uncomfortable.
In essence, the bureaucrats run this country along with the politicians. They formulate policy, oversee their implementation and share a strong bond with their political masters. When things go well, they are quick to claim credit. But when things turn bad, it is the fault of the subordinates you see!
On the front of accountability, the report card of the bureaucracy has not exactly been spectacular. When it comes to prosecuting the corrupt, systemic brakes are routinely applied. Departmental enquiries drag on for years and quickly fade from public knowledge and scrutiny.
With powerful friends in politics and police, the criminal cases seldom move forward. Under these circumstances, bureaucrats will only be fooling themselves by playing victim. It is time the higher civil services of the country stopped blaming everyone else for their own weaknesses and failures and start thinking of a clean-up within.