IN THE BUREAUCRAT'S COURT!
Whether or not to further reform the bureaucracy has been debated umpteen times, but opinions have mostly verged on extremes. Some say cadreism in govt offices is worse than casteism in society and that the IAS cadres must be disbanded or at least their status be significantly diluted. Others say bureaucracy is essential not only to balance and effectively wield control over the system that increasingly looks hijacked by the political class, but also to instill confidence in the public that, more often than not, remains disappointed with the people whom they vote to power. But if the common man's experience is taken into account, bureaucracy looks mostly inaccessible, nonchalant, lethargic and non-delivering. Despite all these poor attributes, it tends to be arrogant. That doesn't, however, mean that there are no 15 to 20% exceptions, where bureaucrats are seen sufficiently functional and attentive to their duties.
But what speaks for those who remain incorrigibly corrupt and arrogant? Is it because the elitist status of this service has not yet gone, despite several exercises gone into administrative reforms? After Narendra Modi took reins of power, he sent a strong message to his Ministers and the Central bureaucracy that he would brook no corruption under his regime. Records now suggest his message has been taken seriously and there is no evidence of corruption at least in high offices. If there are instances of little aberration lower down, evidence shows stiff action is invariably taken. While in the Central dispensation things look better, corruption, bureaucratic arrogance, inaccessibility persist as usual elsewhere. Some states, both ruled by NDA and the Opposition parties, present a far dismal record. Putting figures of poor showing on this count will not have much relevance here. It is enough to mention that even majority of district magistrates don't care much for the people's woes!
Steel-frame ICS was replaced by IAS to equip the service with the potential to cope with the changing and enormously challenging needs of Independent India. With the shift in its nomenclature and composition, which brought into the service socially and economically backward sections, hopes emerged that the cadre would gradually undergo a sea-change and would shed elitism from its basic format. But alas, that has not happened! Frankly, the entry of weaker sections has made no difference ; rather these sections have become equally arrogant and unyielding in rendering services to the masses, including Dalits and other deprived sections of citizenry. Has it resulted from the cadre coming under the political executive that forces it to comply with its self-centric inroads of greed and whimsies, even if the cadre officers raise objections strictly in compliance with the laws?
It is argued in favour of IAS officers that they are made to work very hard and are subjected to unenviable environment that brings immense pressure on them from politicians, judiciary, vigilance, activists, the media and other agencies This argument holds good, to an extent, given the rising expectations of the people and the needed deliveries that are key to national growth and prosperity and are essential also for the survival of politicians. What we miss in this narrative is also the fact that a section of IAS officers become proteges of politicians and the two together exploit the system to the hilt. That speaks for multiple massive scams that have shaken the conscience of people in recent times. Corruption running into several lakh crores of rupees has quietly eaten into the country's treasury. Graft always existed in India, but the new-found politician-bureaucrat axis in modern times has hit our democracy very hard. In service, IAS officers demand plum positions and postings, but when they reach the top, somewhere close to retirement, most of them look for extraordinary favours, such as extensions in services, re-appointments as governors and chairpersons of various money-spinning entities, party tickets for elections to legislatures etc. List of these favours, that essentially flow in through the good offices of the political executive, is extremely lengthy, almost endless, to say the least.
I must agree that at least 90% young, brilliant IAS officers, both men and women, join the service with great zeal not only to “change the face of administration, but also to conquer the world", to borrow the phrase of a young IAS officer. Delhi girl Tina Dabi, who topped the Civil Services Exam-2015, says with aplomb, “ I have chosen Haryana as my cadre preference. I always wanted to work in a challenging state. That is why I chose Haryana.” As these officers enter the stream of rigorous training, their resolve to serve the society with honestly and perseverance becomes more pronounced and visible. Since they are trained as 'generalists' with a broad vision, hurtled into a vast area of operation, unrestricted by specializations, they just relentlessly work and stop counting successes and failures. That means they are made capable of handling any job worth description with an administrative acumen and drive that get them results in any field through their team of ‘specialists’. They are trained to infuse dedication and integrity within the workforce they handle. That may not be an easy task to do, but they work on it with fervour under the compulsive commitment to achieve great things and gain prominence.
The problem, however, comes when their zeal is systematically muzzled by that dirty breed of hawkish politicians who reach the top by elbowing their way into politics by killing the spirits of many forward-looking, meritorious political co-aspirants. Lok Nayak Jayprakash Narayan once said, "There is no place for honest people in politics." Look at the unyielding spirit of Ashok Khemka, a senior IAS officer of Haryana, who had the temerity to cancel the mutation of Robert Vadra's illegal land deal in Gurgaon, all in defiance of the CM’s oblique directive. For his indomitable spirit of honesty and integrity, he was transferred 45 times in 23 years by successive state govts after he exposed graft in different departments he worked in. D K Ravi, a brilliant IAS officer had to lose his life for the raids he conducted on major tax-evading real estate firms in Bangaluru in 2015. He was found dead at his house under suspicious circumstances. Earlier, Ravi had launched crackdown against govt land encroachment and rampant illegal sand mining in Kolar district. There are dozens of other IAS officers who did or have been doing commendable job on the side of impeccable integrity. Who will forget the names of Armstrong Pame, Sharimugham Manjunath, U Sagayam, S R Sankaran and the exceptional young B Chandrakala and Durga Shakti Nagpal, among many others?. They deserve accolades for being amazing officers, having brought loads of inspiration for their colleagues and the rest .of Indians.
So several questions crop up here : Are most of the IAS officers dishonest or corrupt? Are honest officers like Ravi always remain under threat? Why do IAS officers quit? Are honest officials haunted by corrupt politicians and forced to compromise? And now the most important question : Why do hundreds of honest IAS officers ultimately compromise on integrity after showing guts in fighting the scourge of corruption for years ? Is it possible for an honest IAS officer to still gracefully survive in the present environment, work and still excel? And now a question that will make many officers look askance: Can an IAS officer lead an honest life under the tremendous pressures he or she faces in service from politicians and others?
While these tough questions can be answered only by bureaucrats and, of course, by politicians and those non-state actors who make the lives of these honest officers miserable, those who feel tempted to debate this issue must come with workable suggestions on how best to eliminate the rot from this cadre. If our young, meritorious people who work hard to get into civil services swearing integrity feel suffocated after a couple of years' working in top jobs, what manner of joy our corrupt, callous politicos derive in torturing these geniuses ? It’s shame if it’s just for money!
When it comes to reforming the bureaucracy, the big question faces the policy-makers: “How to make it truly independent and free it of political control? Since our democratic system doesn’t allow this, the rot is bound to continue. But here a pertinent question comes: “If IAS officers at various levels of administration can play vital roles in conducting free and fair elections under the poll panel’s directions, why can’t they feel free to work honestly, resisting the politicians’ wiles? But this needs guts where temptation of lucre and unlawful gains loses meaning in the officers’ priority options. It’s to be or not to be and, finally, the ball lies in the bureaucrat’s court!