Wednesday, June 1, 2005

The Flavour of Salt

The Flavour of Salt
By Narendra Luther

Public servants in India have often come in for criticism, amongst other things, for their lack of integrity. There was a time when members of IAS were considered exempt from this censure. They were also jealous about their reputation. Thirty years ago if some one even so much as hinted that anyone in IAS was corrupt, I would fly at his throat. He was uttering a heresy, committing a sacrilege.

My defence became milder two decades ago. A decade later, I stopped putting up any defence. Now I am grateful if they spare me personally from the reproach. Every day you get a shock. CBI or ACB of some state or the other raids houses of some officer and finds unaccounted for assets. Some are arrested; some abscond till they are able to secure an anticipatory bail or fail in their attempt and have no option left but to surrender to a court. When they are taken to court they cover their faces to avoid being photographed by the media so as to avoid recognition by the viewers. The dramatic public part over, they go into protracted trials and some time come out on technical grounds , procedural lapses or defective investigation. But the damage is done all around -- to the individual, the system and the public confidence. The gods’ feet of clay are revealed to the public and those who were considered incorruptible are seen as just ordinary mortals subject to the temptation of greed.

Falling standards

I remember the time when I headed the Municipal Corporation of Hyderabad four decades ago. Many parties used to approach me for a personal inspection to see the injustice done to them. Some time I had too many of them and said that I would depute one of my senior deputies to do that. The instant reaction of the party generally was that that would not do since they were the selfsame people who were involved in the foul play. By and large, there was implicit faith and trust in the integrity of an IAS officer. Touched by that faith, I asked the government to give me one IAS officer of whatever seniority as a deputy so that I could have my burden shared. I did not get any and so had to carry on all by myself. The same was the case in many of the other departments that I handled. That belief that the party could expect justice and fair play was enough compensation and the pride it gave made one try harder to rise to the expectations of the people -- and even beyond.

IAS was the successor service of the ICS which enjoyed a very high degree of reputation for honesty, personal integrity and fair play during the British rule. Not that there were no dishonest or corrupt ICS officers But if anyone was found to be so, he was confidentially advised to put in his papers and go home. No scandal thus came to light and the reputation of the ‘heaven-born service ‘ was kept in tact. The same was expected of the IAS and for a time it did hold good. But with the passage of time it got diluted. There are many reasons for that. One is the diversity of sources which supplied the recruits. There was no commonality of traditions amongst them. The other is the comparatively low salaries in a world of higher cost of living. Yet another is the character of the latter generation of politicians. They are not the people who made sacrifices for freedom. They came to politics not for any ideal of social service, but in pursuit of power and what power brings to its holder. In our system supreme power belongs to the elected masters. The civil service is required to offer its considered advice on issues of public policy. The pros and cons of a proposed course of action and its likely fallout in the public are highlighted by the civil servants. The new breed of politicians did not like frank and independent advice. They wanted compliance. Those officers who toed the line prospered; those who stuck their neck out got into trouble. Officers were often put in the loop line for daring to advice while remaining within their bounds. The message went round and soon in places, a nexus came to be established between the politician and the elite IAS corps. Officers saw the advantages, albeit short-term of aligning themselves with the politicians in power. The permanent and neutral civil service pattern of the British model yielded place to the ‘spoils system’ of the United States. The old form remained, but the essence changed.

The Spoils System

Young officers still having a spark of idealism did not relish that and we have seen that for years in Uttar Pradesh the IAS Association has been preparing a list of most corrupt officers. Many of them land plum postings and make the lives of honest officers difficult. How long will the young people hold out?

I have given the example of UP, but this is happening all over. In the neighbouring Bihar the Fodder Scam is old history. Recently a young officer having earned international praise for his dynamism, had to go into hiding to escape arrest. In Andhra Pradesh recently two scandals have emerged in quick succession . The house of an IAS officer was raided and reportedly assets beyond the known sources of income were found.

I have dwelt upon IAS because that is supposed to be the elite service and so is expected to exhibit the highest standards of probity. There are numerous cases of top officers of other services having been trapped and their houses raided revealing unaccounted for assets. The rot is therefore wide spread.

What can we do to remedy the situation? When the salt itself loses its flavour, with what shall it be salted is an old conundrum.

It is difficult to stay clean in a sea of muck. A saint does so by withdrawing from the world of action. A public servant has to be a crusader. That role is enervating. Ours is a society which glorifies favouritism. Concentric and enlarging circles around the holders of office are expected to benefit from him. How does one break that chakravyuh? Most importantly, how does one reconcile the demands of political master for partisan action against objective criteria? When ministers alternate their time between courts and jails on the one side and cabinet seats on the other, what is the bureaucrat to do? He can ensure probity on his part, try to enforce it on his subordinates, but he is not his master’s keeper. So, the rot has to be stemmed there. That leads us to the issue of electoral reforms. Also the delinquent official must be dealt with speedily and handed condign punishment. I know, it is easier said than done. So is the case with every problem that matters.