The recent directions of the Supreme Court on the minimum tenure of an officer in various postings; on postings to be made on the recommendations of a Board and on the desirability of a civil servant not acting on verbal orders of the political boss have been generally welcomed by the civil servants while the directions have generated a good amount of debate elsewhere.
Prasanna Mishra IAS
Many have raised genuine apprehension over the feasibility or even desirability of a civil servant working only under written instructions of the political executive. Will such an arrangement not be as unworkable as a driver asking for written order from the owner of the moving vehicle in a busy road instead of his oral order to turn left instead of proceeding straight? Governance is a going and complex concern that throws up sudden issues many of which warrant prompt action. The Indian system of having the political executive working with a permanent civil service highlights the necessity of a civil service working with the sole aim of ensuring objectivity and stability to the governance fabric, free from political bias and having the intellectual integrity that equips a civil servant with the refinement and strength to offer his/her views that may, at times, be at variance with the desire of the minister. A civil servant should have the ability to offer his differing views with benign conviction without a trace of crude arrogance. A civil servant should be sensitive enough to appreciate the compulsions in which a minister works. The civil servant should work towards his minister being a success rather than a failure; his efforts should be to see that his minister performs well in Parliament. The system works best when there is genuine hand holding and no hide and seek approach. The partnership has to be healthy, not collusive; with shared approach towards constitutionality and probity. The complexity of governance is not amenable to an easy and simplistic solution like acting only on written orders.
The system, however, calls for a serious and immediate re-look at the manner in which political executive rewards a civil servant on retirement. The country needs greater demonstration of the objectivity of the political executive so that the widely held view that pliant ones are rewarded is proved incorrect. The favoured civil servants get into sinecures – whose number is increasing – and stay with the perks and privileges for five years or even more. Government needs to address this issue with care. One way is to raise the age of retirement to 65 for all so that even sinecures and Constitutional positions could be manned by the selected members on retirement at 60 years and others could remain in service to man cadre posts. The other alternative could be to subject selections to all post retirement assignments to a non political Board and acting on its recommendations. While the country is in the midst of a lively debate on the issue, there seems need to have a look at the present state of health of the civil service. Civil Service in India was nurtured in an ethical incubator that injected a special DNA to equip a member of the service to stand on the foundation of righteousness; probity and integrity of character. In such a philosophy, there never could be room that a member could ever prefer to be on a ‘not working’ mode. Non acceptance of the possibility of a situation of ‘neglecting work’ made some members increasingly conscious that civil service could ignore occasional foray into areas off the beaten track or even persistent aberrations. This assumption facilitated individual characteristics to blossom. While some members exhibited their skill in networking, some flourished as brilliant weather cocks that saw God in a villain if he was in power and villain in God if he was not. Civil Service also provided myriad of experience; offered participation in plethora of events, both happening and not happening. It provided a window to peep through and watch the play of the game called power. Many sharp eyes and brains in the civil service feasted on these opportunities which gave birth to renowned litterateurs who were nice blend of duty with intellect with, in some cases, a tilt towards the latter. Civil service provided opportunities to participate in events where oratorial skill received greater applause than content and made clappings and ovations a better inspiration than quest for knowledge.
As a result, we witnessed comedies and even tragedies. A venerable member leading a fact finding team to ascetain the extent and intensity of drought in the Kalahandi region of Odisha once was candid enough to stop the vehicle moving in interior areas of the District and ask me to explain which land was to be called high land. Another case related to a senior member presiding over an important sector dealing with surface transport who refused to believe that a major port could function with very little rail borne cargo whereas another port would have ninety percent of its cargo, rail borne. He was taken aback to know that even when the port workers were on strike, POL traffic was not affected.
Some in the service felt nourished by show of superiority and exhibited pathological disinclination to acknowledge that erudition, expertise and objectivity were better tools for leadership than mere membership in the service. There was obstinacy in resisting the legitimate aspirations of other services. The service, naturally, ceased to be a leader of various services as it chose self-aggrandisement as its goal. In states, aberrations became galore. In one state many technical departments functioned without cadre management rules; highest posts of technical directorates were freely held by generalist civil servants. The service drifted to a zone of friendless isolation, both in the states and at the centre.
But the civil service always had and continues to have, a fair quota of members who preferred to remain in the dark room and worked with a sense of commitment to the ethos of public service. They even brayed like the donkey of the washerman at the approach of the thief when they saw the dog on duty would not bark because it was angry with the master. They made the thief run but suffered the lashes of the master for having disturbed his sleep. They, however, preferred working in peace with conscience, in silence . The service watched the departures of such officers nonchalantly. Many view that the civil service has steadily and perceptively ceased to be an island of excellence; it has chosen the pace of the Nation and adopted the style of the political leaders, to be in tune with the time. Many insiders would not agree. Who is right is not for me to adjudicate on. I have only a couple of issues – as unsolved riddles – before me. If all was well, why then do likes of Durga Shakti Nagpal stand alone? Why was a cabinet secretary shifted soon after a change in government? Are we to believe that the members and even the head of the civil service have to be political appointees? Is it in sync with the ethos of the service?
Author Former Coal Secretary Prasanna Mishra IAS.