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Need for bringing India's notorious bureaucracy to account

The BJP government has done better in preparing lists of those officers who are inefficient or corrupt

Jagdish Rattanani Mar 22, 2022
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A Deputy Commissioner of Police in Mumbai has gone missing and has now moved the courts for anticipatory bail after complaints that he sought to extort Rs 10 lakhs a month from ‘angadias’ who run a uniquely Indian courier system that delivers high-value packages, including cash and diamonds, sans any paperwork.  

Angadias reflect tradition and ingenuity in finding unique solutions to unique problems in the Indian context, bypassing the prying eyes of government agencies and delivering high-value cargo with a precision that “professionals” like DHL and BlueDart and FedEx cannot or will not deliver.  

It is their standing that has brought them a hearing and led to the decision to first transfer and then suspend the DCP, Dr. Saurabh Tripathi, an IPS officer with a medical degree in dermatology. The case is not particularly shocking in the Mumbai context, which has a former Commissioner of Police, Param Bir Singh, being investigated in a complex and still unexplained case of dynamite sticks being planted near the home of Mukesh Ambani, a host of other allegations and linkages to a murder.   

Another IPS officer, Rashmi Shukla, is being investigated for her role in illegal wiretaps of several politicians and power-brokers when posted at the Intelligence department in Maharashtra in 2019. 

Corruption galore 

What is to be done in these cases? Investigations continue to be notoriously slow and the process of removal and prosecution of black sheep is as arduous as ever in a country that still, like it was under the British system, affords undue protection and defence to the bureaucracy.  

It is interesting that a Maharashtra Minister who exposed some of the wrongs in the case of the arrest of Shah Rukh Khan’s son in a narcotics case is behind bars but the officers who, clearly seen in the light of the evidence, were on an extortion racket, roam free even now. The disgraced former Commissioner of Police in Mumbai is not yet behind the bars either; he obtained interim relief from the Supreme Court. 

Complicating matters in Maharashtra is a political slugfest between the ruling alliance in the state led by the Shiv Sena and the BJP which was outsmarted, is out of power in the state and is seeking to get even in an alleged witch hunt using Central agencies. 

But beyond this immediate game is a larger national problem centred around holding bureaucrats to account for their misdeeds and taking swift and exemplary action against a class used to unbridled power, humungous perks and almost unlimited ways and means to get away with little accountability. This is one important part of a larger problem that combines gross inefficiency, insensitivity and ingenuity in bending the rules to feed an ugly bureaucratic-business nexus, with or without political chiming, to rob ordinary citizens of their due.   

Bureaucratic blunders 

The handling of the Covid-19 pandemic and the demonetization saga, while political blunders, also showed the worst sides of the bureaucracy seen in lathi-charging ordinary people going to withdraw petty cash and poor services at hospitals. This compounded a political disaster with bureaucratic mismanagement heaping misery on ordinary citizens. 

This must change. Now maybe a good time to make some changes to the service rules at the national level, particularly by a party that believes in opening the bureaucracy to new thinking and ideas. Part of the solution lies in administrative reforms but a large part also rests in taking away sinecures that enable most if not all bureaucrats to complete their tenures and retire – irrespective of their accomplishments or lack thereof.  

When a public servant knows that it is almost impossible to get him or her out and into jail, governance will be frustrated by bureaucratic intransigence, incompetence, and worse. 

The BJP move in support of lateral hiring is based on the view broadly that we must make it easier to hire talent at all levels but concomitant with that is the idea that we must make it easier to fire and bring to book all those who fail tests of accountability and integrity. Yes, it is not as simple as that.  

Rank inefficiency 

Of course, the protections are meant to guard against the bureaucracy being pushed to do wrong. But where have these protections worked? In effect, we have the worst of both the worlds – across bureaucratic services. The bureaucracy is more than willing to toe the establishment demands – almost always, unfailingly and can even come up with ingenious defences of the indefensible.  

Take just one example from the IPS: police encounter killings, euphemisms for killings in cold blood. No IPS Officers’ Association condemns it. The police have a hand in perpetuating it. It may serve short term ends but breaks down governance structures in the long run.   

In short, a bureaucratic order meant to be independent has signed up for any project it is asked to execute, offering political solace to a given political establishment and feeding on all-round corruption in return. It comes at a huge cost to the people of India. It was Atal Bihari Vajpayee who said at a National Development Council meeting in 1999: “People often perceive the bureaucracy as an agent of exploitation rather than a provider of service. Corruption has become a low risk and high reward activity.” 

‘Rank and yank’ 

If things need to change, India will need to bring in tough steps to hold the bureaucracy to account. Instead of time guaranteed promotions (cut in stone, seniority-based, after completion of 4, 9, 13, 16, 25 and 30 years, you become eligible for the next pay scale!), retirement at a fixed age of 60, which most bureaucrats go on to complete, we need a policy of “rank and yank” – an annual ranking and firing of the bottom ranks on a bipartisan framework agreed by all political players.  

We need accountability sans political vengeance. With this framework, when corruption shows up, it should be possible to send strong signals with suspensions, a full range of investigations by all arms of the government and a quick sacking. We need to throw the kitchen sink at the officers who have disgraced themselves and the service, as in the case of Maharashtra here. 

To achieve this, we need a very different approach from the Ministry of Home Affairs, which refused at one point to share information on IPS officers retired or dismissed. The Ministry later said 13 officers were retired and five dismissed since 2014.  

In Parliament, Minister for Personnel Jitendra Singh is on record as saying that two IAS officers have been dismissed and nine IPS officers suspended on corruption charges in the 2014-19 period. The sanction for prosecution for corruption was granted against 23 IAS officers and four IPS officers. 

Sack the corrupt 

The ruling BJP government has done better in preparing lists of those officers who are inefficient or corrupt. Fifty IRS officers have been compulsorily retired. Their tax returns deserve to be scrutinized. These are laudable steps. We need more. ‘Rank and yank’ as a forced system of ranking will ensure that large numbers are yanked out every year and the pressure of performance and giving a clean administration will then begin to bite and hopefully help deliver some results. At the very least, flagrant violations will cease, excesses will come under control and a cleaning up process can begin. 

One report notes that there is a total of 71 sets of rules and regulations, formally drafted and followed, to govern the IAS, plus another 23 for various states. Many of these offer protections, promise promotions and determine careers. And it is this system that has now drafted a new labour code that will take away the protection of workers in industry and make it easy to hire and fire workers on the shop floor, a contrast as telling as it is baffling. 

(The author is a senior journalist and author. Views are personal. By special arrangement with The Billion Press)

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