Stemming  Political  Corruption



            Corruption in adminstration and public life is now perceived as an intractable and unsurmountable problem, growing day by day in its intensity and sweep. It is a sad reality that the compulsions of electoral battles and allied politics have drawn big business and black money into the game in increasing measure over the years, and this has induced and promoted political corruption in a big way all round. Unbridled corruption brazenly practised by politicians in power is the fountain head for a chain of corrupt practices down the line in administration.

Political parties function through their vast spread of party cadres, supporters and henchmen who have their own command-control system going down to panchayat level. Politiicans at the top are subject to influences and pressures built up by their party men from below. In the vast spread of party men on one side and the civil services on the other side, there is frequent interaction between persons on both sides in several matters of public/party/individual interest. It is this operational juxtaposition of the two organised groups, one of politicians and the other of services at all levels, that has facilitated the fast growth of collusive corruption and the infamous ‘politician-bureaucrat-businessman-criminal’ nexus that was laid bare in Vohra Committee’s report. Hapless victims of corruption, specially at the grass roots level, as well as elders in society, whose ardent belief in morals in life is deeply disturbed by this festering malaise, look round in despair for some relief.  This article examines the scope for the civil services of the country to act collectively and exert force to stem the rot.

Article 53 of the Constitution lays down that ‘The executive power of the Union shall be vested in the President and shall be exercised by him either directly or through officers subordinate to him in accordance with this Constitution’ It should be noted that this Article refers to ‘officers’ and not ‘Ministers’!  Further down, we have Article 77 which states in its clause (3) that ‘The President shall make rules for the more convenient transaction of the business of the Governement of India, and for the allocation among Ministers of the said business’.  It is significant that this Article refers to ‘Ministers’ only and not ‘officers’.

            The corresponding provisions in the Constitution in regard to the States and their Governors are spelt out in Articles 154 and 166 in identical phraseology. Article 154 refers to ‘officers’ while Article 166 refers to ‘Ministers’ only.

It is the Business Rules issued by the President/State Governors under Articles 77/166 that give the statutory authority to the Central/State Ministers to deal with and dispose of all matters connected with the subject alloted to them under the Rules. The Business Rules issued by the President and the State Governors remain the close preserve of the higher echelons in government and are even protected from disclosure in Courts by clause(4) in each of these Articles. It should be noted  that the allotment of business is to Ministers only and not officers. In working practice the Ministers may delegate some minor items of business to be dealt with and disposed of by senior officers in the secretariat, like Secretaries and Joint Secretaries to government, but none of these officers can claim statutory authority to dispose of any matter at their level. If a final decision is taken by them on their own, without Minister’s approval in any matter, and if the party affected by that decision challenges its validity, Courts may hold the decision to be invalid since it had not been made by or with the approval of the Minister concerned as envisaged by Articles 77 or 166 as the case may be. This is a frustrating snag in the present adminstrative practices in government under the Constitution.

The ultimate result of this legality built into the Constitution is that even senior officers in the secretariat cannot take and enforce a decision in any matter on their own, but can only record their analysis and advice in the relevant file and ‘put it up’ to the Minister for decision. This gives ample scope for extraneous influences, political or otherwise, to operate at the level of Minister, and mala fide decisions influenced by corruption can be made and handed down for implementation by the system. Honest and upright officers even at the highest level have to remain mute witnesses to the ‘up and down’ movement of files that are fuelled by corruption.

To understand the irony of the present situation let us start with the administration at the district level which is nearest to people. The District Collector has statutory powers under several laws to deal with and dispose of several matters impinging on the general life and activities of people. If the Collector is an honest and upright officer he has the statutory powers to dispose of matters in his domain in a straight forward manner, without buckling under political pressure. It is a different matter that several officers yield to political pressure to avoid the harassment and inconvenience likely to arise from the wrath of the Ministers above them. But the point is that the system provides for an honest officer to function honestly by exercising his statutory powers at the district level. Likewise, some Heads of Departments like the Director General of Police, Chief Conservator of Forests, Director of Settlements, etc., in the States and the Chief Commissioner of Income Tax, Collector of Customs, etc., at the Centre have statutory powers under different laws relevant to their departments to take decisions and dispose of several matters coming up before them. But when any matter goes beyond their domain and gets into the secretariat for decision by the ‘government’, the statutory responsibility for deciding the matter, however unimportant it may be, rests with the Ministers only and not with any of the the senior officers in the secretariat even at the highest level. The senior officers will doubtless be aware of the ‘corrupt’ course a particular file may be taking, but they cannot do anything effective to stop its course even if they want to.

The IAS cadre of Tamil Nadu has around 300 officers, of whom only a small number of around 50 officers, who are relatively junior, function in the districts with statutory scope to function honestly if they wish. But the large majority of officers, including several seniors, work in the government secretariat and elsewhere merely in an advisory capacity with no statutory powers to decide any matter on their own. Dishonest officers may be happy with this anomalous position since they knowingly  and willingly acquiesce with political corruption and share the resulting benefits. Honest officers remain helpless without any statutory authority to prevent the creeping corruption, and most of them resign themselves to an indifferent attitude of ‘Why should I bother? I have done my duty by recording my advice in a straight forward manner and it is for the Minister to do what he wants’.  It is the public that ultimately suffer in this situation. It is most unfortunate that the system spends a huge amount of money on recruiting, training and maintaing a large cadre of IAS / IPS officers but allows most of them, specially the senior and experienced officers, to float around with no statutory right or responsbility to deal with and dispose of several matters of public interest.

Justice Ramanujam Committee on Administrative Reforms and Prevention of Corruption, set up by the Government of Tamil Nadu in 1996 had carefully examined this aspect of the matter and recommended that Business Rules be amplified to allot some items to be dealt with and disposed of by Secretaries to Government, and that the local enactments which confer powers on the Government in regard to some matters may be examined and,wherever feasible, the word ‘government’ may be replaced by ‘Secretary to government’ by legislation. The  Committee recommended further that in regard to certain matters disposed of by Secretaries to government, the Minister may function as an appellate authority, in which case he will bear full responsibility for his decision at the appellate level. It is unfortunate that the Government of Tamil Nadu did not accept this recommendation, stating that the existing procedure was working well!

Time is now ripe and appropriate for examining the above suggestions in detail through seminars and workshops in different States to build up initiative and pressure from the Services themselves to secure this procedural reform for decentralising and delegating decision-making powers at government level. Articles 77 and 166 of the Constitution may be amended to facilitate this change, which would enable senior members of the Services to function as ‘performers’ with accountability and not remain anonymous as mere ‘advisers’ without responsibility !  Clause(4) in each of these Articles should be totally scrapped to ensure transparency and openness in the transaction of business at the fountain head of government. This reform would mark a significant step in our crusade against corruption.

The fundamental reform suggested above would require legislation to amend  Articles 77 and 166 and also make suitable changes in phraseology wherever the word ‘government’ occurs in some of the existing laws.  The fundamental question would then arise whether the present MPs and MLAs who are very comfortable with the existing system would willingly legislate for the proposed change  to transfer some administrative powers to the Services ?  They would not, unless there is strong public pressure or some other compelling factor which they cannot brush aside.

 As a distinct and powerful group of beneficiaries of the existing system, the elected representatives have always opposed any attempt to regulate formally their conduct.  They have rejected proposals made from 1972 to get them defined as ‘public servants’ under the law.  A precise codification of their privileges under Articles 105 and 194 is yet to take shape. They remind us of the famous French philosopher Rousseau (1712-1778 ) who had said : ‘ Once a people permits itself to be represented, it is no longer free ’.

We have therefore to identify some specific means for building up pressure on the elected representatives to bring about the proposed changes. What are the different possible ways in which this can be attempted constitutionally merits continued analysis and discussion.

It is now realised worldwide that corruption can no longer be treated and dismissed as a mere moral issue linked with the ethical and  spiritual mores of the people, but is a vital issue of governance itself. An encouraging development in this regard is the increasing interest and concern shown by the IMF and World Bank in the effectiveness of anti-corruption measures in the countries which receive financial aid from them. In 1997 they had taken a policy decision ‘ to take governance issues and corruption explicitly into account in lending and other decision making when they significantly affect project or macro-economic performance ’. This was further underlined in June 2001, when more than 100 countries met at The Hague and resolved to draft a UN treaty to control corruption.

The international atmosphere which presently seems conducive to promote effective anti-corruption measures should be taken advantage of by the Civil Services to create a lobby for themselves in public interest and secure the support of IMF/WB for the fundamental reform now proposed.

Howover, any systemic change to entrust the senior officers in government with direct authority and responsibility beyond intervention by the political executive may not  assuredly make the government less vulnerable to corruption, unless the Services as a group have a self-correcting mechanism within themselves to keep them on the straight path despite extraneous pulls and pressures from the sides. The further reform suggested in the following paragraphs may be viewed in that context.

When a corrupt transaction takes place at government level, the IAS / IPS cadres do not show any collective reaction of disapproval to it as a Service. Individual career interests predominate over the need to keep up the clean image of the Service as a whole. If a particular officer at senior levels, say the Chief Secretary or Director-General of Police, refuses to go along with the political bosses on the high way of corruption, the political master can and does immediately shift the inconvenient officer to an inconsequential post and gets another pliant officer into position in the crucial post. This becomes instantly possible because at any given time there are any number of officers down the line ready and willing to fill the post and be on the right side of the political executive. Further, Courts also cannot intervene in the matter to nullify the mala-fide action, because Court rulings envisage protection of pay only and not the continuance of a civil servant in any particular post which is the prerogative of the political executive in government.

However, if the Services as a collective group of well trained and motivated public servants, refuse to be a party to such unethical conduct of public business, the political executive will find it difficult to take this route to corruption. It may be noted that the IAS/IPS cadre strength in the whole country is around 7000, with the MPs and MLAs in all States totalling around 5000.  If the collective moral force of such a large number of civil servants at the higher levels could be harnessed to put down corruption, it is bound to have a cleansing effect on the system as a whole. A possible mechanism to bring about the desired  Service solidarity in public interest will be for each State cadre of IAS/IPS to have a small Ethics Committee in their respective Associations and empower that Committee to take note of such unethical conduct of individual officers and express the ‘displeasure’ of the Service as a whole over the impugned conduct. The composition of such Ethics Committees should not be linked with the rank or seniority of officers but should be solely determined by the reputation of officers and their ideological zeal and commitment to corruption-free and service-oriented administration. It should be remembered that ideology is a strong factor influencing a person’s conduct, behaviour and general attitude to life-situations, specially among the younger members of the Services. If the Ethics Committees take some such young officers on board, they can function as an effective vigilante group to keep up the image of the Services as a whole. For this mechanism to work in actual practice, we must evolve a proper definition of ‘unethical conduct’, and also identify some specific forms in which the ‘displeasure’ of the Service over a specific instance of unethical conduct may be made public. It would be of interest to recall at this juncture that in the 1970’s an exercise was started at the Centre at the instatnce of the CBI to draft a Code of Ethics for the IAS / IPS but the exercise got aborted midway for lack of support from senior officers who harped on questions of rank and seniority and refused to come under a scanner operated by juniors! Such ‘feudal’ considerartions should be ruthlessly put aside in present times, and we should go ahead with the constitution of Ethics Committees for the Services very soon. In this context it is heartening to note from a news report of 30th April, 2005 that our Parliament has constituted an Ethics Committee under the Chairmanship of former Prime Minister Chandrasekhar to deal with this very same matter in regard to Members of Parliament.

Even a little measure of success in all our efforts to put down the menace of corruption depends on the ideological motivation and commitment of the younger members of the Services who, because of their youth and freshness, will be able to absorb and adopt ideologies in life. Special inputs for this purpose should be provided in abundant measure in the training institutions of IAS / IPS and also the in-services training programmes in their early years in service. Value-oriented education in schools, if seriously pursued and effectively implemented, would be of great help in this mission. The upcoming younger generations are our only hope.