Can  Civil  Services  Stem  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. 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, pray in despair that an agent of God should appear on the scene to put down this menace to civilised life in this great country. But, even an ‘act of God’, if and when it comes about, has to get done by people only, either individually or collectively. It is time the civil services of the country acted collectively to exert force to stem the rot.

            It is sad but true 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. However, it has to be accepted that political parties and political leaders are an inevitable, important and integral part of a democracy such as ours, and those among them who come up as people’s representatives should have the ultimate voice in deciding national and public issues from time to time. In practice, the politicians in power as Ministers at the Centre and in the States discharge this administrativve responsbility through the vast machinery of civil services functioning in the field across the entire country.

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 of politicians and the 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. The object of this article is to identify a possible role for the civil services to break this nexus and stem the tide of political corruption before it explodes as a tsunami.

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’! But this may not mean much since Ministers hold an office as such and therefore may be deemed to be ‘officers’ for the purpose of this Article. Proceeding further, we have Article 77 which lays down 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 the 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 under Article 77 that give the statutory authority to the Central Ministers to deal with and dispose of all matters connected with the subject alloted to them under the Rules. Similarly the State Ministers derive their authority from the Business Rules issued by the Governor under Article 166. 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) of Article 77 and clause(4) of Article 166 respectively. The rationale of these protective clauses does not appear to have been tested so far before any High court or the Supreme court. However, after the Supreme Court’s observations and ruling in the famous S.P. Guptas’ case (AIR 1982 Supreme Court 149), it is doubtful if this protection from disclosure will be upheld by Courts. Be that as it may, the point to be noted is 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 over 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 over 200   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 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 Governement, 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 elvel. It is unfortunate that the Government of Tamil Nadu did not accept this recommendation, stating that the existing procedure was working well! It is not unlikely that some senior officers themselves were not very enthusiastic about this fundamnetal change in the system, since that would compel them to be ‘performers’ with accountability and not remain quietly as mere ‘advisers’ without responsibility!.

Time is now ripe and appropriate for examining the above suggestions in detail through seminars and workshops in different States to build up initative 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. 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.

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 vulenrable 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, refues 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. A possible mechanism to bring about such Service solidarity 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 menance 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.