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Civil servants, unite! Babus have nothing to lose but their servility

by MG DEVASAHAYAM

A group of us, including former civil servants, lawyers and other professionals, have set up the Forum for Electoral Integrity in Chennai. The objective is to combat corruption and money power in elections which is the root cause of the degeneration of politics and the resultant decay in democratic governance.
We address public meetings and student gatherings. With the kind of scams that are rocking the country and with governance hitting rock-bottom, we repeatedly face one embarrassing but poignant question: Can there be such massive and widespread corruption and fall of governance except with the connivance of civil servants – IAS and IPS officers? The unfortunate answer is No.
Take the election scenario. Bribery for votes has now developed into a sophisticated cash-and-carry business model with advance bookings, IOU coupons and the like. Sale/purchase of votes is no longer a stealthy activity, but is done in the open and even boasted about. So much so, formulae have been evolved and publicly brandished for making the voters “shareholders” in the massive loot and scams during elections. Cash for this is stored in containers and carried in cars and vans with police escort.
The entire election supervising machinery, from the Election Commission down to the District Collector/Superintendent of Police, is manned by civil servants. During election time they have a clear Constitutional mandate and exercise vast powers. If corruption and crime have overtaken the electoral process, it is the civil servants who are to be largely held responsible. However, the present EC leadership is fighting a rearguard battle to combat the menace. Hopefully, civil servants will cooperate fully in this.
India has been consistently rated among the most corrupt countries in the world. A majority of the population pays bribes to access revenue services, municipal services, public distribution, healthcare, education, electricity, land records, registration, forest, housing and so on. The police force is the most corrupt among the services surveyed. All this to deliver low-quality services.
Millions of BPL families had to pay bribes to avail of the benefits of the government’s flagship NREGA scheme, directly administered by the District Collectors. Half of the BPL families had to cough up bribes even to get themselves registered for work. About 15% of the poor either paid bribes or used a “contact” to get the benefits of NREGA.
This, despite the much-trumpeted “social audits”. Corruption in the issue of community certificates, ration cards and pension is far worse. These services also come directly under the District Collectors.
On the police side, registration and investigation of FIRs is the most primary responsibility of the Superintendents of Police. But this has become a racket and a massive source of corruption, forcing citizens to go to District and High Courts to seek relief. The general public has to pay bribes and compromise its dignity in the process.
At higher levels, we have Secretaries to State governments and police chiefs who have totally surrendered to Ministers and prefer to share the spoils. How else could an IAS couple in Madhya Pradesh amass assets worth Rs 360 crore? Uttar Pradesh and Tamil Nadu had Chief Secretaries doubling as real estate agents.
The Government of India’s Home Ministry had a Director who sold state secrets for cash and women. Many civil servants own acres of land, posh houses and apartments, luxury sedans and have several bank accounts. Each of the mega scams – 2G, ISRO-Devas, CWG, POSCO, Vedanta, Adarsh, Lavasa – has the imprint of senior IAS officers.
PJ Thomas has inadvertently opened up the “barber’s pit” in his affidavit in the Supreme Court. He reveals that all the nine IAS officers empanelled in 2008 and cleared by the CVC for the post of Secretary to the Government of India, including himself, were tainted by charges of corruption, misappropriation, embezzlement, land grab and possession of disproportionate assets. Their main qualification seems to be their success in soliciting postings from the Prime Minister’s Office or the respective Ministers. This is the kind of person who is occupying top administrative posts in the Government of India. No wonder decision-making is coloured and there is a disconnect between New Delhi and the rest of India!
A recent editorial in The Statesman is revealing: “Much of the woes the UPA government is facing could be traced to allowing a small coterie of civil servants with roots in Kerala cornering all key posts at the Centre from the President’s secretary to the Prime Minister’s principal secretary, the Congress president’s secretary, Cabinet secretary, home secretary, foreign secretary and the National Security Adviser….
It is not because of any rare confluence of talent in the small state of Kerala that most sensitive posts are filled by its citizens. Shameless subservience to their political masters and clannishness are the root cause of their rise and shine.”

At higher levels, we have Secretaries to State governments and police chiefs who have totally surrendered to Ministers and prefer to share the spoils.

The PMO, supposedly manned by the most competent civil servants in the country, is at the epicentre of this clannish coterie and is itself afflicted by major shams and scams, the latest being the secretive ISRO-Devas deal, which is being desperately concealed with the connivance of the media. The Thomas episode is further evidence of these in breeders stooping to any depth to make the country a “Republic of Scams” and destroying institutions in the process.
Be that as it may, let us hark back to 1922 and recall the prophetic words of India’s first Governor-General, CR Rajagopalachari, then a freedom-fighter: “Elections and corruption, injustice and the power and tyranny of wealth and inefficiency of administration will make hell of life as soon as freedom is given to us.”
PERHAPS this dire prediction was at the back of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel’s mind when he wrote to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in April 1948, advocating the formation of an independent civil service, in the functioning of which “political considerations, either in its recruitment or in its discipline and control, are reduced to the minimum, if not eliminated altogether”. This was strongly opposed by the Chief Ministers of the States and many members of the Constituent Assembly. In his speech to this Assembly in October 1949, the Sardar said: “The Indian Union will go. You will not have a united India if you do not have a good All India Services which has independence to speak out its advice – if you do not adopt this course, then do not follow the present system, substitute something else.”
Sardar Patel had his way and the AIS was established to “give a fair and just administration to the country and manage it on an even keel”. To ensure this and safeguard the civil servants from the “vicissitudes of political convulsions”, these services were covenanted in the Constitution.
Set up under such challenges, the civil services had the basic philosophy of delivering de-centralized, good and honest governance to all citizens and uplifting the poor and the downtrodden. Such governance would pursue an equitable, small-is-beautiful, need-based, human scale, balanced development while conserving nature and livelihoods. But most of today’s mandarins are pursuing the MNC agenda of turning the country into a 300-million-strong rich/middle-class market through FDI-funded, big-ticket projects by mortgaging the resources of the nation, leaving the 900 million “laggards” in the lurch.

A majority of the population pays bribes to access revenue services, municipal services, public distribution, healthcare, education, electricity, land records, registration, forest, housing and so on.

In the event, civil servants have been dragged into the very vicissitudes of convulsive politics, scams and scandals against which they were supposed to be a bulwark. They have become accessories to the colossal corruption that in the last five years alone has exceeded the British colonial loot of India of about a trillion dollars. Due to the collective failure of civil servants in living up to the covenant of the Constitution, India’s democracy has diminished, giving place to a “kleptocracy” – a government of the thieves, by the thieves, for the thieves!
India conscientiously adopted the permanent civil service system. But, over time, it has descended into a spoils system, imbibing the worst of both. In the event, despite Constitutional protection, civil servants have abdicated their independence and political neutrality and have become willing pawns in the hands of ruling politicians. Many of them have compromised and some have become their joint-venture partners to enjoy prized postings while in service, grab coveted post-retirement sinecures, acquire properties and set up benami outfits to run business and corner lucrative contracts. Serving corrupt carpetbaggers has become their mantra, the aam aadmi be damned. This is a crisis situation for the civil services.
Is there hope? Yes, if civil servants revert to the constitutional scheme of things from which they have drifted and reinvent themselves to become a fearless, independent, honest and efficient entity bound by an esprit de corps which is absent now. For this, a few colonial and neo-colonial hangovers such as “bureaucratic gagging”, “subservience to political masters”, “too much protection” as well as the jack-of-all-trades culture should be done away with. Also to be discarded are obnoxious practices like clannish inbreeding and servile sinecure-hunting.
The message is clear: Civil servants, unite and assert; you have nothing to lose but your servility. The choice is obvious – resurgence or swansong!
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