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Vol. 6 | Issue 5 | Aug 2012

humour mk kaw
The ‘still frame’
WHEN we had the Indian Civil Service, it ruled the country. All the power was vested in the ICS officers, especially if their skin was white. They were the burra sahibs. There was no one to share power with them, no Minister, MP, MLA or Sarpanch.
This happy situation continued even when the brown sahibs started entering the service. Contemporary accounts indicate that a kind of apartheid was practised and new desi entrants to the ICS did not socialise on familiar terms with members of the Officers’ Club, which was dominated by the British members. The brown sahibs felt more at ease in the Indian Officers’ Club.
By the time the British left, the brown sahibs had found their feet and another kind of silent discrimination was practised by the ICS against the IAS. Gradually, the politicians came into the system of governance and learnt the ropes. What was once hailed as the ‘steel frame; started rusting. Today it is known more as the ‘still frame’, on account of its lack of movement and dynamism.
Today, if you talk to a member of this ‘still frame’, he is most likely to plead guilty to the charge that all decision-making has ground to a screeching halt. As an excuse, he is likely to say that in today’s system of power-sharing between the netas and the babus, the latter have been rendered powerless. He may present any of the following gems:
  • Every one else in the Government is a Constitutional authority. Only the civil servants are not;
  • Earlier, the understanding was that politicians made policy and the bureaucrats administered. Today, the Ministers loudly proclaim their disinterest in policy and vociferously pass administrative orders;
  • The Minister is the boss. Anything he says, verbal or written, is an order. Even an illegal verbal order is an order and has to be obeyed;
  • If you take an independent stand, you are out. Either you are on the shelf and the Minister bypasses you, giving orders to your junior o you are shunted out of the post in the same station or elsewhere;
  • If you persevere, you might be chargesheeted and even placed under suspension. In extreme cases, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) might be unleashed against you and you might find yourself behind the bars; and
  • If you do not learn by experience and continue to misbehave, the neta might issue a supari against you.
  • All these scenarios are matters of daily experience and not imaginary concoctions of the mind. So can we say that today, the ‘steel frame’ has to be still or else…?
Ø  Let us take the various assumptions one by one:
  1. Are the Civil Services not a Constitutional authority? There are provisions in the Constitution about the all-India Services in particular, and the services in general. Experience has shown that the so-called Constitutional authorities, like the Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) or the Comptroller and Auditor General of India, have exercised authority when the incumbent of the respective office chose to do so. We have had CEC’s galore, but Seshan was a phenomenon. Why? Because he chose to convert himself into one. Vinod Rai is only the latest in a string of CAGs. Has any other CAG wielded as much clout? Did we have to amend the Constitution? No. The existing law was enough to empower the CAG. All that Vinod did was to exercise his powers!
  2. Coming to the dichotomy between policy and administration, an area of maximum interference by politicians is transfers and postings. The bald truth is that the politicians interfere because bureaucrats follow no policy on transfers. Just one example will suffice. When I was Secretary, Human Resource Development, I tried to intervene in one or two cases of transfers. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the Commissioner, Kendriya Vidyalaya Sangathan, had formulated a rigid policy of transfers. It was based on data pertaining to past transfers, principles, mathematical calculations and total transparency. Every employee was given the option to move after a certain stay in a place. Each employee was allowed to give three options. In a totally transparent manner, the computer decided what the next posting would be. The process was placed on the internet. Even the Minister and the then Secretary had no authority to interfere. Believe you me, it worked!
  3. On the question of orders given by Ministers, let us be clear that a Minister is not above the law. An illegal order has to be disobeyed, irrespective of whether it is verbal or written. A former chairman of the Railway Board once told me that he put all illegal orders of his Minister in a secret drawer without acting on them. Nothing untoward happened to him. The Minister lost his job soon. He was later embroiled in the Commonwealth Games Scam and had to go to jail.
  4. Yes, you might be transferred. So what? Things do not always remain the same. There are Cabinet reshuffles and Ministers move to other portfolios. Even an ‘unimportant’ post can yield a rich harvest if you apply your mind to it. One officer was posted as an Officer on Special Duty (Audit). The next week, he started a department-wise hearing. Each Secretary and Head of Department was required to appear and explain. He got a senior officer from the audit office. Within six months, most issues had been settled and resolved. His performance was so outstanding that he had to be assigned important items of work.
  5. Whether you can be chargesheeted or placed under suspension or brought under the jurisdiction of the CBI all depends on the officer. One has to be transparent in functioning and should keep competent authorities informed about their acquisition of movable or immovable property. All administrative orders should be logical, based on law and rules, should follow precedents and be conveyed to the parties through a detailed reasoned order that shows an application of mind. If these precautions are taken, no evil can befall you.
  6. As far as supari is concerned, fortunately this is not a common occurrence. Most bureaucrats earn their pension and live up to 80 years and beyond. 

Energising the ‘still frame’

  • Can the ‘still frame’ be energised? Without doubt, yes! The following steps are required to be taken:
  • Officers should have a sense of dignity. They should be proud of belonging to a service.
  • They should perform their tasks with a sense of mission.
  • All officers should work with a unity of purpose. If one officer has refused to implement an illegal order, no one else should come forward to implement such an order.
  • Officers should keep a suitcase ready to go and join their new place of posting. They should be happy in their new job and should announce a series of measures they would take in the new assignment.
  • Officers’ associations should be heard and seen being heard.
  • In these days when journalists wield so much power, assiduous efforts should be made by officers to ensure that their version is made available to the print and electronic media immediately after an incident.
  • Civil society groups should be organised to protect honest bureaucrats. This is already happening to some extent. Prakash Singh and others have filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court to ensure the implementation of the recommendations of the Police Commission. TSR Subramanian and others have done the same to protect the interests of honest and upright IAS officers.
  • If civil servants learn how to perform their duties honestly and efficiently, without dashing their heads against obstreperous walls, we would have achieved a proper balance in the sharing of power between the netas and the babus. It is only then that the ‘still frame’ can begin to move and attain the necessary momentum to carry us through the 21st century! g
 (MK Kaw is former secretary, Government of India )  
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