Protect Honest Bureaucrats without blanket immunity

Protect Honest Bureaucrats without blanket immunity

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The CBI Court’s conviction of former Coal Secretary HC Gupta in the coal scam case has stirred the hornet’s nest about the culpability of bureaucrats for the decisions of their political bosses.

A 1971 batch officer, Gupta was an IAS topper and unequivocally regarded by his peers as an honest and upright person. Gupta did not have the financial resources to pay for expensive lawyers and none of our legal luminaries stepped forward to argue pro bono for him in court. Dejected and disheartened, an emotional Gupta asked the court to jail him, as he did not have the money to pay for bail.

HC Gupta’s case has reopened the debate on bureaucratic accountability. Rather extreme opinions have been expressed about how such indictment can lead to decision paralysis in Government. Though Gupta's case may be an exception where a genuinely innocent officer was made the fall guy, the fears of an administrative meltdown are possibly exaggerated.

In many ways, what Gupta faced is a hazard for professionals serving not just in the Government or public sector. In recent years, there have been instances of senior corporate executives spending time in prison for the sins of their promoters. The difference being in private organisations, if the employee is innocent, chances are that the employer provides her or him legal assistance. Whereas in Government, officers like Gupta are often left to fight their own battle.

In a parliamentary system like India’s, the bureaucracy has a vital role that goes beyond administrative implementation of executive decision. The bureaucracy is expected to provide continuity in governance and it is also the repository of domain knowledge that the executive can draw upon. There is no question, however, that the bureaucrats are subservient to their Ministers who carry with them the power of popular mandate via Parliament.

But whether bureaucrats are obliged to tender their advice to the Ministers or simply be available for advice if it is sought is an ancient conundrum. Therein lies the germ of the question as to where does the onus of accountability lie.

Left to politicians, they would love to grab all power with no responsibility, leaving bureaucrats accountable for all actions. But bureaucrats have another very important function. Though it may be stretching idealism a bit too much to say, they should be the “conscience keepers”. The bureaucracy was conceived to provide the necessary checks and balances in the system.

Let no one argue there is no corruption in the bureaucracy. There is also no doubt that, like in every other field, corruption in the administration has increased exponentially. Lobbying for positions has been an age-old phenomenon. It goes without saying that having obtained a post per favour the incumbent becomes indebted to the benefactor.

But in recent years it was widely believed that appointments in many lucrative Ministries were up for bidding that was often underwritten by interested parties, namely businessmen, industrialists and lobbyists for international firms.

Therefore, the case cannot be one of amnesty or immunity from corruption charges. But there is certainly one for providing safeguards that will allow bureaucrats to perform professionally without fear or favour. This calls for redress and appeal machinery that conscientious bureaucrats can to turn to if they feel unduly pressurised or victimised.

It is rare that a bureaucrat is discharged from service, unlike in the corporate world where refusing to fall in line would almost certainly mean a premature exit. But being sidelined or put on the shelf is a common phenomenon. This is a prospect that most officers dread and try to avoid by seeking transfers to ‘safer’ departments or Ministries.

A cardinal principle that used to be followed in the corporate world was: no one person can make or ruin a professional’s career. The same ought to apply in the bureaucracy with some modification. A forum for independent internal assessment of prima facie culpability may be a good idea. This should be accompanied by a system of legal assistance to ensure that the incumbent is not denied a chance to defend himself in court.

A professional safety net is a far better way to ensure bureaucratic effectiveness rather than any blanket immunity. While rallying in support of their colleague, bureaucrats might also like to reflect as to why their reputation for professional integrity has suffered so much erosion over the years.

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