Beyond fixed tenure

Time has come for a civil services bill, because civil servants also shape policies, laws and regulations

mukul

Mukul Sanwal | April 7, 2014



Fixed tenure for civil servants is now a part of the All-India Service Rules. The supreme court’s judgement on stability of tenure for civil servants was based on the expectation that insulating them from political interference will lead to efficient service delivery and increased efficiency. This takes a simplistic view of the institutional dimensions of governance, and the desired result will be achieved only with related administrative reforms.

The department of personnel and training (DoPT) would do well to review the impact of fixed tenures on the quality of district development, criminal and forest administration. Ensuring the effective discharge of statutory responsibilities and duties by public servants is at the heart of governance at the district level as well as the policy level. Currently, non-enforcement or discriminatory application of laws and regulations leads to a situation of patronage where those having clout are not held accountable even for blatant violations of laws or given undue benefit.

Fixed tenure should stem the increasing politicisation of officers. The growing nexus between politicians, criminals and civil servants was documented in the Vohra report of 1993, as “virtually running a parallel government”.

What else should be done? The government of India has not agreed with the recommendation of the administrative reforms commission (ARC) for a collegium to recommend a panel of names to the chief minister for appointment of the chief secretary. This becomes important with the key role the chief secretary will play as head of the civil services board, which will make recommendations for postings and check arbitrary transfers; otherwise fixed tenure could well be abused.

The ARC has repeatedly stressed the need to prepare a Civil Service Act, and the government of India has agreed to one dealing with performance standards and accountability. The proposed Act is to include sections on vision, ethics, and principles for management and framework for performance management. This exercise is still on.

The ARC in its 10th report in 2009 had also examined the relations between the political executive and civil servants, stressed that the “onus for this lies equally on the political executive and the civil services”, and suggested that this aspect should be included in the code of ethics for ministers as well as the code of conduct for public servants. The matter is also still under consideration.

The ARC also reiterated the recommendation made earlier in its ‘Report on Ethics in Governance’ while examining the definition of corruption under the Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988, that “abuse of authority unduly favouring or harming someone” and “obstruction of justice” should be classified as an offence under the Act, and this recommendation has not been accepted by government.

To meet the challenges of the 21st century, there is also a need to go beyond the ARC recommendations. The focus of the colonial administration was on land laws and maintenance of law and order, to secure the status quo while ensuring justice and showing sympathy for the rural peasantry. To meet social aspirations of a vibrant democracy and needs of a rapidly growing urban and industrialised economy, we are still experimenting with institutional arrangements on how best to integrate the new functions – certificates, welfare schemes, land use, urbanisation, public-private partnerships – into this core function, and with representative institutions and the private sector.

The resulting corruption should be checked with the establishment of the Lokpal at the national and the Lokayukta at the state level, but the essential role of the All-India Services will remain in ensuring public interest. There is an important distinction in corruption at the point of contact between the citizen and the administration and the capture of regulatory bodies and policymaking by special interests. The former reflects how effectively the higher bureaucracy implements the rule of law while the latter requires sound advice and well defined procedures, with parliamentary scrutiny, rather than the bureaucracy, as the essential safeguard of accountability and transparency.

This begs the question whether the All-India Services are equipped to deal with the increased performance demands that go with responsibility that fixed tenure provides? Do they still see themselves in the colonial mould as benevolent dictators and ‘guardians’ or in the entrepreneurial mode as change-agents and ‘leaders’? They now need to have the wisdom to identify new opportunities and solutions, build trust with the political executive and collaboration within the civil services.

The ‘steel frame’ was both a group of individuals and an institution for ensuring the rule of law at the district level. The time has come for a national consensus on a civil services bill, because civil servants also shape policies, laws and regulations, and need a compass to guide them. It should be an initiative led by the elected government rather than pushed by the supreme court.

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