Overhauling Our Steel Frame

Economic Times, January 30, 2012

By Pradeep S Mehta

Wholesale elimination of corruption is a utopian dream, but administrative reform is one way to minimise it

In one of our seminars on regulatory issues, a gentleman suggested that we should have a regulator of retail corruption who would set standards of ‘fees’ and timelines to deliver what the system should have done ab initio. He was of course referring to simple issues like ration cards which cause a public pain. Some laughed but I think there was merit in the suggestion because corruption will not disappear, whether we have empowered Lokpal or Lokayuktas in our States. It is like a man eating tiger, who having tasted the human blood, will not stop at doing so even if it is faced with the threat of being eliminated. Many of our babus are like man eating tigers, and not even afraid of being eliminated. The way forward is to tackle the causes of the corruption so that the menace is curbed.

There are many such causes, but here I will be speaking about just one issue on how babus and politicians extract rents from the system and what we need to do to shrink the menace. If we can start reforming systems, which create such opportunities, much of the corruption can be curbed. Wholesale elimination is a utopian dream. The suggestions, not an exhaustive list, are reiterations, but they have to be said again, again and again, with the hope that change can happen.

How do we build a system of accountability of babus to ensure that they have done what they were paid to do, and in spite of what their ministers may want them to do? (The 2-G spectrum scam is case in point). For example, the Right to Information Act provides for penalties for furnishing the answers in time. Consequently, things are moving and babus are more careful and armed to withstand pressures. On the other hand, the RTI has also been attacked since it causes delays and paralysis. But wisdom has prevailed to not to tinker with it.

Many states like Bihar, Rajasthan have also started adopting a public service delivery guarantee law, which too provides for penalties for non-performance within a specified time limit. Central government is also proposing a national law. In order to buttress accountability we need several other stronger and innovative methods wrought into the law. For example, responsibility of the supervisor should be built in, as many just shirk in their supervisory duties.

An award system too should exist to promote good practices/behaviour and thus act as an incentive to the good performers and shame the laggards. In our driving licencing system, there is a provision that if there are many faults then the licence is suspended or withdrawn. Likewise, a babu with many strikes should be sacked rather than just be penalised. For this action to be sustainable, article 311 of our Constitution should also be amended, because that provides an impenetrable armour to government employees.

Speaking about the lifetime job security to civil servants at all levels, why is it that a gradual elimination process cannot be built into the system. This can function like the system in the armed forces where promotion beyond the rank of Colonel in the army (Group Captain in the Air Force and Captain in the Navy) is only done on the basis of competence and not years of service, and one has to quit if not promoted. In our administrative system whether in the IAS or IFS or IPS or IRS, the employee can go right to the near top and retire at 60 years, even though s/he may have become incompetent on their way up. Consequently, the subordinates have to suffer them and do so willingly because they will be writing their annual performance reports on the basis of which their promotions take place. So incompetence will breed more incompetence.

In my long career, I have come across several such persons but had to suffer them because they had the unbridled power of doing what they should have done in routine course. This is moral corruption though not money corruption necessarily. This is somewhat like what has been happening at our top level in the recent past when the PM has been making valiant efforts to defend corrupt ministers.

The fact is that ministers alone cannot make money easily, without the active support of babus, or at least their forbearance. A nearly true story here will illustrate the point. A minister, after his babu informed him that a deal has been struck with the beneficiary, signed “Approved” on the file noting. The babu went back to the minister to say that the party is backing out and wishes to pay lesser amount. The Minister added the word “Not” before the word ‘Approved’. The babu showed the file noting to the beneficiary, who then surrendered to the original deal.

The file went back to the minister, and using the same pen, he added an ‘e’ after Not, i.e., Note Approved. The babu also benefited financially in the bargain, and got more. Having reached the age of 60 years, he was to retire soon. But being an obedient servant, the minister rewarded him with a sinecure job in a regulatory commission under his charge. He will continue to live in Delhi for another five years, and perhaps make more money in doing a job, of what he knows little about. So here is a system which rewards the corrupt. How does one deal with that? One suggestion is that there should be no sinecures at all to prevent corruption. More on this in the next article, on how the steel-frame perpetuates its stranglehold and promotes systemic corruption

The author is secretary general of CUTS International.

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