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Elusive ethics

A UNDP study suggested governments need to review their approaches to ethical conduct to have, one, compliance-based ethics management based on rules and enforcement, and, two, integrity-based ethics management relying on inducements and support.

Raghu Dayal |

As the Government celebrated April 21 yet again as National Civil Service Day to commemorate Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel’s address to the 1947-batch IAS probationers at Metcalf House in Delhi, references followed with familiar aplomb to the ideals which India’s Home Minister and Deputy Prime Minister exhorted the young officers to cultivate, to “uphold throughout your service its dignity, integrity and incorruptibility”. 

While the nation was reminded of the Sardar’s advice to independent India’s first batch of civil service aspirants, there appeared palpable cynicism across the citizenry at lack of not just the cardinal tenets of ‘incorruptibility’ and ‘integrity’, but what indeed is a far more telling failure of senior bureaucracy ~ to offer free, frank, impartial advice. Consider the Sardar’s address in the Constituent Assembly, “Today my Secretary can write a note opposite to my views. I have told them that if you do not give your honest opinion for the fear that it will displease your Minister, please then you had better go”. If this metric were to apply today, there will be a ceaseless procession of senior civil servants marching out of the Secretariat. 

While administrative deficiencies are acknowledged to be the country’s Achilles’ heel, and countless reports and recommendations have been churned out by scores of committees and commissions to no avail, in reality, corruption and unethical governance have particularly agitated the popular psyche. Corruption doesn’t merely corrode the nation’s moral fibre; it deprives the masses of an equitable and inclusive deal. 

Every now and then, claims are made that corruption in the country has declined. On a global bribery risk index, India leapt from 185th in 2014 to 77th in 2020; yet the Transparency International annual corruption index still puts India 86th, against 94th in 2013. Where digitization and use of technology in administrative services and processes have reduced public interface, so also scope for discretionary powers, there has been an improvement. What is really worrisome is the unethical conduct and behaviour of the civil service. There’s little change experienced at the cutting edge level. 

Following a common code, netas of all hues seem to live and prosper with the magnificent obsession with grabbing and retaining power, with an inexhaustible appetite for illegitimate funds, most of them clamouring, “what’s in it for me”. 

Take for example some recent instances: Karnataka reported a 10 per cent commission demanded from contractors during a party’s rule; the rate shot up to 30 per cent in the successive government.
One state steals the limelight with its version of vasooli culture; another state body attracted CAG indictment, for “serious lapses of probity, integrity and ethics” in the governance of the body. 

Ethics in public service goes beyond the normal meaning of integrity. As corruption commands centre stage in normal discourse, it includes much, as noted by the Santhanam Committee, 1962: “Improper or selfish exercise of power and influence attached to public office or to a special position one occupies”. Corruption thus is a broader issue than just bribery and encompasses any action relating to abuse, misuse of one’s official position to one’s own benefit or to other acts violating impartiality. 

Among the latest dissertations, an honest and objective analysis of the complex issue is Public Service Ethics: A Quest for Naitik Bharat by former Cabinet Secretary Prabhat Kumar. Narratives of how India’s governance structure germane to ethics in public service has evolved, and glaring deficiencies staring in the face, are deftly interspersed with observations and inferences based on extensive knowledge and intensive involvement in affairs of the government he was privileged to steer, including as the country’s top civil servant. 

Releasing the book, Vice President M. Venkaiah Naidu hailed the author as one “known for his integrity also who followed ethics in public life”. The book provides a peep into Prabhat Kumar’s own personal examples to demonstrate an essential attribute of an upright bureaucratic leader, that is, a strong spine, the capacity to say “No” to the high and mighty and do what is right. The Chief Minister of a state couldn’t bend him to let the sale of a public enterprise go through with questionable processes. As Cabinet Secretary, he declined to issue a wrong notification that the head of the Republic desired, prefer- ring to accept President KR Narayanan’s wrath. While on the one hand, he presents the ‘despicable moniker’, ‘Babu’ for the senior bureaucracy, viewed in the context of babudom widely perceived to be a metonymy for sloth and exploitation, on the other hand, he acknowledges public perception of the rusted steel frame as a well-operated gang of corrupt and in- competent members. The tribe, to which he belonged ~ the so-called superior bureaucracy ~ he confesses, cannot escape responsibility for the culture of corruption in public governance. They have a remarkable ride; the system catapults them, even if some of them are incompetent or corrupt, sometimes both. 

Senior public servants remain critical to effectively promoting ethics and values in the civil service system. An ethical leader role models ethical conduct, and that model is trusted by employees. It is relevant here to remind ourselves of the celebrated motto engraved at the Indian Military Academy, Dehradun, that of Field Marshal Philip Chetwode. 

A UNDP study suggested governments need to review their approaches to ethical conduct: one, compliance-based ethics management based on rules and enforcement, the other, integrity-based ethics management relying on inducements and support. To this end, various countries have put in place codes of conduct, ethics campaigns, citizens’ charters, et al. 

Adopting new laws including a code of conduct themselves will not take us far without implementing the spirit and the word as well as political will. Integrity and ethics are the essences of true professionalism. Codes of conduct and business principles are necessary, but not sufficient. A moral standard is a set of values, norms or principles. This moral standard generates the general ethical demands on each functionary, which, in turn, creates an organisation’s ethos and culture. 

In the words of President Obasanjo of Nigeria, “Civil Service Rules by themselves will not lead to good governance if they are not backed by political will …”. Here a question arises how, for example, in face of the government’s own policy in India that unambiguously forbids extension of service/re-employment except “in very rare and exceptional circumstances”, re-employment/ extension is routinely granted to senior officers. In recent years, every Cabinet Secretary has been on extension, their prescribed tenure extend- ed, once, twice and more. Or take the recent ordinance extending tenures of CBI and ED directors, decried by many as a subterfuge to “keep officers on a leash”. 

A very complex issue, it admits no silver bullet. The perverse system of incentives in public life, which makes corruption a high-return, low-risk activity needs to be addressed. There is an apparent need to reverse the slide by prescribing stringent standards of probity in public life. It is important to have a proper system for funding elections. To overcome complicated procedures arising from the Constitutional safeguards, e.g., Art. 311, a comprehensive examination of the entire corpus of administrative jurisprudence is called for. 

Prevalent institutional arrangements need to be reviewed and changes made, where those vested with power are made ac- countable, their functioning subjected to social audit with a view to minimizing discretionary decisions. The futility of the country smothering itself with a proliferating vigilance network needs close scrutiny. 



(The writer is the former CMD of CONCOR, and is now Distinguished Fellow at the Asian Institute of Transport Development)