The saying, “Success has a thousand fathers, failure is an orphan”, could well have been coined after watching the antics of Indian politicians and bureaucrats. A live example is provided by the public utterances of politicians over the continuing air pollution in Delhi. The improvement in air quality in August and September 2019, mainly due to natural causes, prompted the AAP Government of Delhi to launch a laudatory publicity campaign, praising itself for containing air pollution.

Not to be left behind, the Central Government, too, claimed credit by way of a similar publicity campaign. However, neither Government was ready to take the blame when air quality plummeted in October. Rather, both Governments started blaming farmers of neighbouring States, mainly Punjab, for increasing air pollution by burning crop stubble. Someone pointed out that if burning of crop stubble by Punjab farmers was the only reason for air pollution in North India, then why was air quality normal in the adjoining areas of Western Punjab in Pakistan, where similar agricultural practices are followed?

Everyone under the sun, the Indian Government, the Punjab Government, the Pakistan Government, the Pakistan Army rushed to claim credit for the opening of the Kartarpur Corridor for Sikh pilgrims. However, just a few months back, when Navjot Singh Sidhu broached the subject of opening the Kartarpur Corridor he was branded as a putative traitor by most Indians, including his own Chief Minister.

Evasion of responsibility for any unpleasant occurrence is a uniquely Indian trait. The aftermath of the Amritsar train tragedy, saw the same dramatis personae in different roles. Sidhu’s wife, who was a Minister at that time, had inaugurated Dussehra celebrations, for which a large number of people had congregated on the railway tracks. Just then, a fast-moving passenger train ran through the crowd, killing sixty people. Everyone, including the Sidhus, distanced themselves from the tragedy.

The organisers said that permissions had been taken, the police and municipality claimed that the conditions for granting permission for the celebrations were met and the Railways pointed out that the crowd should not have trespassed on the railway tracks. Sidhu’s wife never explained why she did not dissuade people from celebrating Dussehra on the railway tracks. The parties concerned further claimed that Dussehra celebrations were continuously being held at the same venue for the last twenty years, which in the eyes of a reasonable person would increase the culpability of everyone involved twenty times.

Bureaucrats instinctively shun responsibility, framing rules so that no action can ever be attributed to a defined person. Any decision on any file in any Ministry would bear the signatures of half a dozen officials so that no one can deduce who was the moving force behind the decision. Mostly, the file would show that a decision was unanimous, taking away responsibility of all concerned. If at all responsibility is fixed, it is on the junior-most functionary who would be charged with presenting facts wrongly. The political executive, the Ministers, act through their Secretaries, placing them outside the scope of legal responsibility.

Probably, we have a colonial heritage of subordination; we are good servants but bad masters. As servants, we meticulously carry out orders given to us in writing (which should be sealed and signed) while as masters we avoid giving directions; if issuing orders become inevitable, we seek justification in some manual or circular. The real world being complicated, precedents are often not available. Such situations make us lapse into masterly inactivity. Thus, Prime Minister Narasimha Rao while making the right noises, allowed the Babari Masjid to be demolished, leading to communalisation of the Indian polity.

Far from frowning upon attempts by the Executive to escape responsibility, the Courts too appear to be victims of the same syndrome, often using delay as a weapon for killing deserving but inconvenient cases. Judgments are often deliberately delayed to the point that relief becomes meaningless for the aggrieved party: instances abound of persons being held in jail for decades only to be declared ‘not guilty’ by the High Court or Supreme Court.

Sometimes, Courts discuss and deliver verdicts on tangential issues, omitting more important disputed questions, like the Madras High Court judgment that made singing of Vande Mataram compulsory in schools when the question before it was awarding of one mark in a question relating to Vande Mataram in the Tamil Nadu’s Teachers Eligibility Test. In the celebrated National Anthem case a PIL was filed to restrain the use of the National Anthem for commercial purposes. However, the Supreme Court issued interim directions that made the playing of the National Anthem mandatory before all film shows.

Despite numerous Citizens’ Charters and Public Delivery laws, the irresponsibility and rapacity of bureaucrats, with whom the common man has to interact daily, has only increased. The lack of clear guidelines for Government employees stymies governance because over the years, so many Departmental instructions have been issued that a bureaucrat can justify almost any action that he takes and thus evade responsibility for non-performance. Unfortunately, there has been little effort by the Government to bring accountability for the omissions and commissions of bureaucrats.

The reports of the First and Second Administrative Reforms Commission (1966 and 2005) have been only partially implemented. Tools like the Biometric Attendance System, introduced by the present Government, can hardly be said to be substantive tools for bringing in better governance. Questioning the Government’s actions or talking about official responsibility is not welcome; a DJ was threatened with a defamation suit of Rs.1000 crore when she sang a ditty about broken roads, the death of scores of children caused by shortage of oxygen was termed as a natural disaster.

Efforts at evasion of responsibility are too numerous to recount. An airline official was publicly beaten up by an MP, platitudes were trotted out by Ministers and MPs, but no action was taken against the errant lawmaker. Most Government schemes fail because they are not implemented properly by lower level functionaries, who often treat Government employment as well paid retirement. Senior officers do not have the will or inclination to make their juniors perform, rather higher officials prepare glowing reports to gloss over failed initiatives.

Lack of accountability is of such a high order that no action is taken even after the most egregious failures. Every bureaucrat is rated 9/10, regardless of his performance. It seems that no one ever thought of having a realistic performance appraisal system, for example, by grading a Department’s performance and distributing the Department’s marks amongst its officers. Bureaucrats have their own reasons for remaining faceless. Every significant action of a bureaucrat has to meet the approval of a host of agencies which at best results in delay and more often than not in the stymieing of new initiatives.

The 4Cs, the CBI, the CVC, the CAG and the Courts deeply scrutinise all bureaucratic decisions with the benefit of hindsight; serious damage follows should some bureaucratic action go wrong. Lack of training and initiative are two of the main reasons for the poor performance of the bureaucracy. At the lower level, the bureaucracy is almost fully untrained and unequal to any challenge. New recruits are supposed to learn from their seniors, who teach them their own antediluvian practices. The motto for new recruits is “Look backward, move forward” which would explain the bureaucratic fascination with precedents.

This approach often results in bad decisions being justified and perpetuated till eternity. Proper training to Government employees and formulating SOPs in light of recent technical advances and changed business practices would go a long way in improving governance. The bottom line is that governance can improve only if bureaucratic processes are optimised with a well-set procedure to apportion responsibility. The much-reviled Emergency was the only time when bureaucrats acted as they were supposed to, only because inaction invited punishment. Once bureaucrats know that they may be held responsible for their lack of performance, bureaucratic functioning would definitely improve, which should be the goal of our Government.

(The writer is a retired Principal Chief Commissioner of Income-Tax)