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Time to dismantle the Old Boys Club

Rashmi Tak |

The recent conviction of a former Coal Secretary and his colleagues, under the provisions of the Prevention of Corruption Act, prompted umpteen different reactions. The first category of reactions were from sympathisers of the ruling party who felt that justice had been done only partially, implying thereby that the real culprits (read the former PM) had gotten away.

Then there were people from the Congress who felt that though harsh, the court verdict vindicated their leader. The public, however, felt that bureaucrats and politicians were equally dishonest and it was good that at least some of them had got their just desserts.

But the reaction of IAS officers, as a class, was most interesting. Long retired bureaucrats came crawling out of the woodwork lambasting the poor judge, the judicial system, and the politicians; generally everyone except their own colleagues.

The Niti Ayog Chairman, who had roundly castigated other services for corruption, came to the defence of his colleagues classifying their actions as mere errors of judgement.

The over-reaction of the IAS fraternity is noteworthy even if one holds no brief for either the judge or the judgement. It would seem that an invisible laxman rekha has been crossed – a mere Subordinate Court judge had dared to convict a Secretary- level officer. In their eyes, it would have been more appropriate had the case been allowed to drag on interminably like the Joshi couple case.

By all reports the ex-Secretary is an honest man; it is indeed iniquitous that he has been sent to jail whilst millions of dishonest men (as evidenced by the number of persons who have been issued notices by the Income-tax Department after demonetisation) are roaming around free. One explanation of the judgement is that the law condones honest mistakes and ordinary negligence, but comes down harshly on gross negligence which it equates with criminality – the category under which the actions of the ex-Secretary and his colleagues fall.

Viewed in this context, the real culprit is the present system of governance which promotes the cult of exercising power without responsibility; in some cases without even understanding the points in issue. Take a typical case. Here is an honest and intelligent officer who worked as a District Collector and Commissioner with distinction.

After accumulating enough seniority he lands in some ministry as an Additional Secretary and after some time heads some other department as a Secretary: he simply cannot have deep knowledge about the issues he is handling. Sometimes, the result is the kind of pickle in which the ex-Secretary finds himself.

It is indeed hard to understand why generalists are called upon to head highly technical departments like Civil Aviation, Telecom, Coal or Revenue. Perforce these people have to fall back on the permanent staff in the ministries, the Desk Officers, Section Officers, and Under Secretaries etc.

The notes put up by these worthies, sometimes on other considerations, always sail through.

The net result is that powers which are to be exercised by the top most officers devolve on the junior most functionaries. This phenomenon was at work in the 2G scam also; where another ex-Secretary has been charged. Similar situations recur because the IAS fraternity sticks on to power – regardless of the consequences.

The political leadership acquiesces in this arrangement because IAS officers, being their permanent partners, are much easier to handle than domain experts. At another level, the IAS fraternity ensures that IAS officers are always at the top of the bureaucratic pile.

Some years ago, the post of Commissioner of Railway Safety was kept vacant because two years had not elapsed since the time IAS officers had been promoted to an equivalent level.

The recommendation of the Seventh Pay Commission that there should be parity in service conditions across services has got the goat of IAS officers. After many unsuccessful attempts to get around this recommendation, Secretaries across ministries are trying to ensure that the “two year difference” rule lives on by not processing the promotion files in their departments. It is not their concern that governance is suffering and officers of other services are feeling demoralised and frustrated.

Finally, fraternal feeling ensures that no wrong can be laid at the door of an IAS officer. All IAS officers try to perpetuate the myth of incorruptibility and competence of IAS as a service though the corruption and sorry state of governance under the IAS points to the contrary.

There may be internal dissensions amongst IAS officers, but for outsiders, the IAS is a monolith. All IAS officers are routinely graded as “Outstanding”, no vigilance enquiry is ever ordered against them even if the majority do not file their Annual Immovable Property Returns.

In fact, the blame for non-implementation of Lokpal lies equally with the political executive and the IAS. Often IAS officers teach the alphabet of corruption to their political bosses because politicians are generally not aware of the nuts and bolts of administration. In most such cases, officers move on to other departments while politicians are left holding the baby.

The only viable method to break free of the old boys’ club is to implement the oft repeated suggestion of having merit-based selection for Joint Secretary (and above) level posts. Once the hegemony of the IAS is broken; the old boys’ club will disintegrate.

The writer is a retired, Jodhpur-based government school teacher.