Ex-men return to fight bureaucracys fear of sunset years

Written by Ashish Sinha | New Delhi | Updated: Jan 13 2013, 07:46am hrs
The Indian bureaucracy plays a key role in policy-making, but is virtually gagged by law. The political executive, which takes the real seat of power, communicates to the people on the supposed pros and cons of policies (or lack of them) and often uses its persuasive skills to garner support for decisions taken in public interest. While this system has conventionally shielded the bureaucracy, things have changed in recent years. The bureaucracy is fretting over the inability to speak its mind, as many senior members are deemed culpable for actions taken at the behest of the powers-that-be.

Now, a group of ex-bureaucrats has offered a set of proposals to speed up decision-making, which gets delayed as worried bureaucrats drag their feet. The proposals, if implemented, could help bureaucrats work freely and take bold decisions, as suggested by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Civil Servants Day last year.

The move comes at a time when the names of over a dozen civil servants who had retired in the rank of secretaries, additional secretaries and others have figured in various scandals. These include former power secretary RV Shahi (coal scam), former chairman of telecom commission and ex-DoT secretary Shyamal Ghosh and former telecom secretary Siddharth Behura (2G scam) and former urban development deputy secretary, PV Deshmukh (Adarsh scam).

The ex-bureaucrats have suggested immediate amendment of Section 19 of the Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988 to extend protection to public servants after retirement on decisions made during service. They have also pushed for setting up a body of eminent citizens which will be empowered to sanction prosecution of ex-bureaucrats, unlike the current system where the political masters take the call. The former civil servants have also asked for implementing a Law Commission amendment in the Prevention of Corruption Act whereby a special judge can attach the ill-gotten property/bank balance of bureaucrats acquired during their service tenure.

On the Civil Services Day last April, the Prime Minister had said: We cannot have a bureaucracy which is 100% risk-averse. In fact, we should encourage boldness in decision-making, provided that the decisions are well-considered and as per the law of the land. A civil servant who does not take decisions might always be safe, but at the end of the day he or she would have contributed nothing to our society and to our country.

Former cabinet secretary Prabhat Kumar echoed the PMs thoughts: Till 2005, civil servants actions were protected under the Official Secrets Act. After the Right to Information Act, any decision or file noting taken by a civil servant can be accessed by citizens. This is hampering the decision-making ability of most serving bureaucrats, who fear adverse action after they retire. We propose that Section 19 of the Prevention of Corruption Act should be suitably amended to put confidence in serving bureaucrats, he told FE.

Section 197 of the Criminal Procedure Code requires sanction from the competent authority (even after retirement) to prosecute bureaucrats under the Indian Penal Code (IPC) offences for acts done in the course of official duties while in service. Legal experts said this was done to prevent disgruntled elements or rivals from waiting until retirement for initiating a motivated prosecution of the government servant. However, Section 19 of the Prevention of Corruption Act does not extend the same protection to government servants after retirement for offences under the said Act.

Kumar said service rules bar bureaucrats from disclosing or communicating any information to people. But because of RTI, most information can be accessed by the citizens. This should be reviewed to weed out the lopsidedness in the law, he said.

Former consumer affairs secretary L Mansingh said the government should de-link the power to sanction prosecution against a retired bureaucrat from political discretion. We can have a committee of eminent people like noted editors, retired civil servants and judges and academicians which can give its recommendations after reviewing the merits of allegations.

It may be noted that the the Lok Sabha had passed suggested amendments to Section 19 of the Prevention of Corruption Act in 2008. However, they could not be passed by the Rajya Sabha due to dissolution of the Parliament.

We are doing what we can to communicate our suggestions. We may meet them or write to them but our intent is to infuse confidence in civil servants who are working under fear of prosecution when they retire. It is more about serving bureaucrats than those who have already retired, Kumar said.

Speaking to FE last year, former cabinet secretary KM Chandrasekhar had said: Of course, one has to be a bit extra careful in the government. This is because sometimes, mistakes can be construed as deliberate malpractice.