Column : Why blame Siddharth Behura

Written by Rishi Raj | Updated: Feb 9 2011, 05:03am hrs
The arrest of the former telecom secretary Siddharth Behura along with A Raja last week in connection with the spectrum scam has once again revived the debate over the declining standards of the Indian civil servants in recent times. Their standard in terms of integrity was quite high in the 1950s, 1960s and even the 1970s, but thereafter it has been declining rapidly and in recent times has arguably touched its nadir. Why is it so when with the passage of time the quality of people joining the civil services has only gone up, with brightest engineers from the IITs or management students from the IIMs joining the ranks

The declining standards of principles are particularly disturbing because unlike, say the US, the Indian civil service is permanent and non-committed. The dangers of a committed bureaucracy are best illustrated by taking a peek in the times of Indira Gandhi.

Coming to recent times, every scam that has come to light had a pliant civil servant willing to crawl before his political master when asked to bend. Take the case of Behura who, within 10 days of becoming the telecom secretary, cleared 122 licences, which were held up for several months because his predecessor DS Mathur had raised strong objections regarding the procedures being adopted in their grant. In November 2010, Behura for the first time spoke to this newspaper with regard to his actionsI merely implemented the decision of the minister, which was taken before I joined. I didnt have any other option, he said.

Quite reminiscent of the tainted CVC PJ Thomaswhos chargesheeted for import of palmolein in the early 1990s by the Kerala governmentwho has defended his action stating that he merely implemented the decision of the then Kerala Cabinet.

Most civil servants having a distinguished track record do not buy the theory sold out by either Behura or Thomas. Senior bureaucrats and the ones especially belonging to the Indian Administrative Service have several options to not toe the line of the political master if they do not agree with it. However, the danger they face in return of their principled stand is a transfer from a posting, which is generally seen as lucrativenot in terms of making money but in terms of importance in policy-makingnot many want to get transferred from being a telecom secretary to, say, secretary, water resources. In this context, the example of EAS Sarma is quite relevant. Sarma, who was secretary, economic affairs, in the finance ministry in the NDA government, was unceremoniously moved as coal secretary over which he resigned from service. In the context of the spectrum scam, Mathur refused to sign the files relating to award of licences when Raja did not agree to formulate fair and transparent procedures and stuck to it until his retirement a couple of months later.

Some bureaucrats argue that Sarma and Mathur were lucky. The former had a few months to go before he retired so he could demonstrate his principle by resigning and similarly the latter also had a few months to superannuate so he opted for a principled stand. What if both had sufficient number of years left in service Would they then have done the same that they otherwise did It is difficult to come with a black and white answer.

However, what is depressing is that the structure of bureaucracy, which requires the Cabinet Secretary at the Centre and the chief secretaries at the state level to protect bureaucrats who stand up for principles, has crumbled. Increasingly, the Cabinet Secretary and most chief secretaries are keen to stick to their posts and generally dont stand up for their colleagues in a manner in which they should. This is the single most worrying factor and largely responsible for most senior officers generally going along with the decisions of their political bosses even if they dont agree with them, for the feeling is that the latters political clout will save them.

This is best illustrated in the Mathur-Behura case. When Mathur was having problems with Raja in late 2007, he did solicit support from the Cabinet Secretary and the Prime Ministers Principal Secretary by keeping them posted informally about all the problems and expressing his helplessness. No help came. As is known on a formal level, Raja had written to the PM also with regard to his decisions; he had earlier defied the law ministry and finance ministrys suggestions on revising the licence fee but none of them finally stopped him from doing what he wanted. In the given circumstances, if Mathur was not retiring in end-2007, Raja would have definitely had him transferred from the ministry.

Obviously, Behura knew the background and did what Raja wanted within 10 days of assuming charge for he had reasons to believe that Rajas clout was more than the Cabinet Secretarys, so if he wanted to remain telecom secretary, the faster he fell in line the better for him.

This can be aptly demonstrated through the case of another officer, JS Deepak, who was joint secretary in the DoT and refused to toe Rajas line with regard to award of a controversial BSNL tender. When Raja harassed the officer, he complained to the Cabinet Secretary and what did he do Transfer him to commerce ministry! This is perhaps why the first task the current telecom secretary R Chandrasekhar did within days of taking charge was toe the Raja lineCAG has no powers to intervene in policy matters. Chandrasekhar is lucky, circumstances led to Rajas exit and hes happily surviving under the new minister Kapil Sibal.

Therefore the problem of integrity in the civil service today comes from the top and not below. Officials at the level of Cabinet Secretary and chief secretaries have lost character and are not able to demonstrate principle through actions, and till the time that does not come, officers down the line will either not sign files and retire or co-opt as Behura did. Its pity that he could not be as lucky as Chandrasekhar.