Why Not Omit The Commissions

Updated: Aug 31 2004, 05:44am hrs
The Common Minimum Programme of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) talks of appointment of an administrative reforms commission. If mere setting up of such commissions were all that were required, we would have solved problems of governance years ago. Since Independence, more than 55 committees /commissions have been appointed on this subject - at least one per year, if not more. During just the last two years, the Surendra Nath committee and P C Hota committee looked into these issues. Even before the ink on these reports is dry, yet another commission is proposed to be appointed. It needs to be noted that hardly any of the recommendations of dozens of previous committees were ever acted upon.

In the recent past, successive prime ministers have convened chief ministers conferences to discuss relevant issues. While written speeches were read by participants lamenting the sharp deterioration in administration, there was a deafening silence whenever specific proposals for systemic improvements were proposed for adoption! Several political parties which are now in the UPA were in power in the United Front (UF) government, or supporting it from outside, when the Fifth Pay Commission (FPC) report came up for consideration. Recommendations of the FPC, which related to downsizing the government, improving efficiency and productivity and inculcating a new work culture were scrupulously kept aside, and only those pertaining to revision of pay scales, pension, allowances, perks and other benefits, and increase in the retirement age were acce-pted with alacrity and excessive generosity.

The letter written by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to the chief ministers in July 2004 not to transfer their senior officers at too frequent intervals was a mere ritual. It totally lacked credibility since the UPA government itself, after coming to power, had prematurely transferred 26 secretaries to government, including the cabinet secretary, the home secretary and the defence secretary. The same is true of the recent highly publicised questionable action of selecting the new cabinet secretary by interviewing a dozen senior secretaries. If capabilities of an officer are not evident after 30 years in service, it is unlikely that a prime minister will be able to find them in an interview lasting just about 10-15 minutes.

The proposal of the UPA government to hold entrance exams for the civil services after Class XII too suffers from a number of serious weaknesses, and shows total lack of awareness of the real issues. The intake in the all- India and central services is now much more diverse than in the past, with medical doctors, engineers, IITians, management graduates, senior researchers from various academic disciplines, and scientists getting into these services. Thus, these are no longer generalist services, at least insofar as the educational qualifications of entrants are concerned.

What really ails the civil services is politicisation and rampant interference in their work which no political party is prepared to remedy. The political situation in which civil services function in this country has no parallel anywhere.

Some peculiar features of the state and the central civil services should also not be lost sight of. These include caste-based reservations, not just at the stage of recruitment but promotions thereafter, various other quotas, and a very high age of recruitment (for example, in Maharashtra, 33 years for general candidates and 38 years for SC/ST). Uncritical acceptance and imitation of what is done by one country or the other can be extremely counter-productive in these circumstances.

Looking to the extreme reluctance of the states and the centre to address the issues, efforts were made through public interest litigations (PILs) to seek intervention of the supreme court but none of them has succeeded so far. The most comprehensive of such submissions made in October 2003 by this author and one of his colleagues comprised the following important prayers: declaring good governance as a part of the basic structure of the Constitution, and apolitical and independent civil services an integral part of the scheme of the Constitution, providing statutory safeguards for personnel matters, promoting integrity and efficiency of civil services, and finally, surveillance over the civil services by the civil society.

Unfortunately, the Supreme Court rejected the petition at the preliminary hearing stage itself on 23 February 2004 with a one-line order as not necessary, whatever this may mean. Thus, nearly six decades after Independence, we are still groping in the dark as to who is to bell the cat.

Year after year, emphasis is placed on larger and larger budget outlays and not on their outcomes. Rajiv Gandhis statement that only 15 paise of each rupee spent on development actually reaches the beneficiaries, which was based on inadequate countrywide evidence, is quoted time and again as some eternal truth, without addressing the issues. Administrative reform has a large canvas, of which civil service reform is only a part.

The question is whether the wheel needs to be reinvented at all or whether we can make a beginning with a few action points which can have the largest impact.

Illustratively, the first is the empowerment of people by giving them right to information in the real sense of the term. Second, repeal of the Official Secrets Act and its replacement by a more focussed enactment confined to matters of national security, defence etc. Third, to translate into reality the objective of zero tolerance for corruption. Fourth, to provide statutory safeguards for all personnel matters of civil services to do away with politicisation and influence-peddling. Fifth, a comprehensive examination of the entire corpus of administrative jurisprudence to simplify the procedures and establish the accountability of persons. Finally, replacement of the culture of commitment to one party, one leader or one family by commitment to the Constitution. In the final analysis, there is no alternative to going back to the basics if good governance, and not political rhetoric, is the objective.

The writer is a former union home secretary