Bureaucracy: What’s the price to be paid for being honest?

New Delhi | Published: December 15, 2018 2:24:40 AM

If honest bureaucrats have suffered on account of being harassed and transferred, so have the dishonest ones, as the law catches up with them. An honest and efficient bureaucrat can be put to inconvenience, but the dishonest one is more likely to suffer in the long run. There is greater recognition today, both by the media as well as the public, of the good work being done by bureaucrats.

karl, bureaucracyIllustration: Rohnit Phore

By Anil Swarup

Karl Marx had wished the state to wither away. It hasn’t. Even in the countries where Marxism was purported to have been practised, the state became more and more powerful, and its prime tool, the bureaucracy, became more and more relevant. In capitalist countries, too, bureaucracy has come to stay. We, in India, have our own brand of bureaucracy, which is castigated, pilloried, used, abused, harassed yet pampered, cultivated and cajoled to assist in policy formulation and in executing such policy decisions. There is no likelihood of it withering away.

Amongst the variety of ills that afflict bureaucracy, corruption lies at the top of the shack. However, the moment we talk of corruption, a number of questions immediately crop up, especially in the wake of the emerging socio-political environment:

* Is the entire bureaucracy corrupt?

* Does the present-day bureaucrat have a choice to remain honest?

* Has the choice become limited over a period of time?

* Can bureaucracy afford to be honest?

* Does the politician (the prime decision maker) want integrity in bureaucracy?

* What is the price to be paid for remaining honest?

* Is just being honest sufficient for a bureaucrat?

Today, we attempt to answer some such questions. The idea is not to apportion blame, but to analyse and suggest what is the possible way out.

Corruption is ubiquitous and has been in existence ever since the emergence of the human race. However, its degree has varied from time to time, and place to place. The acute nature of the problem in countries such as India is the impact that such corrupt practices have on the common man. The shift from ‘nazrana’ (a practice of giving gifts to emperors/kings as recognition of their tutelage) to ‘jabrana’ (extortion by state agencies, including bureaucracy) is a serious cause for concern and requires to be addressed. More sophisticated pseudonyms for corrupt practices have evolved over the years. However, perhaps the most dangerous development has been the acceptability of corruption as a way of life and, in certain context, recognition provided to its perpetrators in public life. A close look at the history of criminalisation of politics will help us understand the milieu in which the bureaucracy has had to function.

Immediately after Independence, the country was driven by the standards set by those who sacrificed their lives to free India from the British rule. The politician would keep criminals at a safe distance. This changed during the post-Nehru era, when criminals started helping politicians, but still the politicians would shy of openly associating with criminals. With the changing political environment and the emergence of coalition politics, criminals became necessary to subvert the political process. Bihar set this trend, but it was soon pursued in other states as well. The association between crime and politics started becoming visible as governments became increasingly insecure.

The next stage of criminalisation of politics was marked by a direct participation of the criminal in the political process, contesting elections and winning them in style. They sought and acquired political legitimacy for their nefarious deeds. The last nail in the coffin emerged in the form of these criminals starting to dominate the political process by adorning the mantle of Cabinet ministers. The bureaucrat was to directly report to that very person who he/she would have incarcerated at some point of time.

Coalition politics and unstable governments, specially in the states, led to some other unfortunate consequences as well. The politician was unable to see beyond a few months. The visionaries were gone. The Indian administration stood on its head. The politicians were more interested in transfer and posting of officers, as it provided immediate gains. Policy issues were brushed aside and only such issues were taken up that would either ensure their survival or resulted in some pecuniary benefit. That, perhaps, is the only explanation for mass scale transfer and mass scale cancellation of such transfers. In some of the underdeveloped states, the only industry that is known to flourish is the transfer industry.

At another level, a more dangerous trend has emerged. There has been an effort to tinker with well-established institutions. Allegiance more than competence became the criteria for the selection of civil servants to “important” posts.

Therefore, unfortunately, the emerging political environment is inimical to honest functioning. However, bureaucracy has to share the blame for the current state of affairs. It is a different matter that the political environment encourages pliability and corruption. Generally speaking, a bureaucrat would fall into a combination of following categories: honest/dishonest, efficient/inefficient, pliable/not pliable.

It would be an honest admission to accept that a combination of honest, efficient and non-pliable bureaucrat has become a rare occurrence. As mentioned earlier, a politician would prefer a pliable and dishonest officer-although even he/she would like an efficient bureaucrat. Not very surprisingly, most of the known corrupt bureaucrats are efficient as well as pliable. These two attributes are essential for his/her survival. In fact, he/she thrives on account of these attributes. Such bureaucrats have basic capabilities of performing efficiently, but their focus is not public good, but their own interest as well as that of the politician. The corrupt bureaucrat-politician nexus is increasingly emerging as a major threat to the system where the majority of fence-sitters amongst the bureaucrats are wilting. Given these set of circumstances, the choice before these set of bureaucrats is becoming increasingly limited. Far from appreciating efficiency and honesty, the politician is busy evolving ways and means to use this tool called bureaucracy to fulfil their personal goals.

Given the state of affairs, what can a bureaucrat do? Is there a choice before the bureaucracy? There is a price to be paid for making any choice. If honest bureaucrats have suffered on account of being harassed and transferred, so have the dishonest ones, as the law catches up with them. Some recent events have provided enough evidence to this effect. The high and mighty amongst the bureaucracy have paid a heavy price for being dishonest and pliable. An honest and efficient bureaucrat can be put to inconvenience (especially in the higher echelons of bureaucracy), but the dishonest one is more likely to suffer in the long run (what with increasing access of the media to official misdeeds and an ever-increasing number of well-informed public). In fact, there is greater recognition today, both by the media as well as the public, of the good work being done by bureaucrats. The number could well increase once it dawns upon the bureaucracy that there is no other option. And it does not end with honesty alone. He/she has to perform and deliver. A bureaucrat cannot afford to be inefficient. He/she has to be aware, accessible, disciplined and, above all, transparent. The issue is not about the survival of the bureaucracy. The bureaucracy has to thrive, in the interest of our country and our people.

The author is former secretary, government of India.

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