Modi’s govt’s move to fire corrupt tax officials signals that performance matters

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Published: June 12, 2019 12:17:12 AM

The Union government forcing 12 senior tax officials to retire because of misconduct and inefficiency is a step towards clean and effective bureaucracy.

Indeed, one of the 12, a top-ranking official, had allegedly acquired Rs 12 crore of unaccounted-for assets and had remained suspended from 1999 to 2014. (Representational image)Indeed, one of the 12, a top-ranking official, had allegedly acquired Rs 12 crore of unaccounted-for assets and had remained suspended from 1999 to 2014. (Representational image)

The Union government forcing 12 senior tax officials to retire because of misconduct and inefficiency is a step towards clean and effective bureaucracy. However, that the action comes almost a decade after the instances of misconduct were first reported is disappointing—especially given how serious the charges were, ranging from corruption and extortion to sexual harassment. Indeed, one of the 12, a top-ranking official, had allegedly acquired Rs 12 crore of unaccounted-for assets and had remained suspended from 1999 to 2014. In the interim, he had initiated over 40 legal cases to thwart action against him and had, most recently, moved a High Court to force the Centre to appoint him as a member of the Central Board of Direct Taxation. Quite a few of the sacked tax officials had engaged high-profile lawyers who charged fat fees—contrast this with the case of former coal secretary HC Gupta, who had once submitted that he would have to fight his case in the coal-block allocation scam from jail as he couldn’t afford the advocate’s fee; he later withdrew the submission, reportedly with friends and well-wishers pitching in to help.

Delays in acting against tainted officials erodes administrative accountability and efficiency. That said, by firing a senior tax official for not having proved effective in a supervisory role, since he failed to assign high-tax-implication cases to seasoned officers, the government has set a new benchmark for efficiency. By the same logic, officers who habitually levy large penalties that don’t get upheld in courts should also be shown the door. If the government were to adopt a similar ‘perform or get ousted’ rule for other departments as well, it would signal a premium on bureaucratic efficiency and get rid of the rust that has beset India’s steel frame. In the longer run, to ensure that only upright and efficient officers comprise India’s executive, the government must exit functions that the private sector can execute competently and areas that are best left to the market to regulate. If, for instance, the government were to appoint a bureau to keep tabs on price arbitrage in the civil aviation sector—where competition can do a much better job—chances are there will be officials willing to look the other way, in exchange for some old-school palm greasing.

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