The fact that 83 retired bureaucrats (including myself) had to petition the Supreme Court, seeking suitable directions to the union government and the states to create a framework for effective, impartial and transparent functioning of civil servants, goes to show how bad things are.
The good news is that the apex court considered the subject so important as to be worthy of issuing specific orders to the governments to mend matters. Even more important than the order is the backdrop underpinning it. The court asserted: "In the present political scenario, the role of civil servants has become very complex and onerous. Often, they have to take decisions which will have far-reaching consequences in economic and technological fields. Their decisions must be transparent and must be in public interest. They should be fully accountable to the community they serve."
The court also opined, "We are also of the view that civil servants cannot function on the basis of verbal or oral instructions, orders, suggestions, proposals etc., and they must also be protected against wrongful and arbitrary pressures exerted by the administrative superiors, political executive, business and other vested interests."
On the issue of a fixed minimum tenure, the bench regretted that "civil servants, especially in the states, lacked stability of tenure and postings were made frequently at the whims and fancies of the executive head for political and other considerations and not in public interest."
The bad news is that the court's order, howsoever salutary and unexceptionable, may not go very far in imparting transparency and accountability in the functioning of the civil servant and promoting good governance. The reasons are not too far to seek.
First, in a parliamentary democracy, a degree of tension between the political executive and the permanent executive is inescapable. In fact, its non-existence would suggest that the two are in cahoots with each other. This is for no reason other than an inherent conflict in the role of politicians, who always focus on their political fortunes, and the civil servants, who are expected to act according to the law and the rules. In today's fragmented, feuding and no-holds-barred politics, this conflict has assumed unhealthy proportions. Therefore, until the constitutional role of the civil servants is duly recognised and their relationship, both in terms of functions, responsibility and accountability is statutorily determined, the playing field would continue to be horribly skewed in favour of the political executive. The apex court's judgment, while recognising the role of civil servants, stops short of creating a statutory framework.
Second, it is not as if the Supreme Court's directions break an altogether new ground in the relationship between the political and the permanent executive. The All India Service Rules, 1968, require that all directions received from the superior authorities must be reduced to writing. A natural corollary to this is that, such directions be examined, and if found contrary to law, rules and public policy, must not be carried out and the order of the competent authority obtained afresh. Yet, in practice, it hardly happens. This is partly due to the collusion between politicians and civil servants and a tendency on the part of the latter to keep out of harm's way.
Third, it is not as if the civil services boards are a novelty. They already exist, both at the central and state levels. Despite their existence, the way civil servants have been buffeted and battered in recent times is unprecedented. For their sheer survival, neither the leadership in the civil services nor the union government, which is the cadre-controlling authority for the All India services, have extended a helping hand.
Fourth, the intention and willingness of the political class to implement such reforms is not only in doubt but is also seriously suspect. This is evident from the non-implementation of the Santhanam Committee, the Hota Committee and the 2nd Administrative Reforms Commission's recommendations. Its most glaring manifestation is the clumsy manner in which the police reforms ordered by the apex court have been implemented by various states.
Fifth, the misuse of government machinery, including its treasury, has become a very potent electoral weapon in the hands of ruling politicians, which incentivises persisting with the status quo. It is not that politicians are alone in this game. If not the majority, a significant number of civil servants are in quite a cosy relationship with the ruling politicians and other vested interests and are quite willing to go along by keeping their tracks well-covered.
Sixth, in any organisation, more so in a large and complex one as the government, the relationship between various stakeholders cannot be strictly codified and manualised. These are to be informed by sincerity of purpose, intellectual honesty and mutual respect by all. Unfortunately, our institutions and instruments of governance have miserably failed to internalise these values. No wonder, our institutional fabric is in a serious crisis of integrity and legitimacy. This calls for immediate addressable and redressal.
Niall Ferguson, in his latest work, 'The Great Degeneration', laments the institutional decay in the West and holds it responsible for its decline as follows: "Representative government, the free market, the rule of law and civil society were the four pillars of western society, which set them on the path to global dominance after around 1500 (AD). In our time, however, these institutions have deteriorated. Our democracies have broken the contract between generations by heaping IOUs (I owe you) on our children and grandchildren. Our markets are distorted by over-complex regulations. The rule of law has metamorphed into the rule of lawyers. And civil society has become uncivil society." Sadly, in our society, institutional decay has set in much before achieving institutional excellence.