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Mandarins without merit

Bureaucrats accused of misdeeds should not be allowed to hide behind helpful laws.

india Updated: Jul 23, 2011 19:54 IST

The Indian diplomatic service has been issued a written warning by the foreign secretary Nirupama Rao that there will be zero tolerance for sexual misconduct and domestic violence among its rank. The note has followed the recall of two diplomats, Alok Ranjan Jha and Anil Verma, following allegations against both of them. Unfortunately, the promise of disciplinary action should be believed only when seen. The Indian bureaucracy has an impeccable record of protecting its own from punishment or ensuring that disciplinary action is diluted to the point of meaningless.

This is a consequence of Article 311 of the Constitution which was designed to infuse bureaucrats with the courage to criticise their superiors. It is a protection that is seen as unique to the Indian Constitution — and it has become widely misused. Over the years, this immunity has spread well beyond the senior bureaucracy for whom it was first propounded and includes even cooperative employees. Ironically, the entire article may be irrelevant given that the right of judicial review has been extended to government employees. As the Fourth Report of the Second Administrative Reforms Committee noted, “This has created a climate of excessive security without fear of penalty for incompetence or wrongdoing.” The same committee later showed that the disciplinary process for a major penalty against a bureaucrat has over 30 administrative stages. In practice, the discipline of bureaucrats is even more lax. The Ministry of Personnel is notoriously slow in investigating and prosecuting members of the IAS and IPS who have been charged with crimes. One IAS officer, Mahesh Gupta, was repeatedly promoted after being charged with corruption that he ended up in charge of the same policemen who were investigating him.

This, unfortunately, has increasingly become the story of India’s bureaucracy: responsibility without accountability. Inevitably, the consequence has been that the responsibility has come to be treated in a cavalier fashion. No one should be surprised that India is consistently rated as having the worst bureaucracy in Asia and that the best and brightest of India’s youth avoid government service.

The supposed iron cage is eaten through with rust. And a first step towards correcting this is to tighten the present disciplinary process, ensure bureaucrats under investigation are neither promoted nor given any job, and, eventually, the protections enshrined in Article 311 be diluted considerably.