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To speak or not to speak

The government is ignoring measures of transparency which could help the bureaucracy speak out without fear of reprisal. Samar Khurshid writes.

india Updated: Nov 12, 2011 22:56 IST
Samar Khurshid

While the government makes tall promises of passing anti-corruption laws, what it seems to be ignoring is pro-transparency legislations and giving civil servants the right to speak openly without fear of official retaliation.

The Civil Services Performances and Accountability (CSPA) Bill, which proposes to codify the Central Services (Conduct) rules for bureaucrats in Article 309 of the constitution and bring about a transparent bureaucracy, has not been passed by Parliament even after being in the works for four years. With this Bill in effect, civil servants would not have to fear reprisal for speaking out against corrupt superiors. An official in the corporate affairs ministry who has no choice but to remain unnamed says, “The bureaucracy has mostly lower-level officers who can speak out against corruption, but fear for their jobs. All officers want and need this Bill to be passed as soon as possible.”

Former Cabinet Secretary KM Chandrasekhar last year said the bill was being ‘worked on’ by the ministry of personnel, public grievances and pensions. But, the Bill finds no mention in their last two annual reports.

Rules within Article 309, along with the Official Secrets Act (OSA), restrict employees of the state from freely voicing either ‘fact or opinion’ which may criticise the government or its policies. So despite the Right to Information Act (RTI), government employees cannot exercise their right to free speech and expression — a constitutionally guaranteed right but one that they cannot utilise without penalties.

National Advisory Council member and ex-bureaucrat Harsh Mander says the right to speak out needs to be

preserved for the civil services. “Bureaucrats still take an oath of secrecy while joining public office. Rather, this oath should be one of public service and transparency,” he says. Stressing that civil servants should not face the threat of official reprimand, Mander calls the system ‘a vestige of the colonial understanding of the role of a civil servant’. “Their duty should be to the people and the Constitution, not to their political masters,” he says.

Mander’s views are echoed by Abhijit Ghosh, the retired general manager of Central Bank of India famous for blowing the whistle on financial misconduct by the then Central Bank of India chairperson HA Daruwalla. Ghosh was victimised for two years by the bank after exposing them. He says, “As long as you’re telling the truth for a cause and not a vendetta, you must speak out irrespective of the position you occupy.”

However, not all civil servants agree with this. “An officer might, without intending to, speak against the policies of the current government,” says one government official. The rule

prohibiting free communication is not entirely wrong, he says, as

completely independent speech goes against the principle of faithfulness of an employee to his employer.

It seems then that the administration’s preoccupation with secrecy

invalidates the idea of free speech as well the RTI act. “The Official Secrets Act is an antithesis of the RTI,” says

former chief information commissioner Wajahat Habibullah. “Earlier the

principle was ‘do not disclose unless obliged to do so’. Now, with RTI, the principle has become ‘disclose information unless legally required not to do so.’ But with the OSA still in effect, the actual import of the RTI has not set in” The Moily Commission on administrative reforms had in 2006 recommended repealing the OSA but the government only went so far as to accept amendments to the act, rather than its removal.

Habibullah, now chairperson of the national commission for minorities, says bureaucrats should be able to disclose information. “This kind of openness and free speech —we talk about it, but it is in fact curbed,” he says.

With the OSA repealed and civil service rules made into law the bureaucracy could speak openly to the press and work for the people. Unfortunately that cannot happen until the ‘political masters’ allow it.