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Building a better India: to develop, reinforce the steel frame

The recent Supreme Court order that asked for the setting up of civil service boards is a welcome move to improve governance, but more needs to be done, writes former cabinet secretary TSR Subramanian. HT Leadership Summit official website

india Updated: Nov 28, 2013 01:47 IST

Poor implementation and weak oversight have reduced the effectiveness of government policies and programmes. According to the Second Administrative Reforms Commission, “Governance is admittedly the weak link in our quest for prosperity and equity”.

Eliminating corruption is not only a moral imperative but an economic necessity for a nation aspiring to catch up with the world. The 10th Five-Year Plan noted that “people’s welfare is largely determined by the efficiency of public delivery mechanisms. The consistent failure to achieve targets, across the board and over time, clearly indicates that the basic problem underpinning each failure lies in implementation arising out of poor governance”. Without under-estimating the role of sound policy, I would like to say that governance is 5% policy and 95% implementation and the latter is in the domain of the permanent executive. Thus improvement in the quality, performance and effectiveness of the civil services will have a positive impact on the quality of governance.

Parliament and state legislatures have their role in the creation of sound policies — it is another matter that these bodies also need major reforms. The political executive has lost respect in the public eye. Ministers are now seen as venal, self-centred, and prone to use high office for personal benefit — crony capitalism and arbitrary non-transparent decision-making have become the norm of the day. This criticism may or may not be true, but it cannot be discounted.

The main flaw stems from a weakness in the Constitution that does not provide for checks and balances against the political class — remember the conspiratorial agreement among parties against the Lokpal Bill or their stand against allowing transparency in their finances?

However, the current focus is on administrative reforms and the bureaucracy: the permanent executive. Note that they are also public servants, deriving their mandate from the Constitution. In fact, the higher civil services are presidential appointees. They are ‘instruments’ of administration and the quality of governance is a function of how this instrument is kept in good shape and maintained properly to deliver services effectively.

In recent decades, one has seen sharply deteriorating service standards largely due to politicisation, increasing corruption levels, arbitrariness in service matters as well as unholy alliances between politicians and bureaucrats indulging in dishonesty, all to the detriment of the public. This phenomenon is increasingly seen at the Centre and the states and there is no need for any elaboration on this.

While there is a sharp downward movement in this regard, it should also be added that the structure has still not collapsed because it has a large number of able, honest civil servants, who uphold the spirit of the Constitution and keep the system going.

Any improvement in the standard of governance should encourage the latter group and inhibit the scope and impact of the former group of civil servants.

The recent Supreme Court order that asked for the setting up of civil service boards (for transparency and non-arbitrary postings and transfers), security of tenure of officers (for greater efficacy, as well as prevention of arbitrary political interventions) as well as for instructions in writing (to inhibit the growing phenomenon of ‘authority without responsibility’) is a major step for recognising the ills in our administration and to usher in reforms.

The SC has not encroached on the ‘executive space’, it has asked for improvement in governance for the benefit of the citizen. The order should not be seen as one of politician versus bureaucrat, as has been projected often in the media, it should be seen as a call that the citizen’s interest is supreme; that ministers and secretaries and field officials are there only to serve the common man, not for their own personal glory or importance. The SC order is a welcome new call — not a command — there is urgent need to reverse gear, and improve governance.

No one can object to the prayers of the PIL petitioners (83 distinguished senior retired officers, with 3,000 man-years of experience, who have nothing to gain). The three prayers — civil service board, security of tenure and need for written instructions — are unexceptionable, no reasonable person can object to their validity in a democracy. The SC has merely stepped in to restate the obvious.

What they have now said is the law of the land — a continuing mandamus. One hopes that these are seen in the right spirit and as a call for improvement in public service delivery to presage a reversal in administrative / governance trends, to improve the quality of governance.

The political executive, at the Centre and at states, are now responsible for establishing a sound policy environment, and to get the legislature to enact appropriate legislation.

– TSR Subramanian, former cabinet secretary

HT Leadership Summit official website