The process of rehabilitating the image of civil servants in India, while requiring major institutional changes, must begin with the civil servants' willpower to hold their integrity intact
The ongoing COVID-19 crisis has brought out the best in the civil service. Young officers have yet again demonstrated their commitment and efficacy in crisis management. I had tweeted that the "challenge, however, is to keep this enthusiasm and commitment going amidst the 'dark woods'". The civil servants, unfortunately, are perceived differently. Why do civil servants enjoy the image they have? Several officers are doing a fabulous job on the ground but their efforts go largely unnoticed.
Is this purely an issue of perception? Or, is there something fundamentally wrong? Or is it a combination of both? And if so, is there a way out?
Perceptions regarding civil service are determined by the experience of those who come into contact with them. Gurcharan Das was so put off that he wrote: 'Today, our bureaucracy has become the single biggest obstacle to the country's development. Indians think of their bureaucrats as self-servers, rent-seekers, obstructive and corrupt'. Many do share this opinion of the bureaucracy. There aren't very many who would concur with Montek Singh Ahluwalia: 'People have a wrong impression. The top bureaucracy is highly disciplined and it is not obstructive when there is clarity at the top.'
Why does such a perception of the services exist? As mentioned in my previous article published last week, why aren't the deeds of officers like M N Buch, Julius Ribbero and E Sreedharan used as defining points for the image of the civil servant? There is no doubt that civil servants do face dilemmas in decision making throughout their careers. The tasks they have to perform, amidst rising expectations, are tough. On many occasions, the civil servant's side of the story never gets to be known. There are instances when politicians disown decisions that are subsequently found to be unpleasant.
Bureaucracy, like any other segment of the society, has its share of the good, the bad and the ugly. What matters is which of the three groups are acknowledged by the decision-makers. Some officers are efficient and honest, but some are dishonest and inefficient. There is yet another category of those that are dishonest but still efficient. The choice rests with the decision-maker. If efficiency and integrity are the criteria to select officers, they will perform. However, if the choice is for a convenient and pliable officer, the civil servants will be perceived as those that bend over backwards with ease and are spineless. It is difficult to believe that honest and efficient police officers were not available when two such officers were being considered for the top posts in the CBI a couple of years ago. However, convenient officers were given the position and then dumped, giving a bad name to police officers in general, many of whom are doing commendable work. There are many such examples. It is generally believed that the background of such officers is thoroughly examined before they are assigned such positions. Who then is messing up with these critical positions? Who has designed such a process, including the much-touted 360-degree assessment that still leaves so many angles uncovered? If the decision-makers are determined to elevate only convenient officers, then why should the entire civil service bear the cross of carrying the disrepute that is the residue left when these convenient officers turn into rogues or fall from grace?
However, it takes two to tango. The civil servants cannot be absolved of the responsibility for the current state of affairs. If civil servants don't allow themselves to be used, they cannot be misused or abused. More often than not, there is a quid pro quo. It is the expectation of a reward from the politician that makes civil servants weak. There is a price to be paid either way. Some civil servants chose immediate rewards. They end up paying a price subsequently. More than a personal price, it damages the institution of the civil service, bringing a bad name to the service as a whole. There are indeed several officers that are available and they would go any distance to provide the necessary comfort to a political decision-maker.
How can this be corrected? It may be difficult to evolve a fool-proof mechanism for selection to regular posts in a democracy. However, a mechanism for selection to sensitive posts and post-retirement engagement can be devised. It is necessary to do so because officers manning such posts can make or mar the reputation of many. Moreover, if a transparent and credible system is devised, officers will not be lured into making 'sacrifices' to occupy such positions. It is perhaps incorrect to say that officers should not be given post-retirement engagement. Why should the talent and experience of officers be wasted just because they have reached a particular age? However, it would be unbecoming of an officer to apply for a position. Their track record should be good enough for them to be considered for such positions. For this, there is an emergent need to institute a transparent and credible way of selecting such an officer. Institutions like the UPSC could play a role. Officer will then get selected based on their merits and not personal affiliation.
Civil Servants are indeed confronted with huge dilemmas during their careers and they will continue to do so. However, the inspiration for a change, for any correction or improvement will have to come from within. This inspiration can be sought from officers who have managed to succeed and serve the country and its people despite these dilemmas. The onus lies on the civil servant to resolve these issues with their dignity and self-respect intact, as they, like any other individual, have no control over others. The control that they have is over themselves. They have to evolve in a manner that those who wish to corrupt them aren't able to muster the courage to do so. Their conscience and ethics must form an integral part of their firewall against such corruption. It is difficult but it has been done. Hence, it can be done.
The article is an extract from the writer's upcoming book, 'Ethical Dilemmas of a Civil Servant'. Views expressed are personal