In the wake of the Durga Shakti Nagpal controversy which hit headlines, former senior bureaucrat Dr. Rajivan Krishnaswamy raises an important question about whether the public outrage over the young IAS officer’s case reflects accumulated anger over "the state of public goods". He also asks whether the Durga Nagpal case can be a trend-changer resulting in a serious debate on genuine governance reform.
Now that the immediate news value of Durga Shakti Nagpal’s dramatic suspension and media aftermath is behind us, it is perhaps time to reflect upon the significance of the event for the politician-civil servant relationship and speculate on future prospects for clean governance in India, governance that protects and promotes public good. Three questions are explored here:
One, is the faceoff between Nagpal on the one hand, and the Samajwadi Party (SP) with the sand mafia on the other, just a case of a local conflict between politically-backed vested interests and an honest civil servant simply doing her job? Is a conflict, though painful for the civil servant, part of the occupational hazards of regulatory work in democracies? Or is it a symptom of a deeper malaise, reflecting a trend that is worsening and hence in need of social policy action?
Two, to what extent is it an issue of the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) versus other civil services? Recall that the SP has been highly vocal in saying that the State of Uttar Pradesh (UP) does not need any IAS officers at all, implying that they can run the administration better with officials fully under state control.
Three, what are the prospects for the future of governance in India? Does the intense public debate and open protest in Nagpal’s case suggest that cases of victimization of civil servants would decline in the future as public scrutiny can embarrass political leadership? Or would it embolden similar acts elsewhere, especially as she continues to be suspended, her husband transferred without cause, leaving the field wide open for even more blatant acts?
Episodes or trends?
When the number of individual instances of corruption become so numerous and pervasive, it is hard to dismiss them as episodic occurrences. They may be better characterised as trends. Dispassionate observers of the politician-civil servant relationship over the last 50 years would agree about two interrelated developments that point to a deeper malaise seen at all levels of government, but especially at the Central and State levels:
• The rising collusion between the three groups – political leaders, business interests and civil servants – in pursuing short-term gains even if it involves stealing public wealth directly, or harming the general public good.
• An increasing intolerance within government by the political and civil servant bosses towards the honest civil servant, skewing incentives, in turn, contributing to lowered standards of probity and progressive undermining of the greater common good.
There is the grand corruption of large contracts that divert public money to further immediate private interests at the cost of the public good... In public procurement deals of huge commercial value, collusion can operate… A smart collusion ensures that only “cooperative” personnel are lined up along the progress of the file to eliminate potential disruptions. But when this is not done in advance and a civil servant becomes un-cooperative, s/he is sidelined, and in more blatant cases, disciplinary or even criminal proceedings initiated. Honesty is rebuffed repeatedly, and normal query on file calling for more information or seeking clear orders starts to look odd and becomes the subject of much corridor discussion.
Then there is the grand corruption of large contracts that divert public money to further immediate private interests at the cost of the public good. In public procurement deals of huge commercial value like defence at the centre, or excise regimes that favour cartels and even mass schemes needing repeated contracts like universal feeding at the State level, once again collusion can operate. Either the civil servant would initiate a patently absurd procurement or auction, or if the civil servant opposes such an act, the political boss has the confidence to find someone else that can do what is needed. A smart collusion ensures that only “cooperative” personnel are lined up along the progress of the file to eliminate potential disruptions. But when this is not done in advance and a civil servant becomes un-cooperative, s/he is sidelined, and in more blatant cases, disciplinary or even criminal proceedings initiated.
Since these acts have increased over time, and honesty rebuffed repeatedly, personal and professional costs to the honest civil servant increase at the margin. A normal query on file calling for more information or seeking clear orders starts to look odd and becomes the subject of much corridor discussion. The officer becomes mentally prepared to be, at the very least, summarily shifted from the post. The situation of Ashok Khemka appears to be a case in point – the officer, irrespective of the political party in power, has had an average tenure of six months over a career of three decades. When the lesson from each case of conflict is that honesty is costly, normal probity and resistance to corruption tend to decline.
In contrast with national and State levels, municipal and panchayat level politicians have yet to be delegated with powers to allocate public wealth, and local level bureaucracies have limited policy space. Not that corruption is absent, but typically, the money value is low. Examples such as a village administrative officer suspended for demanding a tip for a certificate, a forest ranger caught for ignoring illegal tree cutting, a block development officer charged for siphoning off part of a subsidy in a micro-credit scheme or a school teacher dismissed for demanding payments for grades, do find their way into local papers. As a matter of course, lower end government employees are more easily charged for acts of relatively petty corruption. Most multilateral assisted projects too, ironically, focus on the local levels for improving “governance” (euphemism for anti-corruption in development literature). The implicit assumption is that corruption decreases at higher levels of government – with no basis in experience. Sure, the local focus could also be because that is where the visible part of development projects is located, but could also be a convenient façade due to hesitation in confronting the client at the top.
The positive actions in running governance programmes through multilateral loans, and the punitive actions in catching the lowly serve to deflect attention from the more serious convivial relationship between the politician-businessman-official at higher levels of government. And the focus on petty, rat-like acts at lower levels deflects from serious dacoit-style acts of grand corruption and the less visible, insidious state capture at higher levels. It blinds us all to the old proverb that a fish usually rots from the head down.
The expenses for political success have been rising while the tenure of office is short and hence the need to recoup as soon as possible. Civil servants, on the other hand, have low financial costs for entry and a longer tenure than politicians, often with a pension for life including for a surviving spouse. Hence officials need to be undermined in other ways – transfers, suspensions, charges – to make them toe the line, with public good becoming a contested space.
There have been several explanations for the rising misappropriation of public good through this nexus or for the official-politician conflict that sometimes comes in the way. A popular explanation runs as follows: the expenses for political success have been rising (it is rumoured that to win a parliamentary seat costs around Rs. 3 crores) while the tenure of office is short (five years) and hence the need to recoup as soon as possible. Civil servants, on the other hand, have low financial costs for entry (cheapest in money terms for the highest category of the IAS as the UPSC recruitments are beyond reproach, even though they cost more in terms of earnings lost in preparation time and the intense effort in competitive entry) and a longer tenure than politicians – at least thirty years – often with a pension for life including for a surviving spouse. Hence officials need to be undermined in other ways – transfers, suspensions, charges – to make them toe the line, with public good becoming a contested space. Advocates of strengthening all the civil services are probably motivated by institutional arrangements that insulate officials from pressures, to serve as barriers to rapid exploitation of public wealth. Unfortunately, counter examples abound, of officials acting with impunity and even guiding their political bosses through the intricacies of procedural requirements for legally diverting public wealth.
After the dismantling of the license raj in 1991, and the opening of the production of public goods like power and roads to the private sector, the opportunities for policy-based corruption declined. Advocates for further cuts in the public investments would like to reduce the scope for both the civil servant and the politician in making investment decisions. But there is little evidence to support this presumption – most acts of privatisation (starting from the disinvestment scandals in the 1990s), Enron and power, coal etc., have led to considerable losses. In fact, liberalisation itself, throws up more opportunities for conversion of public goods into private profits through bad policy.
IAS versus the rest: Debunking a red herring
We now look squarely at the question of the extent to which it is an issue of the IAS versus other civil services. The fact that Durga Shakti Nagpal is an IAS officer, has led the arguments in a potential red herring direction on the IAS itself – diverting from the core issue of misappropriation of public wealth. Note that the district mining officer was also summarily transferred but, without Nagpal, his case would not have received as much attention.
At one extreme, the SP that has stated it does not need IAS officers at all – meaning they do not want officials that do not do as bid. At the other extreme, and on the same basis, is the view that the IAS is the best hope for the protection of public good – a former Cabinet Secretary has argued that the IAS should be strengthened by policy actions such as fixed tenure etc. Both these positions are based on flawed premises. The SP argument presupposes that Nagpal did what she did because she was an IAS officer and the opposite camp that argues for strengthening the IAS, also lays great store by strengthened civil services. It is difficult to argue that she went after the sand mafia because she was an IAS officer. The non-IAS, District Mining Officer (also suddenly transferred) also seems to have been doing an excellent job. It is also unlikely that had Nagpal been from the state civil services she would have acted differently. There are innumerable instances of non-IAS officers who have upheld public interest against serious odds and equally significant number of IAS officers conniving in eroding of public interest (including a former chief secretary level officer from UP who had been found guilty in land scams). Therefore, the argument for strengthening the IAS through fixed tenures based on this case is weak. If anything, it would apply to all services.
On the other hand, the SP argument that an all India service like the IAS (with dual control of State and Central governments) is a hindrance to effective state government performance is equally weak. It presumes that non-IAS officers do not enter into conflicts with politicians as they are fully under state control. This too appears incorrect from the example of the district mining officer and from the example of the UP Chief Secretary (the head of the IAS) in suspending Nagpal without application of mind. And the dual control argument – allowing central government protection for Nagpal from arbitrary actions such as suspension in minutes – has proven to be no protection after all. The central government, and the department of personnel that has the powers to revoke the suspension, itself headed by an IAS officer, directly under the country’s Prime Minister, has remained silent. This, despite the Prime Minister as the departmental minister having been tasked by his party president to ensure justice was done. It would be interesting to document the discussions among the civil servants who actively participated in suspending Nagpal in UP and among those in Delhi who have the power to revoke but remain passive by not exercising that power. What exactly are they advising their political masters on the ramifications of this case?
Practical considerations would suggest that Nagpal, with hardly two years of work experience, and likely to spend another 30 years in UP, would be ill-advised to complain. Even if her suspension is revoked, she would be marked for life as “difficult” and probably end up with a career profile similar to that of Ashok Khemka. So for the SP to blame the IAS or the issue of dual control as the cause of the fiasco is unjustified.
However, some governments run by strong regional parties may be sympathetic to the view that the IAS has no special role, and its all-India status provides no value addition for the ruling government of the day. In Tamilnadu, for example, chief ministers have consistently held that directly recruited IAS officers are neither special, nor do they add value. Further they have through actions such as refusal to send these officers on central deputation, illegal suspension before voluntary retirement, cocked a snook at the central government and the associated notion of dual control. Nevertheless IAS officers have held key positions even with strong regional parties that are confident about their political strength and hence longer staying power – again showing that the issue is not IAS versus the rest as the SP has tried to pitch it.
60 years ago Sardar Patel argued that an all India Service was necessary to integrate a highly diverse country through good and unified governance after centuries of colonial rule and fragmented governance standards... But now, an objective assessment of the IAS would show that it has protected public good but also connived to erode it.
Now, around 60 years later, an objective assessment of the IAS with reference to these initial expectations would perhaps show mixed results. As argued earlier, the IAS has both protected public good but also connived to erode it. While the need for an all India policy and implementation framework for national public goods would probably justify the Indian Forest Service, the Indian Foreign Service, the Income Tax, Customs, Defence, and may be even the Police, it is not clear what national and integrating value the IAS brings to citizens. Further, if we take a random sample of IAS officers and stratify on the basis of caste, gender, region or class, and examine whether probity has an association with any of these attributes, one would not find any significant correlation, demonstrating that values such as probity in governance cannot be generated by designing ratios of insider/outsider or dual controls.
Are we at an inflection point?
We now turn to the issue of prospects for the future of governance in India. Could the Durga Shakti Nagpal case be a trend changer that results in serious debate on genuine governance reform? Would victimization of honest officials decline in the face of political embarrassment from growing public scrutiny? Or does this case reinforce a trend that emboldens more such acts? The prospects for change could potentially come from three sources: the bureaucracy itself, the political class, or the rising tide of civil society movements that are angrier and increasingly emboldened.
The reaction of the bureaucracy to the Nagpal episode could be, “Yes, this is what happens when you are young, you get hit, and there is no one to protect you, so next time walk away from confrontations; there are several sand mines but only one career.” This reaction type would reinforce the collusive trends and boost misappropriation. If the past is an efficient predictor, then the former reaction would, over time, subsume the latter. On the other hand, if this case is seen as a wakeup call, and energises all civil services (for example, several IAS associations have come forward to condemn the suspension) then the prospects for systemic reform improve.
The prospect for change from the political leadership is difficult to predict. Electoral democracies do not come cheap. The temptations for quick money and competitive compulsions of elections provide a fertile ground for collusion with business interests that not only generate money, but also benefit from policies and contracts. Hardly any democracy has found a foolproof solution to election funding. The significant positive signal of Sonia Gandhi in taking up the case has been dampened by the Manmohan Singh response asking first for a letter from the aggrieved official to do justice. Unlike on most other issues (food security, water sharing, Telangana or Bodoland) there is unanimity across political parties on amending the Right to Information Act to exclude them from having to share information. Yet, it can hardly be said that all political leaders are corrupt – in the past political movements have been motivated explicitly by social good. Moreover, in the game of electoral musical chairs, political strategy may lead to a realisation that it is better to support clean systems which do not work to their disadvantage when out of power. Political maturity may well lie in responding to people’s expectations in the times of hyper exposure in the media.
The big unknown is the effect of the Durga Shakti Nagpal case on civil society. Over the years more and more sections of the civil society have accumulated anger against a corrupt system... The widespread disaffection is not only with acts of corruption but with the state of public goods… This anger, though sporadic and dispersed, is real. It may embed in it the kernel of a chance to change the status quo.
Time will tell whether India is at a turning point – whether people’s pressure from below will join hands with political maturity from above. The civil service usually complies.