Every year we cheer as the best and the brightest youngsters are selected for the civil services, a job that requires them to virtually run the country. Not for nothing is it said that the three engines of India's governance are the DM (district magistrate), the CM and the PM. So, how is it that these IAS and IPS officers, the 24-carat gold of our country, get involved in something as revolting as the cover-up the Dalit girl's rape and murder in Hathras, the DM in this case even disgracing himself on national TV by threatening the family of the victim?
How do the chief secretary and the director-general of police of UP justify something as outrageous as cremating the rape victim in the dead of night while keeping her family confined to their house? All this in full media glare. Have our caretakers have turned into our undertakers?
The Hathras episode which comes on the heels of the Unnao rape case, where the victim tried to set herself on fire outside CM Yogi Adityanath’s house to draw attention to her plight, is yet another instance of the complicity of civil servants in patently illegal acts.
Then, who can forget the UP government's move to name and shame anti-CAA protesters while gangsters such as Vikas Dubey were being wooed. Also fresh in memory is the midnight lathi-charge on sleeping supporters of Baba Ramdev at Delhi's Ramlila Maidan in 2012, which resulted in a stampede, leading to a woman's death. The classic case though remains 'nasbandi', the forcible sterilisation drive during the emergency.
Forget the big moments, our bureaucrats can't stop corruption in midday meal schemes for poor children, they can't ensure that orphans in shelter homes are not raped, they can't implement even dog sterilisation projects. All they can do is to lock up one actress on drug charges while providing Y+ security to another.
Why do we expect them to nab the killers of Dabholkar, Pansare, Kalburgi and Gauri Lankesh when they are busy arresting renowned professors and scholars under anti-terrorist laws? How do we expect them to curb crimes against women when the cop in charge of law and order in UP displays his ignorance of the post-Nirbhaya definition of rape on prime time while trying to deny that the Hathras girl was raped. Has he been promised the same carrot, a party ticket, as the Bihar DGP who raked up the Sushant Singh Rajput case?
Why do we expect bureaucrats to do anything about local goons, illegal quarrying or encroachment of mangroves, forests or saltpans by land sharks or to take steps to curb air pollution?
How foolish of us to hope that babus can stop the loot of the exchequer or put their foot down when it comes to hare-brained policies such as demonetisation. Are our civil servants running the country or ruining the country?
To be fair to them, all civil servants are not civil serpents. Julio Ribeiro and K P S Gill ended terrorism in Punjab. When he had a free hand as Chief Election Commissioner, T N Seshan put the fear of god into politicians; Surat Municipal Commissioner S R Rao transformed the plague-scarred city from 'badsurat' to 'khoobsurat'; Mumbai Customs Commissioner Daya Shankar was a terror to gold smugglers; Satish Sahney applied the healing touch to Mumbai as police chief post-Babri riots and serial blasts; N Vittal as Central Vigilance Commissioner posted on the CVC website the names of 85 IAS and 22 IPS officers against whom the commission had sought criminal/departmental proceedings for major penalties; Rentala Chandrashekhar and J Satyanarayana pioneered e-governance in the country…
However, officers such as these are rare. Bureaucrats seem to have given up the fight against illegal orders by politicians. In the wake of the Hathras episode, 92 former civil servants collectively lamented "the meek surrender of the Uttar Pradesh bureaucracy and police, especially its All-India Services, to political diktat’", adding that it had "shamed all of us who deem it a badge of honour to belong to these services".
What is needed though is a mechanism that wrests the absolute control of bureaucrats out of the hands of the political class. This is where initiatives such as police reforms are so important. The Supreme Court passed direction in the Prakash Singh vs Union of India case way back in 2006 but police reforms remain largely unimplemented. The SC needs to call the Union Home Secretary and chief secretaries of the states to ensure compliance.
The IAS and IPS associations also can play a part by encouraging officers to do their work fearlessly but that has not happened. The reason is that most of the office-bearers, who are seniors, have made their compromises with the system. Youngsters join the civil services with idealism but over the years, they lose much of their enthusiasm and innovativeness and end up as mere cogs in the wheel. A bureaucrat in the housing sector in Maharashtra once remarked in private that the policy was drafted by builders and all he had to do was to sign on the dotted line.
Many of these bureaucrats would have quit in disgust but they don't because they know that they won't be able to get a comparable job in the private sector. What competence or expertise can a civil servant hope to develop if he/she is transferred so often? And now there is a move for lateral entry by experts in various fields into civil services, a move seen with great suspicion by many.
Why shouldn't the government itself seek to create such specialists within the system? After some years of service, each officer can be encouraged to specialise in a sector by giving him/her a reasonably long tenure in it and permitting him/her to join an academic or research organisation for a year or two.
To its credit, the civil services has officers who have quit to do social work, such as Jayaprakash Narayan who formed the Lok Satta party to work on a grassroots movement for good governance, Aruna Roy who pioneered the RTI movement, and human rights activist Harsh Mander. The latest is Kannan Gopinathan, who resigned last year stating that he was disturbed over the denial of fundamental rights to lakhs of citizens in J&K. During the Kerala floods of 2018, he had worked incognito as a volunteer, even lifting sacks.
Just as the performers must be rewarded, the corrupt and the slackers must be compulsorily retired. The civil services cannot be a club for life. Also, the law insulating bureaucrats from prosecution without sanction deserves a serious relook.
PM Modi has sacked corrupt bureaucrats on more than one occasion but his mantra of 'minimum government and maximum governance' cannot work unless the rampant corruption in the lower bureaucracy is tackled. There is a cabal at all levels; village, tehsil, district and state; with politicians, the media and others in the criminal justice system protecting each other. The entire system turns against those who don't fall in line and whistleblowers are implicated in fake or real cases.
More than the PM, it is up to the people and the media to expose wrongdoing and support upright bureaucrats and those working honestly but silently in the lower bureaucracy. Ultimately, as G B Shaw said, democracy is a device which ensures that we will be governed no better than we deserve.
The writer is an independent journalist based in Mumbai.