IAS officers who stray from highest moral standards have no place in ‘steel frame’ envisioned by Sardar Patel
IAS officers accused of moral turpitude must face a prompt enquiry or trial and if found guilty, dismissed and suitably punished. Human avarice can’t be allowed to hold governance of nation hostage
Does the present crop of officers serving in the Indian Administrative Service actually believe that the acronym of the service stands for ‘I am safe’ and ‘I am supreme’, as goes the old joke among civil servants? Some recent instances of misdemeanor, acts of moral turpitude, and indeed, downright criminal acts, which have come to light against some of them would certainly seem to suggest so.
Last week, a 2019 batch officer of Jharkhand cadre posted as Sub Divisional Magistrate at Khunti was suspended by the state government for allegedly sexually harassing a student, one of eight engineering students of an IIT visiting the town for training. Syed Riaz Ahmed was arrested soon after an FIR was registered against him on July 4 after the student filed a complaint at a women’s police station.
While attending a dinner hosted at Deputy Development Commissioner's residence, Ahmed allegedly found her alone at some point and harassed her sexually. It is just as well that his senior colleagues in the service let law take its own course, for, it is not unheard for such things to get hushed up at the very outset.
Earlier, in May, in a much-publicised event, 1994 batch AGMUT cadre officer Sanjeev Khirwar, posted with Delhi Government as Principal Secretary (Revenue) cum Divisional Commissioner – a position that lets the incumbent lord over the district administration machinery spread over the city’s 11 districts – came on the media radar for letting his dog have a free run of an entire stadium for its ‘walks’ after the athletes using the facility were chased off by guards before closing time.
Nothing may have come of it in the normal scheme of things; it just so happened that a photojournalist, who presumably got a tip-off, literally captured him and his wife – a fellow batchmate in the IAS – in the act and a national daily splashed the image on its pages.
Khirwar was then shunted off to Ladakh while his wife Rinku Dugga was transferred to Arunachal Pradesh, in a rare departure from the norm of letting a couple in the services be posted at the same station. Many, however, wondered if such a ‘punishment’ was really enough to send a much-needed message to the bureaucracy that such ‘Brown Sahib’ conduct on their part was unacceptable in a nation on cusp of celebrating its 75th independence day.
Earlier in May, it had come to the fore that Rajiv Bansal (1988 batch, Nagaland cadre), posted as Secretary, Ministry of Civil Aviation, paid far less for Economy Class tickets to fly on a personal visit to the US with his wife than other passengers, with the airline going on to upgrade them to Business Class. Nothing much came of the news reports and Bansal continues to rule the roost in MCA.
And one is personally acquainted with the case of an entry-level IAS officer posted as SDM in the national capital who thinks nothing of accepting money in lieu of official favours.
There would be innumerable other such cases that are unlikely to ever even come to light. Money culture and materialism is now deeply rooted in our social psyche, and immoral monetary transactions always transpire in a clandestine manner. And it's not as if we have ever incubated a culture that encourages whistleblowing; quite the contrary, in fact.
It's no surprise then that over the years, only a few IAS officers have ever been indicted for graft. The list just includes such infamous cases as that of Arvind Joshi and his wife Tinu (1979 batch, Madhya Pradesh cadre); Neera Yadav (1971, UP); Akhand Pratap Singh (2010, UP); S Malaichamy (1971, AGMUT); BL Agrawal (1988, Chhattisgarh); Subhash Ahluwalia (1989, Himachal Pradesh); TO Suraj (1989, Kerala) and Pooja Singhal (2000, Jharkhand).
The details of the charges/cases against these officers are beyond the scope of this article. It will suffice to point out that they are grave, well-documented and widely reported by the media.
While some of such officers face ‘major penalties’ and court trials, others get away with a mere rap on the knuckles in the form of being shunted off to an ‘inconsequential’ posting for a while.
This is because many of those serving in the IAS are known to not only enjoy political patronage due to the very nature of their work but also an invisible cushion in the form of 'The Network'. Simply put, IAS officers are known to look out for each other when in trouble, which can be a huge obstacle in bringing crooked ones to justice successfully.
A case in point is that of 1990 batch Haryana cadre officer Anand Mohan Sharan, booked by the CBI for corruption in 2003 for alleged conspiracy with private builders while posted as Commissioner (Land Disposal), Delhi Development Authority (DDA). He remained in CBI’s custody and then judicial custody for almost two months, and the Centre suspended him on April 10, 2003.
Sharan was, however, reinstated on September 28, 2005 and rejoined Haryana Government. He got promoted up the ladder over the years, even as criminal cases and a departmental enquiry remained pending against him.
In January 2021, when his batchmates were promoted to the Chief Secretary grade, Sharan, posted as a Principal Secretary, submitted a representation to Haryana govt. When this was turned down, he sent another representation, vehemently citing case laws to buttress his case.
His colleague Ashok Khemka (1991, Haryana) then wrote to Haryana CM to object to these proceedings, marking a copy to the PM, following which the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT) wrote to Haryana Chief Secretary in July last year seeking the state’s comments in the matter.
In his letter, Khemka wrote, “Promoting officers facing criminal trial and disciplinary proceedings in corruption offences is tantamount to rewarding corruption, and is detrimental to clean administration and against the public interest. Such unlawful acts are a violation of the oath all public servants take to protect the Constitution”.
Sharan has since, however, been promoted and is now posted as Additional Chief Secretary.
Incidentally, his elder brother Ajit Mohan Sharan (1979 batch, Haryana) too was arrested in 2003 for alleged corruption and remained in police custody. However, he also went on to serve in senior positions in Haryana Government such as Financial Commissioner, Principal Secretary and as Chairman, Haryana Power Utilities before attaining superannuation.
The question that arises is, should constitutional provisions which protect civil servants and members of the All India Services (IAS, IPS, Indian Forest Service), subject to certain provisions, still be retained in the current scenario?
More importantly, what would it take to ensure accountability and probity among officers during their career spanning over several decades? Is it really enough just to get them to write an ‘ethics’ paper in the civil services examination? What difference does that make when an individual officer, posted in the field, faces ‘temptations’ in various forms, and succumbs to them?
To be sure, there are specific conduct rules for officers, at least on paper. The three All India Services are governed by the All India Service Conduct Rules, 1968. There are 23 Rules in all, which have been amended 37 times since they were first notified.
The overarching Rule for civil servants is: “Every member of the Service shall at all times maintain absolute integrity and devotion to duty and shall do nothing which is unbecoming of a member of the Service. They shall maintain high ethical standards, integrity and honesty; political neutrality; accountability and transparency; responsiveness to the public, particularly to the weaker section; courtesy and good behaviour with the public.”
But there is really no system in place to monitor their infringement. An aggrieved common man or whistleblower can, at best, send out complaints, but these never really come to fruition.
Is it any wonder, then, that the general public today regards officers with contempt and disdain, rather than the huge respect and admiration accorded to them in years gone by?
This is not to paint the entire service with the same brush; indeed, many IAS officers do serve the nation with diligence and integrity. However, quite clearly, not an unsubstantial number of officers of the present generation violate such rules with impunity, in spirit if not word.
In a specific measure introduced to check graft and disproportionate income, officers are mandated to annually file a list of assets, but this is usually observed only in the breach.
Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, independent India’s first Home Minister considered as the architect of the civil services, famously described the IAS as the ‘steel frame’ of India, and expected its members to function without fear and favour.
“Above all, I would advise you to maintain the utmost impartiality and incorruptibility of administration. A civil servant cannot afford to, and must not, take part in politics….No Service worth the name can claim to exist if it does not have in view the achievement of the highest standard of integrity… I hope that you, who are now starting, as it were, a new generation of civil servants, will not be misled by the black sheep in the fold, but would render your service without fear or favour and without any expectation of extraneous rewards,” Patel said in a speech to IAS probationers.
The current sorry state of affairs is clearly nothing as envisioned by Patel.
“For the civil services to fulfil the mandate that the country has placed on their shoulders, we require men and women of courage, convictions, integrity, compassion, with a deep sense of justice, untainted by prejudice and imbued with a deep sense of public service. There is nothing in the present mode of recruitment of civil servants that tests any of these qualities,” wrote noted activist and former IAS officer Harsh Mander in a foreword to a book titled What ails the IAS and why it fails to deliver penned by Naresh Chandra Saxena (1964 batch, UP) who retired as Secretary, Planning Commission in 2002 and went on to serve as member of the National Advisory Commission from 2004-2008 and 2010-2014.
“The state apparatus is generally perceived to be largely inefficient, with most functionaries serving no useful purpose. The bureaucracy is generally seen to be tardy, inefficient and unresponsive. Corruption is all-pervasive, eating into the vitals of our system, undermining economic growth, distorting competition and disproportionately hurting the poor and marginalized citizens,” the Second Administrative Commission said in a blistering observation.
Another relevant perspective and insight came from Amartya Sen who, while writing for The Indian Express in 1990, wondered why giving every man a vote does not translate into transfer of power from the elite to the poor.
“One of the reasons is that India’s elite have never recovered from their colonial hangover and not developed the attitudes and ideology to change the poor from subjects to partners in governance,” he had remarked.
The Narendra Modi-led Union government has made a lot of noise about taking corrupt and inefficient officers to task, but it is clearly just paying lip-service to the issue.
In 2020, DoPT had issued instructions to periodically review staff performance and if necessary, invoke Fundamental Rule (FR) 56 (J) and (I), besides Rule 48 (1) (b) of Central Civil Services (Pension) Rules, 1972 which, it said, give ‘absolute right’ to an appropriate authority to prematurely retire a government servant, if necessary in ‘public interest’.
In February 2021, it told Parliament that 340 ‘non-performing’ or ‘corrupt’ officers had been prematurely retired between 2014-2020. In July, it said that 196 such officers had been given premature retirement. These figures included officers from all services, from Group A as well as B.
As per official data, however, the cadre strength of IAS officers alone is 4,926.
One of the reasons why the Modi government has fallen flat on its face in implementing its avowed aim to root out ‘deadwood’ and graft in senior bureaucracy is the fact that the Prime Minister’s Officer is all-powerful, quite in the image of a typical Chief Minister’s Office. And those at the helm in the PMO are, of course, IAS officers.
As Roman poet Juvenal wrote in Satire VI, Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who will guard the guardians?
(Views are personal)