“ Retirement ke baad mujhko Tihar nahi jana hai (I don’t want to be in Tihar post-retirement) for taking a critical decision. It’s better to play it safe.” This seems to have become the new mantra of Indian bureaucrats, particularly after the sentencing of former Coal Secretary HC Gupta, and two other verdicts.
On the one hand, successive governments have tried to push quick decision-making in their offices. On the other hand, a growing band of bureaucrats is now going into stall mode due to a rising fear of the three Cs – CAG, CVC, and courts. After the case against Gupta, widely regarded as an honest officer, the morale of public servants is down.
The genesis of their troubles is an amendment to Section 13 of The Prevention of Corruption Act that deals with criminal misconduct by a public servant.
This particular provision has seen many officers – especially those dealing with natural resources – land in trouble after retirement.
Naturally the IAS community is now clamouring for this controversial amendment to be changed. But, will doing away with it be enough to restore their confidence?
PC Parakh, former Coal Secretary, who also found his untainted professional career being questioned after retirement following the ‘Coalgate’ scam says, “Apart from amendment to Prevention of Corruption Act in any issue relating to a crime, ‘guilty mind’ is an important ingredient. In Gupta’s case there is no evidence at all that he had any wrong intentions of giving benefit to anybody or had received any personal benefit. The fundamental principal of what constituted crime has not been proved.”
Parakh, who has come out strongly in support of Gupta, has dedicated his latest book, The Coal Conundrum: Executive Failure and Judicial Arrogance to young and aspiring civil servants with the hope that they will preserve the key values of honesty, impartiality and fearlessness.
The IAS Association of India too has come out in support of HC Gupta, while the political parties – both the incumbent government and Opposition (Congress) – remained diplomatic. There is a strong need to review the legal framework regarding prevention of corruption for the government servants to work in a transparent manner without any fear, an IAS Association member said.
According to him, “The legal framework in vogue is of pre-liberalisation era. Post-liberalisation you do expect a lot of private investments to take forward the 21st century development agenda.” He fears that existing laws will lead to policy paralysis.
As Parakh points out, singling out one bureaucrat when multiple people are involved in the decision-making is rather harsh. “It was a joint decision taken by several members of the screening committee and also numerous officers in the Coal Ministry going up to the then Prime Minister (Dr Manmohan Singh). When you say conspiracy you can’t pick and chose a few people in the decision-making chain and say these people are guilty of conspiracy,” he says.
Finally, the judgement on Gupta is based on the fact that wrong information was furnished by the company and not taken note of by the secretary, he says. “In every committee meeting a secretary goes by the brief submitted to him. In situations like that of Gupta where almost a dozen presentations were being made every day, how is it humanly possible for him to look into the fine print of what each company was submitting, ” Parakh argues.
Echoing Parakh, a serving Secretary in the government says, “By and large in every committee meeting a secretary goes by the brief that is put up to him. He cannot go into the annual accounts of every company at that moment.”
“In the recent past, auctions of spectrum, coal blocks and marginal oil and gas fields have happened and thousands of documents were submitted by the bidders. Five-six years down the line some discrepancy in documents submitted is found. How justified is it to hold just a handful of officers responsible for the entire decision?” questions a mid-level bureaucrat at the Centre.
Bureaucrats also blame the unseemly haste that the government has displayed in pushing some projects, putting pressure on civil servants. As Parakh says in his book, “Files in government offices do not move on their own in our country. Red tape is axiomatic. But, is the importance of a project for the state to be measured by the pace at which the files move in the government or by an objective assessment of the impact that the project would make on the economy of the State?”
Within the bureaucratic corridors, there is a lot of angst. But the question is will it lead to a reform of the system or will it further aggravate red-tapism?