Indian anti-corruption drive raises fears of unequal treatment

By on 18/07/2017
India's former comptroller and auditor general, Vinod Rai, has warned that officials are being unjustly convicted of criminal offences (Image courtesy: World Economic Forum).

The Indian government is moving to sweep incompetent and corrupt officials out of the civil service. But Abhimanyu Kumar hears concerns that unless elected politicians get the same treatment, civil servants may end up carrying the can for every case of maladministration

The Indian government is moving to strengthen accountability among senior civil servants, toughening up performance management systems and giving investigating agencies tight deadlines to bring charges against officials suspected of corruption. But observers warn that this drive to clean up the civil service may lead to miscarriages of justice if it isn’t accompanied by efforts to tackle corruption amongst elected politicians.

New rules issued earlier this year by the Department of Personnel and Training require inquiries into corruption within the Indian Administrative Service (IAS), the elite leadership cadre, to be completed within six months. Any extensions may only be granted by the Disciplinary Authority, and civil servants have just 30 days to respond to any charges resulting from corruption probes.

Then, in May the government launched an ‘Online Probity Management System’: a digital platform built to give central government officials oversight of a major appraisal exercise being conducted across government. Using three separate online portals, this work involves assessing the records of all those civil servants aged over 50 or with more 30 years’ service. Having begun with the IAS, the system is now being rolled out to 13 other cadres, and tens of thousands have already undergone the test. Well over a hundred have already been required to retire.

According to Soma Chakraborty, deputy editor of trade magazine Bureaucracy Today: “The present government’s effort to streamline the bureaucracy is unprecedented. Though changes cannot be brought in overnight, the efforts are showing results. The bureaucrats have become more accountable.”

Speaking with Global Government Forum at the magazine’s Delhi offices, Chakraborty welcomed the government’s decisions to make probes time-bound and to crack down on under-performing officers. “The step will no doubt bring in more accountability and will ensure that the guilty is punished within a time-bound frame,” she said. “This was indeed the need of the hour. The bureaucrats can now no longer take their job for granted. To make the bureaucracy performance-oriented and accountable, it is very important to remove deadwood and inefficient officials. This is indeed a very positive development.”

However, others warn that anti-corruption measures may be used to protect corrupt or incompetent politicians by laying the blame at the door of senior officials. And here, the recent conviction of former coal secretary H.C. Gupta and two other retired officials in the ‘Coal Blocks Allocation’ case have raised suspicions.

The coal blocks scandal emerged following an investigation by former comptroller and auditor general Vinod Rai, who uncovered allegations of maladministration. Gupta was working for former Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh during a period when coal rights were apparently allocated inappropriately, and has now been convicted under the Prevention of Corruption Act. But Rai has since decried Gupta’s conviction, calling it a “betrayal” of the bureaucracy.

Writing in India’s The Week magazine, Rai argued that “there is not a soul who has known or heard of Gupta who would not vouch for his being a brutally upright officer.” Arguing that politicians must be held to account along with officials in such cases, Rai asked: “If a political party desires to protect its party member (the PM) by its party lawyers, is it fair to leave the officer to fend for himself?”

“A blind application of section 13 of the Prevention of Corruption Act, without distinguishing between an act committed in good faith (an act of omission) that has subsequently gone awry and an act committed with a premeditated desire to personally benefit (an act of commission), is bound to create adverse reactions in the bureaucracy,” Rai argued. “This will severely debilitate our capacity for prompt decision making.”

Tuktuk Ghosh, a former bureaucrat and now a columnist on civil service issues with national daily The Statesman, told Global Government Forum that while she welcomes measures ensuring accountability, these should not allow a “systematic, targeted witch-hunt”.

Noting Gupta’s case, Ghosh added that his conviction is “not fair at all” as Manmohan Singh was let off the hook. “If you are going to haul the bureaucracy over the coals like this, it will make them insecure and they will shy away from taking decisions,” she argued. “The effect on lower bureaucracy could be worse. You can not only punish the bureaucrats, because the ministers are also in the picture in such cases. Both should be blamed, or no one should be blamed. Such decisions could have major repercussions on the morale and functioning of the bureaucracy.”

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See also:

Myanmar reform plan launched to strengthen civil service

Indian anti-corruption agency investigates its former boss

India moves to protect retired officials from corruption probes

New transparency rules to help tackle corruption

About Abhimanyu Kumar

Abhimanyu Singh is a journalist based in New Delhi, India. He writes on issues related to politics and governance for Indian and foreign media. He was previously with The Hindu and The Sunday Guardian.

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