IT'S an effort to make government servants civil. The credibility of the civil servant, seen to work hand-in-glove with his political masters, has been witnessing steady erosion over the years. Any dealing with India's slow-to-act babucracy has come to symbolise endless red tape and harassment. Now, at long last, a reform-oriented exercise is on the anvil. The idea is to arrest the rot and restore the respect the bureaucracy once commanded. And the initiative comes from within, with Cabinet Secretary T.S.R. Subramaniam taking the lead. The effort is four-pronged: to bolster the sagging image of the civil servant by laying down a Charter of Ethics; to make the bureaucracy customer-friendly by formulating a Citizens' Charter; to draft a Right to Information Act; and to review existing laws to ensure a more responsive administration.
So far so good. But even taking serious cognisance of this blueprint for change calls for considerable political will. A conference of chief ministers had been called in early April to assess their response to the proposals. It was postponed after the Congress withdrew support to the Deve Gowda regime. Now the meet is set for this month.
Should Subramaniam and his team's recommendations be accepted, it promises good news for the common man: instant delivery of LPG cylinders; timebound response to telephone complaints; designated officers in government offices clearing queries within 30 days; and amendments in archaic laws like the Urban Land Ceiling Act and the Civil Procedure Code.
An ambitious plan, no doubt. But bureaucrats agree that it couldn't have been more timely. With the IAS officers' associations in Uttar Pradesh and Tamil Nadu pointing to corruption within their own ranks, the civil service has tired of battling cynicism, constant criticism and judicial onslaughts. A desperate need to salvage its corroded image is being voiced aloud in many quarters. Says Harinder Singh, joint secretary, Department of Personnel and Training (DOPT): "Civil servants have lost their credibility. Everybody feels that this drift in public perception needs to be arrested." The idea of overhauling the service goes back to the 1996 elections in which corruption, the politician-bureaucrat nexus and non-governance became core issues. But it was only during a meeting of chief secretaries last November that a national debate on the subject was triggered and a blueprint of the Charter for Civil Services Reform was laid down. The comprehensive charter is now being prepared by the Department of Administrative Reforms. The ultimate goal, says Subramaniam, is to "create an accountable, responsive administration where public satisfaction is the ultimate goal".
Some of the glaring issues that emerged in the course of various preparatory symposiums with consumer rights organisations were corruption and total lack of accountability among bureaucrats, cumbersome governmental procedures veiled in unwarranted secrecy and transfers being made the tool by which the political executive exercised control over the bureaucracy. But rectifying the wrongs may prove difficult. Take the Charter of Ethics for civil servants. The aspects that deal with tightening departmental rules to ensure exemplary punishment for inefficiency and corruption may be easily implemented. But delineating the roles of politicians and bureaucrats is bound to be tricky. So too will be the fate of a proposal to institute a Civil Services Board in each state to decide on all transfers. Like a central staffing scheme at the centre, the board would be meant to ensure a mandatory three-year tenure for officers in any posting.
Says a senior Home Ministry official: "Transfers and postings are a big handle in the hands of politicians and this will have to be taken away if the bureaucrat is to assert his independence." P.S.A. Sundaram, additional secretary, Department of Administrative Reforms, adds the catch: "The final decision on this will be taken by chief ministers. Some may reject the proposal outright." Senior bureaucrats foresee a tug-of-war with politicians over this since the latter find it disadvantageous to deal with an independent bureaucracy.
There will be other roadblocks too. Making the bureaucracy customer-friendly through easy dissemination of information will require a legislative initiative. While the Right to Information Act, on the lines of a US law, was discussed in Parliament last year, the current political uncertainty makes its implementation uncertain. For the moment, a working group headed by consumer activist H.D. Shourie has done the spadework by preparing a draft proposal.
Freedom to information will require changes in the Official Secrets Act, which governs the code of conduct of all government servants. Other reform-oriented proposals being moved by the Law Ministry—amendments to the Rent Control Bill, Urban Land Ceiling Legislation, a law to barricade electronic data transfer, Stamp Duty and the Companies Act, among many—would depend on a similar political commitment. "We require a stable political executive which can take decisions when a bureaucrat comes up with concrete proposals," says a senior officer in the Cabinet Secretariat.
But even if political will is wanting, in the pipeline is a government-sponsored software, called Gist Nic, which will contain information on all central government operations. Once the software is in place there will be no more waiting in queues. The well-wired can simply log on and access information. For starters, the Customs and Excise Department has already taken a decision to go on-line by the end of the year. However, information considered sensitive cannot be accessed.
The good news is that the babus are agreeable to changes meant to improve their efficiency. A proposal to revamp the performance appraisal system of bureaucrats to incorporate fundamentals like accountability and public service leads the bunch. This means that performance will be judged, among other parameters, on the basis of customer-friendliness.
Says Subramaniam: "Public servants by definition are meant to serve the public. These steps were long overdue." But it remains to be seen if his political masters agree to work towards a smooth functioning bureaucracy. If the civil servant is made accountable, then the politician may fear he will not be able to escape public scrutiny.