<b>Fifth Columnist:</b> Steal Frame
Among the various ticklish issues that came up between India’s first prime minister and the country’s first home minister, the future role of the civil bureaucracy comes up for special mention. Jawaharlal Nehru was no fan of the Indian Civil Service (ICS), whom he had seen at close quarters colluding with the British, and wanted them out.
The redoubtable Vallabhbhai Patel, however, favoured continuing with India’s steel frame. “I have worked with them during the difficult period,” he observed, “remove them and I see nothing but a picture of chaos all over the country.” Like on a number of subjects that went into laying down the rules of business in a brand new country, Patel’s turned out to be the last word.
Confirmation of this came from many quarters, like this little nugget from `In Pursuit of Lakshmi: The Political Economy of the Indian State’ by Lloyd I Rudolph and Susanne Hoeber Rudolph, noted South Asian scholars: “At a time when many Third World states were struggling to build qualified and effective career services, the standing of India’s senior bureaucracy was exceptional. It gave the state after independence an autonomy and continuity that has persisted in times of uncertainty and unsteady political control at national and state levels.” This structure, which India has continued with successfully in the last six-decades plus, took a severe knocking this week when former coal secretary HC Gupta, principal accused in the so-called coal scam, was awarded a prison sentence.

In very measured tones, Gupta told the CBI court examining his case, “whatever I did as chairperson of the Screening Committee or as coal secretary was done with a clear conscience…I also believe that the coal block allocation was no scam. The Screening Committee did its job sincerely and in good faith.”
There is little doubt that with this piece of indictment (along with two senior bureaucrats of the coal ministry), the country is slipping back into that zone where decision-making will become increasingly difficult.
To implicate a bureaucrat in a complex and long chain of decision-making, where he is duty-bound to listen to the orders of the elected albeit temporary executive, is going to leave its scars, perhaps permanently.
Surely, it cannot be anyone’s case that Gupta, all on his own, had decided to allot coal blocks to jolly well whom he liked or favoured.
There is a large committee that decided on the allocations and no politician or crony industrialist (save Naveen Jindal) who benefited from the allocations, have been brought to book. It is equally tragic that an official who signs on the dotted line because he or she has orders from the top, should be picked up a decade after his retirement and asked why and what he did. From here on, it is clear that the civil service will find it hard to clear a decision on the file, not knowing what awaits him in his future life as a superannuated bureaucrat. It is a recipe for not taking any action and prevaricating, dealing a body blow to the concept of `Ease of doing business’. If Gupta – from all accounts a man of integrity – can be subjected to indignities and humiliation of a criminal trial, which officer would stick his or her neck out in the future?
Roughly three decades ago, while many among us felt vindicated about the Bofors investigations as a land mark anti-corruption agitation, it is equally true that the charges and counter-charges in the purchase of Howitzer artillery guns, took a heavy toll on the decision-making abilities of the ministry of defence, the largest procuring ministry in the Indian government. For close to a decade-and-a- half, India’s military modernisation programme came to a standstill and its impact can be felt to this very day. Gupta is not alone. PC Parakh, also a former coal secretary and now a self-styled crusader against corruption, was himself at the centre of one such CBI raid. In his book `Crusader or conspirator? Coalgate and Other Truths’, Parekh recalls. “…a team of dozen (CBI) officials landed at my door to search my flat eight years after I had retired. I did not understand what they expected to find in my house. Neither did they. While I took it in my stride, my wife was shocked and traumatised at this reward for 36 years of honest, sincere and dedicated service.” It is also an interesting aside that the witchhunt against officials really began in the 1980s, a period, which saw the complete `Indianisation’ of the civil service.
Till the 1970s, the last remnants of the ICS had retired and by early 1980s, the steel frame went into the hands of men and women, who had studied mostly in India and not in England and were expected to serve their Indian masters.
Despite its many ills and the fact that it is no facilitator of work, there is a case of reforms in Indian bureaucracy, something that various high-level committees have suggested from time to time. Sadly, while no follow up action has been taken on their many substantive proposals, their one recommendation – of not indulging in witch hunts against civil servants – is being followed to the hilt.
Ranjit Bhushan