Has the professional integrity of the IAS been systematically eroded?

Rashtrapati Bhawan: the Appointing Authority of an IAS officer is the President of India (Photo: author)

The #MeToo movement appears to be gaining strength with every passing day in India. A number of eminent personalities from the field of journalism, media and show-business have been named by lady professionals, who have alleged either inappropriate behaviour, outright sexual harassment or even rape at the hands of these men, who held a position of relative power qua them. Although most of the incidents are decades old and can by no means be assumed to have been proved beyond all reasonable doubt or even by the principle of preponderance of probability, a few things are very clear. Firstly, that the ladies, in general, seem to be quite credible; secondly, the alleged predator is usually a man highly respected not only in professional terms but also in his perceived social conduct; thirdly, the practice seems to be far more widespread than was originally believed to be and, lastly, but most disturbingly, that the female victim, at the time of the incident, had been usually advised by her senior lady colleagues to keep quiet, bury the matter and forget all about it, unless she wanted to risk destroying herself and her career, within the current organisation and even elsewhere in the same sector.

Sexual harassment in the IAS is not rampant

I am a member of a number of WhatsApp Groups of IAS officers and there is hectic speculation regarding if and when the “MeToo” movement in the bureaucracy in general and the IAS in particular would be triggered. My personal view is that such predatory characters in the IAS or among the political executive are relatively a microscopic minority, especially in the context of targeting of lady IAS officers. A few tales are no doubt circulating about such individuals who seem to confine their nocturnal activities to targeting and victimising women officers of the subordinate services or the ministerial staff, where the risk factors as well as inducement for the female employee who wants to resist are both relatively huge. However, open naming and shaming of powerful persons holding public offices by female employees has been relatively rare.

Harassment of Civil Servants and why it is accepted on large scale

However, it is not the scope of this piece to delve further into this dimension of the matter, in absence of widespread proactive disclosures by our lady IAS colleagues, including the retired officers. What I intend to write is about a different type of predatory victimisation — a reluctant obedience, against their free will and volition, that is extracted or coerced out of IAS officers by their senior colleagues or the members of the ruling political executive by handing out overt and covert threats. The latter could include frequent transfers (including to far-off stations), disciplinary proceedings on flimsy grounds, adverse comments in PARs/ ACRs (including those about integrity), suspension and vigilance inquires and criminal FIRs, not excluding those on trumped-up and hypothetical or speculative corruption charges.

An inconvenient transfer is the most benign among the harassment tools.

Price to be paid by a principled bureaucrat for resistance

When we speak of the IAS officers “lacking in spine” against what is generically and almost euphemistically or apologetically described as “political interference”, we are actually referring to is a blatantly illegal, unethical and unauthorised demand by a person in power qua the IAS officer, of either gender, and a meek acquiescence by the latter, since the potential damage in case of disobedience and defiance is far more than the pain of killing a small part of your conscience. On the other hand, even morsels and leftovers of the systems of spoils can be quite attractive, if you are willing join the gravy train. In any case, there are no effective systemic remedies available to the IAS officer to expose this nefarious intrusion, which happens in routine. Moreover, the malaise is so widespread and so widely and passively accepted by all the stakeholders, including the general public, that any officer raising red-flag is immediately ostracised by not only the system but also by his own fraternity. A passive resistance often results in senior and well-meaning colleagues counselling you to be tactful, to evade and avoid a direct confrontation. Even the Conduct Rules effectively bar an IAS officer from going to the Press or Social Media to voice or highlight his grievance.

All India Services (Conduct) Rules, 1968: relevant extract of the rule laying down how an IAS officer must act.

Rulebook: An IAS officer must act in his best judgement

The legal position is very clear. An officer is expected to act in accordance with law and in his “own best judgement”, except when acting under the written direction of his official superior. It is submitted that where an IAS officer is functioning in a quasi-judicial capacity under any law or statutory rules, even such written directions cannot be issued, unless, of course, there is an explicit provision in the law/ rules to this effect. Moreover, the direction has to come from his “official superior” and not from a functionary, who though superior in rank and status, is not his immediate official superior in the hierarchy. A snapshot of relevant extract of the All India Service (Conduct) Rules, 1968 is reproduced above. These rules have the force of law. The statutory position could not be made clearer or more unambiguous. Despite this, these provisions seem to be “more honoured in breach than in observance.”

Ten Questions to test the waters

I intend to ask the following TEN question to the serving as well retired IAS officers with a request to answer each with “Quite frequently”, “Yes, but not frequently” or “Never”. The general reader may also answer as per his knowledge, belief and perception. Each reply can be assigned 10, 5 or 0 marks respectively.

HAVE YOU BEEN ASKED TO:

1. Decide a quasi-judicial case (whether under the Land Revenue or Criminal Law) in a particular manner?

2. While conducting a regular departmental disciplinary enquiry, to give your findings in a particular manner (usual exoneration)?

3. While acting as the “appointing/ punishing/ disciplinary” authority to award a nominal punishment like “censure” or totally let off the delinquent official?

4. (Especially for IPS officers), during the course of investigation of a criminal case, to ensure that a particular person is not named or made an accused in the charge-sheet or the converse?

5. To destroy or replace a noting sheet in which you have recorded your considered opinion and replace with a new one, containing a diametrically opposite opinion vis-a-vis the previous one?

6. As quasi-judicial “Licencing Authority” (under Arms Act or to approve a real-estate colony/ project), grant your approval without fully satisfying yourself about the merits of the case on the basis of the documentary evidence or your enquiry?

7. Revoke the suspension of a delinquent employee facing serious departmental charges or criminal case, pre-maturely?

8. Tweak the criteria of tendering or bidding of a commercial contract with a view to include or exclude a potential bidder?

9. Draw up the minutes of a meeting in a manner to record the decisions otherwise than in accordance with which they were taken?

10. As a member of a Departmental Selection/ Promotion Committee, to pick a candidate otherwise than the one most suitable, on merits?

Totalling the score, will give you an idea of the level of “political interference” in the politico-bureaucratic ecosphere.

Who will bell the cat?

Today, none of these intrusions are something that would outrage any officer or a political observer. These are not even regarded as aberrations. As a matter of fact, many would justify these as a prerogative of the political executive in a democratic polity. Come to think of it, some of these verily amount to “obstruction of justice” which in itself is a serious offence. Unless someone calls out today, or the IAS Association as a collective body resolves to resist these, we may a have a scenario where such instances are articulated, along with the stories of victimisation, decades later, in which time incalculable loss would perhaps have been caused to good governance in the country. The nation and its people not only deserve a fair, objective and neutral Civil Service but actually the same has been mandated under the Constitution as well the law. The Rule of Law is a basic feature of our Constitution and it’s everyone’s duty to uphold it.

But, who will bell the cat? And, when?

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K.B.S. Sidhu. The author is an IAS officer of 1984 batch of Punjab cadre. The views expressed are his own.

He can be reached on kbs.sidhu@gmail.com or @kbssidhu1961 or https://www.facebook.com/kbs.sidhu

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KBS Sidhu, ex-IAS

Dad, Leo, Mentor, ex-IAS, 1984 batch, superannuated as Spl. Chief Secretary, Punjab. Electronics Engineer, University of Manchester, UK, and Harvard Alumnus.