Debating India

Corruption in the civil services

Monday 6 June 2005, by MALHOTRA*Inder

How to stem the deep rot in the higher bureaucracy is a painful question that must be answered.

FEW CAPITAL cities in the world are so bureaucracy-ridden as New Delhi is. No wonder then that the principal subject of discussion here has been the unending decline of the civil services in general and the shenanigans of Patna’s former District Magistrate, Gaurav Goswami, in particular.

Long is the list of officers of the Indian Administrative Service, the Indian Police Service, the Indian Revenue Service, and so on who have been suspended, arrested, and even tried on charges of corruption and wrongdoing over the years. Some of them have done time behind bars though few have actually been convicted and sentenced, thanks to judicial delays.

However, Mr. Goswami’s case is in a class by itself because it is the first time that a price of Rs.1 lakh has been put on the head of a member of the elite IAS, something that used to happen so far only in relation to dacoits, underworld dons, and proclaimed absconders. The dividing line between the outlaws and those recruited and trained to uphold the rule of law has begun to be blurred.

Moreover, there is something deeply distressing about the fact that precisely when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was telling a gathering of 354 District Magistrates in Delhi that they should have a fixed tenure and that, in any case, they must never be transferred for political reasons, two District Magistrates in Bihar, a State under President’s rule, were given abrupt marching orders. Their only fault was that they had stood up, in their respective districts, to powerful politicians, each facing an array of criminal charges.

Bleak scenario

Against this bleak backdrop the Goswami episode acquires an even sharper edge than it would have done in any case. The guilt or innocence of those concerned can be determined only by courts of law though it is far from certain whether that stage would ever be reached. However, let some incontrovertible facts speak for themselves.

First, in the American newsmagazine, Time’s list of the future movers and shakers Mr. Goswami was one of only two Indians, the other being actor Shah Rukh Khan.

No one can blame the civil servant if this went to his head, because such praise by foreigners is the ultimate accolade in the eyes of the middle class in this country that immediately embarked on praising and pampering him.

His stock rose further when during the Lok Sabha elections last year he told the Bharatiya Janata Party leader and then Deputy Prime Minister, L.K. Advani, to end his election meeting before the time limit fixed by the Election Commission. So much so that at one stage there was a move to induct the much-lauded District Magistrate into the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), but this was somehow derailed.

Needless to add that the Rashtriya Janata Dal of Lalu Prasad, then in power in Bihar was very pleased with Mr. Goswami and his ways, and that is where the disbursement of the flood relief largesse came in. There was, as the Comptroller and Auditor General has pertinently pointed out, no flood at all in Patna and therefore the district was not entitled to any relief.

Yet Mr. Goswami not only managed to get over Rs.13 crore but also could "divert another Rs.17 crores from other heads" on the ground that he had been appointed (no one knows by who and how) the "nodal authority" to hand around flood relief.

What both the Vigilance Department of Bihar and the CAG have discovered and alleged - in the first case rather belatedly - is that huge sums supposedly paid to the Bihar Small-Scale Industries Corporation (BSSIC) actually found their way into the coffers of a "fake firm" happily sharing the same acronym (Baba Satya Sai Industries Corporation).

By some strange coincidence this firm belongs to Santosh Jha (now under arrest), a close associate of Sadhu Yadav, a brother-in-law of Mr. Lalu Prasad.

Powerful patrons

When things began to get hot for him in Patna, Mr. Goswami ostentatiously resigned from the coveted IAS and, without waiting for the acceptance of his resignation, went to Lucknow to occupy a highly paid post in the private sector. Could effrontery of this kind be possible unless the wayward official had powerful political patrons in both Patna and New Delhi?

Mercifully, there are still enough members of the higher bureaucracy that are honest, competent, and diligent enough. Otherwise, the entire country would have sunk to the standards of Bihar.

But the rot has gone deep and is spreading fast, thanks to the cosy nexus between overbearing and venal politicians and over-ambitious and servile servants in a milieu dominated by unbridled greed, on the one hand, and unlimited permissiveness, on the other. How to stem this rot is a painful question that must be answered but would have to be discussed separately.

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