Friday, October 29, 2010

Is ‘conscientious bureaucrat’ an oxymoron?

In today’s The Hindu, in his article ‘Probing the Commonwealth Games mess’, R.K. Raghavan, former CBI director, writes that few bureaucrats, even at the level of secretaries, have the courage to ask for written orders when they believe that they have received illegal or unethical directives from their bosses, notwithstanding the post-Emergency instructions of the government of India to do so. He adds that who do so risk being framed or given inconvenient postings. Raghavan’s sympathy for members of his former tribe is obvious. But I hold that anyone without courage of conviction has no business to be in the higher or even middle echelons of bureaucracy.

The bureaucrats are there to give their considered, independent and impartial views and not to anticipate their masters’ thoughts in their recommendations. Suspecting their bosses’ hidden agenda in their verbal directives or those on ‘post it’ slips, if they make bold and insist upon written orders, in most cases the so-called bosses would panic and retract and a loot of the national exchequer would be prevented. In the unlikely event of illegal instructions being confirmed by the boss in writing, the subordinate must put up a note to him or her on the file pointing out the illegalities in the order, clearly recommending that the order be withdrawn in public interest. Finally, only if the stubborn and by now openly corrupt boss insists in writing that the order be implemented, the bureaucrat could do so. It is not known whether the then Telecom secretary followed this approach when A. Raja was giving out 2G licences on a first come-first served basis as if he was selling milk at a Mother Dairy booth.

And if for performing their duty conscientiously some bureaucrats are transferred to difficult, called Siberian by Raghavan, places, so what? Didn’t they, at the time of joining an all-India service agree to be posted anywhere in India? Also, the bosses can transfer one officer but if the successor also turns out to be of the scrupulous type, how many can the boss, even the prime minister himself, transfer? The same logic applies to the fear that upright and courageous officers would be framed.

Unfortunately, the fact is that a crushing majority of today's bureaucrats choose to be pliant and subservient to their masters because they know that the latter control the access to a sure pot of gold and, in some cases, an apartment in the Adarsh Cooperative Housing Society's iconic high-rise on the Colaba sea-front.


  1. It is always a matter of character. It takes strength of character to stand up "for the hard right against the easy wrong". It takes moral courage and innate guts and a pretty fierce conviction to be the person your conscience would like you to be; especially if that means finding yourself in a company of one.
    We have done all we could to neglect this aspect of our upbringing. The Kota and other coaching schools; our school boards, our self-appointed social diviners, the establishment of education and the institutions upon which our institutions depend, have advocated by word and spirit that one thing and one thing only matters - academic success [in itself a grotesque paradox because what passes for academic success in this country is actually a shocking inability in the larger areana of tertiary education and beyond].
    We have been labouring with this ridiculous crutch for more than thirty years and now the proof of the pudding is blowing up in our faces...

    -colleagues who can't look beyond prostration
    -friends who haven't a clue as to why their own children behave the way they do
    -workers and managers who cannot be held to account
    -professionals who abuse laws; abuse relationships; abuse norms; abuse one another; abuse the constitution by disregard and disrespect.
    -a media confused by their own mores...
    There are lots of wonderful people. But the not so wonderful sometimes just hold the country to ransom.
    It is changing for the better, under some of our present leaders who embody integrity, a return to the past curiously. And yet, a way forward. If we want.

    kabir mustafi

  2. I am in agreement with your comment except with its last two sentences. Who are these present leaders who embody integrity? Integrity, as I understand the term, is far more than pecuniary honesty; it also includes fairness and consistency of attitudes and actions.

  3. no point mentioning names and getting mired in opinion conflict which is arguably the most potent reason for discussions not getting off the ground. Better we consider solutions...k