Tuesday, 29 April 2014

LAST TANGO IN SERVICE--THE GREAT REEMPLOYMENT GOLD RUSH

    The only good thing to emerge out of the questionable comments of Shri RK Singh( ex-Home Secretary) and the indiscrete writings of Messers Parekh and Sanjay Baru is the spotlight that has been thrown on the post retirement conduct of senior civil servants. I do not intend to analyse whether or not the actions and utterances of these three gentlemen conform to the highest traditions of a neutral, a-political civil service, or why their motives are so self evidently self serving. But this is a good opportunity to examine another element of the post retirement phase- a chapter in the book on Cronyism no one likes to talk about.
    There may be a life after death but for a civil servant there is no life after retirement. Oh, to be sure he continues to subsist, but without the power, the flunkeys, the invitations, the red beacon, the Diwali gifts, he is just a zombie, one of the many walking dead. This is perhaps understandable- our society and polity have evolved in such a distorted manner over the last twentyfive years that one's relevance is judged by only two indicators- power and/or money. The bureaucrat is no fool, he is a survivor( its the second oldest profession in the world, remember) and the last ten years of his service, therefore, are devoted to either perpetuating the first or acquiring the second. The politician and big business are not fools either-they know this, and from here springs the cronyism that is destroying the bureaucracy from within. Don't blame Hooda or Akhilesh Yadav alone- if a Shakti Nagpal or a Khemka or a Sanjeev Tripathy are hounded by the system its because of their seniors in the service who will not rock the gravy boat that is heading for a post retirement harbour.
     Other than walking into the sunset when he superannuates a civil servant has three options: reemployment within the govt., joining the private sector or joining a political party. Lets examine each, in the reverse order.
    Its probably an indication of the increasing interest of the nation in things political, and of an awareness that every citizen can contribute to governance issues, that more and more retired bureaucrats are now joining political parties. This has attracted some criticism, mainly on the grounds that such officers would be partial to that political party even while in service, and that therefore this should be disallowed for at least two years after retirement. I find it difficult to agree. Firstly, even a bureaucrat is entitled to have a political preference as a citizen( after all, he does vote for some party or the other, doesn't he?). Second, no sensible officer will let such preference colour his actual actions or decisions( if for no other reason than to protect his impending pension!), especially as he knows that once he does join an outfit all his previous decisions will come under microscopic examination. He may be able to help in small matters( issue of a driving licence, admission in a school and so on) but to imagine that he would scuttle Congress's MNREGA programme because he is an admirer of Modi, or put the Delhi police under the AAP govt. because he is smitten by Kejriwal, is to completely misunderstand the role and limitations of a civil servant within this elaborate framework. This fear therefore is unfounded. On the other hand, given how the lumpen elements are taking over the political space like a horde of hungry locusts, there is a dire need for educated, experienced, broad minded, thinking people to join political parties, any and every political party. In the long run this can only have a beneficial effect on their ideologies, their conduct in Parliament, their value systems. As proof one simply has to observe what a difference people like Pavan Verma, NK Singh, Hardip Puri etc. make to the public discourse whenever they appear on TV, as compared to the likes of Muthalik, Togadia, Azam Khan. We need many more of the former type in our political parties, and therefore talk of imposing restrictions on them will be counter productive( apart from treading on shaky constitutional ground). After all, as Plato said: " One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors." We have allowed this for far too long.
    The devil lies in the the two reemployment options. Let us take first the one which is generally talked about- joining the private sector. The rot really began with Rathikant Basu, the then Secretary Electronics joining Star TV in 1997( without permission of the govt. or the requisite two year cooling off period) and things have got steadily worse since then. The opening up of the infrastructure and natural resources sectors, - coal and mining, power, roads, communication, telecom, petroleum and natural gas- and adoption of the PPP model created a demand for two types of professionals: technical managers and fixers-the civil services provided both. As many as two dozen senior engineers of Coal India Ltd. and its subsidiaries have joined private firms in recent years.Perhaps not so well known is the amazing fact that  Reliance has reemployed practically the entire top echelon of the Petroleum Ministry over a period of time. Kejriwal is not wrong when he maintains that the govt. is in Mukesh Ambani's pocket- at least a large number of its erstwhile top bureaucrats are, parked in Foundations where they do little substantial work other than figuring out how to spend their fat pay packets.
    Now, there is no problem with technical personnel joining the private sector. Given the vast backlog of qualified people in the rapidly expanding sectors mentioned above, this brain drain is inevitable till such time the supply from technical institutes catches up with demand. In fact I would go so far as to say it fulfills a national need.Moreover, these officials are essentially sought after for their technical experience, not ( as in the case of civil servants) for favours rendered while in service or continuing ability to influence policy while out of it. Take, for example, senior Doctors at the All India Institute Of Medical Sciences, Delhi( where I have a few friends, to take care of my old age!). I don't know a single one who has not been inundated with offers from Apollo, Max, Medanta etc. to join them at salaries ten times what they currently draw. Senior electrical engineers in every State Electricity Board on retiring can just walk into any one of the many companies taking over our generation and distribution responsibilities. This, to me, is a good thing, because without these professionals the expansion of such crucial sectors would suffer. These people, moreover, are simply selling their specialised skills to the highest bidder- they are not cashing in on favours rendered. There are bound to be a few exceptions ( as perhaps in the case of the Directorate of Hydro-carbons) but then again they only prove the rule. 
    My problem lies with the reemployment of " bureaucrats" by the private sector, because here the stench is unbearable. This is the point where this second oldest profession comes closest to the oldest profession, but without the latter's candour in admitting it. Rarely is a retired bureaucrat engaged for his technical or professional skills-he doesn't have any of the conventional ones, notwithstanding the degrees he may have acquired under the Colombo Plan or from IGNOU. What he does have( and its something at which he excels) is a mastery over public administration and the management of public welfare. This is something which the private sector does not need. Why then is he engaged by them, at salaries which make even the foregoing of pensions in some cases a viable option?
    The answer is obvious. Reemployment in such cases is either repayment for past favours or a means to ensure that the corporate continues to exercise influence within the govt. The civil service is a fairly hierarchical structure where seniority and batch espirit de corps still command some adherence( although it is eroding rapidly), and a retired officer can still pull quite a few strings. Secondly, his domain knowledge of governmental processes( the reason why no major deal can be executed in India without " middlemen") is also an asset. And finally, no one knows better than a bureaucrat how to beat the system, to bypass or twist the rules, to find loopholes in the best intentioned laws-after all he is the one who created the system, drafted the rules and left the loopholes! It is no coincidence therefore that the services most in demand are the IAS and the Indian Revenue Service.
    Most disturbing is the fact that both the corporates and the bureaucrats are becoming more blatant: earlier they prostituted their dubious talents after retirement, now they don't even wait that long and quit in mid service, sometimes even taking along a few crucial papers, as has been alleged in the KG Basin price fixation imbroglio. This proliferating practice is seriously compromising the civil services and is perhaps one reason why so many scams are occurring in the first place. There are some anemic rules to oversee such reemployment such as seeking prior approval from the govt., a two year waiting period , loss of pension for any violation etc. But they are too feeble to have any meaning. I have never heard of anyone punished for disregarding them. Most don't even seek any permission, and in any case I am not aware of any instance where such permission has been denied. The government has to devise a way-quickly-to stem this rot.
   The third exit door, and one in which the government-the central govt. as well as each and every state govt.- is itself fully complicit, is the most damaging because this door has been carved out of valid laws and legislation. I refer to the pernicious practice of post retirement appointments to government's own organisations-Commissions, Tribunals, Regulators, Boards, Authorities and so on, of which there are hundreds. ( Incidentally, it must be mentioned that the higher judiciary has also claimed a substantial slice of this  particular cake, even to the extent of ruling that certain posts have to be ear-marked for it!).
    The reason why the existing system of making these appointments is so deleterious to the civil services and to governance as a whole is that there is no objective or merit-based method of making selections to these important posts, many of which are constitutional and autonomous. The choice is the sole prerogative of the Chief Minister( sometimes the Chief Justice) or the Minister concerned at the Centre. Oh, to be sure Search Committees are set up, but their mandate is to sign off on the dotted line-everyone knows in advance who is to be selected! The effect of this is to compromise the integrity and uprightness of the senior bureaucracy whose last few years in service are consequently spent in lobbying for these posts and doing whatever is necessary to please the Minister. Disinterested and even-handed administration is the last thing on their minds. From the politician's point of view he has acquired a powerful tool to  reward and to shape matters the way he wants. And, even worse, the effects of this patronage and rent seeking are felt long after the favoured few assume office because there are no free lunches and the appointee is forever obliged to do his masters' bidding. The result is to be seen in the dubious selections made by Public Service Commissions, Regulators bending backwards to accommodate the govt. of the day rather than the consumers they are meant to protect, Commissions and Councils more responsive to the interests of institutions they are meant to oversee than to their clients, patients, students and users. In fact, this has rendered most of these bodies ineffective, corrupt( or both) or irrelevant to the extent where they do not enjoy the confidence of the public at large. We only have to look at the state Public Service Commissions, the Indian Medical Council, the All India Council for Technical Education, the state Education Boards, the various sectoral Regulators( especially the Electricity Regulatory Commissions), the State Administrative Tribunals etc. to understand what I mean. One reason for this can also be that loyalty, and not merit, is the basic criteria for these selections. And so we have a situation where Akhilesh Yadav appoints two unknown journalists and his father-in-law as Members of the State Information Commission, the aide to the Haryana Chief Minister who facilitated the alleged land scams in the state is now a member of a central Commission, and the HP Chief Minister has appointed his loyal retired officers as Advisors( who certainly don't appear to be doing their job very well given the mess he is in!). This regal distribution of largesse is more befitting a potentate or a sovereign but has no place in a law driven democracy.
    This faulty system of appointments is harming all concerned institutions-the government, the civil services, the organisations themselves- and ensuring that the public good is not being served. The only gainers are the politicians and the favoured few. This is not an acceptable cost-benefit ratio in a democracy. What strains credulity is that if the appointment of a peon or a safai karamchari is made only after a thorough merit based selection process how can posts of the level of Secretaries to govt. or Judges of the High Courts be filled up on the basis of personal whims and fancies? This is a spoils system gone amock and should not be allowed to continue. ALL such appointments should be regulated by a dispassionate, objective, transparent methodolgy based on merit alone and processed by an independent agency. 
   This particular gold rush has gone on for far too long: we cannot allow our administrative ecology and environment to be devastated by just a few. The whole issue of reemployment of government servants needs to be looked into in depth and safe guards provided to protect the public interest as well as the individual rights of the civil servant. It is time for the government to set up a Commission on the lines of an Administrative Reforms Commission to examine the matter and to save the civil servant from becoming another object in a Pavlovian experiment.

[ NOTE: The author would be the first to admit that there are also fine, upright officers reemployed in various governmental organisations, but they are aberrations and  because they made it through the same dubious process, they unfortunately get tarred with the same brush. 

2 comments:

  1. Very valid points, and your concluding suggestions can hugely improve the system.

    There's an irony in a lot of civil servants who don't take cash bribes or (mis-)using their powers on a clear quid pro quo basis regarding themselves as "honest." Yet this currying of favors with potential re-employers can be as bad a form of corruption.

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  2. Very well expressed indeed. The promise of sinecures post retirement is at the very root of what I would label as moral corruption amongst the bureaucrats and technocrats at the highest highest level, whether in the States or in the Centre. It is disgusting to see observe seniormost bureaucrats bending over backwards to please their poltical masters in the hope of receiving handouts from the political table. My dog does as good a job, but doesn't get rewarded in the same measure.

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