Mr Vinod Rai, former Comptroller & Auditor General (CAG) of India has a reputation of being honest and upright. His endeavours to make the office of CAG a powerful force to highlight corruption in government dealings and for bringing in transparency in its work have been lauded by one and all. In his article ‘Betrayal of the Civil Servant’ in the magazine ‘The Week’ dated October 2, 2016, he argues that former Coal Secretary Mr H C Gupta and Mr P C Parakh were ‘brutally upright officers’ who have been betrayed by their political bosses and therefore are being prosecuted in the Coal Gate scam. He advocates caution in handling this case since similar predicaments are likely to be faced by government functionaries in future too. He further concludes that it is essential to differentiate between an act committed in good faith (an act of omission) that may have gone awry and an act committed with a premeditated desire to personally benefit (an act of commission) when it comes to deciding if an officer should be charged under Prevention of Corruption Act.
He has posed a few questions that he feels must be answered in connection with charges against such officers. Where does the buck stop, who is the ultimate authority to take decisions and who takes responsibility for a wrong decision? Can a Minister get away with claiming he was wrongly advised? Is it not his duty to apply his mind to the issue in hand? In any Ministry of the Government of India, in all fairness, the buck has to stop at the Secretary level since he is the top administrative official of the ministry. By virtue of this he will also be the ultimate authority to take any decision on a case pertaining to his ministry keeping policies, rules and regulations in mind. Without a doubt a civil servant will argue that the final decision making authority rests with the Minister and therefore the buck too must stop at that level. This is perhaps a very misleading argument. The point to note here is that irrespective of who takes the decision the correctness of the case will have to be decided by the Secretary concerned and his advice will be crucial. Expecting a Minister to do as detailed an analysis as the Secretary is not only wrong in principle but also in form. If the decision is as per rules and in the best interests of the nation, then there is no problem irrespective of who takes it, even if it goes wrong. The problem comes when the decision is either against the rules or not in the overall interest of the nation or both. If such a decision is taken by the Minister then it is obligatory on part of the Secretary to either have the same corrected or in the worst case to record his disagreement in clear terms, supported by facts, on file. For major decisions where huge national resources are involved with severe long terms repercussions, as in the case of Coal Block allocations, the administrative head may even consider excusing himself totally from the decision making process if rules are not followed by putting his foot down. Such an action will be correct both professionally and morally. Unfortunately Mr Gupta cannot boast of displaying such extreme professionalism or moral standards during his tenure as Coal Secretary as is evident from a host of dubious decisions taken during his term. If he had done that, he would have had no problem in facing any court of law.
Mr Gupta was head of the screening committee that was the final authority to recommend allocation of coal blocks to prospective applicants. If he succumbed to extraneous pressures, then the buck has to stop with him. There is no doubt that allocation norms were flouted for some customers, both in terms of eligibility as also the quantum of coal to be allocated based on need. A case in point is Pushp Steel, an applicant who could only boast of a one room office in Delhi but was successful in getting the Brahmpuri coal block ahead of 44 other applicants that included established names like Torrent Power and Lafarge cement. Is it any surprise that over 45% applicants just held on to their blocks instead of developing them and sold the same later to pocket huge profits? Some members felt that the screening committee was not responsible for verifying the antecedents of applicants. Such explanations coming from senior bureaucrats can only be termed as highly unprofessional since the very purpose of the screening committee was to identify genuine applicants by assessing their needs and capabilities to develop the coal blocks. There is no doubt that there was subjectivity, lack of fairness and transparency in allocations and the CAG report said as much in very clear terms. It will be difficult to term the actions of the Coal Secretary as ‘acts in good faith’ since the Coal Gate Scam is not about one isolated case but a series of cases where a lot of individuals and corporates received undue favours that resulted in a huge loss to the nation. To say that since the bureaucrats did not benefit personally therefore they cannot be faulted will be living in a fool’s paradise. For people holding such senior appointments, it is not only about personal gratification, it is also about ensuring that no one else gains unfairly at the cost of the nation.
Did Mr Gupta or Mr Parakh function ‘without fear or favour’ – something that a civil service officer is taught during his training? One will have to be naive to answer in the affirmative. Both officers were at the pinnacle of their career and it is surprising that the former CAG says that their actions should have been defended by their seniors. The only senior, if one may call him that, in this case was the Coal Minister. Surely a seasoned bureaucrat holding the top most position in the ministry cannot be so naive or insecure that he expects the Minister to come to his rescue. At this stage in his career his actions and deeds have to speak for him in a manner where there is no scope for anyone to point a finger at him. Politicians and parliamentarians will always have the privilege of being defended by their political parties for their wrongs, be it in court or elsewhere. Unfortunately a government official has no such luxury and bureaucrats are no exceptions to this rule. The only privilege that a government servant has is to come clean and state the truth so that the courts get a clear picture. If that exposes the politician then so be it. This should not be a difficult option if the bureaucrat’s own conduct has been upright and within the law.
It is indeed sad that the former CAG goes on to state that such actions against bureaucrats may have the effect of paralysing bureaucracy and debilitate prompt decision making capacity apart from sending wrong signals down the line. Does this mean that all bureaucrats must be termed as ‘holy cows’ that no one can touch irrespective of what they do or how they do? Frankly when one is made accountable for one’s decisions or conduct, it is sending the right message down the line. The wrong message goes when such accountability is missing and without a doubt that has been the bane of our nation’s civil services for decades. No one grudges a service’s concern for its officers or the need to stand by them when needed. However if this is done with eyes closed and without being objective, then it can only be counterproductive.
Is there any doubt that for any government servant, bureaucrats included, first and foremost loyalty has to be towards the nation and the chair they occupy. The problem starts when nation or the chair is substituted for superiors or politicians. It is time senior civil servants stand up for what is right irrespective of whatever pressure is brought to bear on them. They must understand that while they are the custodians of the rules, regulations and laws of the nation, they do not have the leeway to bend the same to give an unfair advantage to anyone. This will not only be good for the nation but also for the whole civil service fraternity. By all counts it appears the former CAG’ has erred in his views expressed in the article and fallen prey to the typical civil servant mentality where looking after their own has always been more important than allowing law to take its course or for the truth to emerge. Frankly in the Coal Scam case the issue is not about betrayal of the civil servant. The real issue is the betrayal of the nation and whether the civil servants concerned did enough to prevent the same. Nobody knows the answer to this question better than the former CAG himself.
Saroj Chadha, an engineering professional, is a successful entrepreneur. Having retired from the Indian Army after having served for over 23 years, he has also been a consultant for leading Indian and Multinational electrical companies. He lives in New Delhi.