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The true conclusion from Durga Shakti Nagpal: the IAS is dead
August 2, 2013, 1:19 pm

When Durga Shakti Nagpal, an IAS officer of the 2010 batch, visited Kadalpur village on Saturday, July 27 to inspect a case on encroachment on Government land, she was only doing her job as the area’s Sub-Divisional Magistrate. Her decision to remove some half-finished illegal structures – which according to her boss, the District Magistrate of Greater Noida, was executed by locals without any need for heavy machinery should have been one more routine decision taken my thousands of IAS officers across the country. Instead, Nagpal was hurriedly suspended by the Akhilesh Yadav Government at 1.27 am on Sunday morning. She was subsequently accused of fuelling communal tension by ordering the demolition of a religious structure. She may now be charge-sheeted for a criminal offence. All because she had the guts to take on the state’s sand mafia.

The only person who has solidly stood behind Nagpal through her ordeal is her immediate superior, the District Magistrate. The absence of support from the top bureaucracy, in both Uttar Pradesh and in New Delhi, is shameful. In an era gone by, the state’s Chief Secretary Alok Ranjan, an IAS officer of the 1978 batch, would have put his foot down with his political masters and refused to permit any order that suspended a bureaucrat for doing what is right. In an era past, the Union Cabinet Secretary, Ajit Kumar Seth, who is the head of the civil service, and who also happens to be an Uttar Pradesh cadre officer would have pulled the considerable weight of his office to prevent any victimisation of a bureaucrat. Both Ranjan and Seth have sufficient statutory power to come to Nagpal’s rescue. But it would require standing up to powerful politicians. In an era sadly forgotten, senior IAS officers did just that. They were not sold out to the system of patronage instituted by politicians to undermine an independent bureaucracy. Now it is left to the IAS Officers’ Association. A union body without much power, to try and lobby for Nagpal.
Durga Nagpal is presently under suspension. Image courtesy: Ibnlive

Durga Nagpal is presently under suspension. Image courtesy: Ibnlive

Nagpal’s victimisation is a new low in a long process of the subversion of bureaucracy. The India Civil Service, modelled on the Westminster model, was always meant to be insulated from politics. Unlike, the US where the entire bureaucracy changes when a Government changes, in India, the same bureaucrats are meant to serve whichever Government is in power. That requires them to give objective advice to politicians (which the latter is free to overrule) and to honestly execute the policy decisions of the Government in power. The only way they can perform these tasks is if they are protected from the sudden whims and opportunist fancies of politicians.

To be fair, it was relatively easy for both politicians and bureaucrats in the early decades after independence. At the Centre, it was largely the Congress party which controlled Government so there was no perceived conflict between serving different parties. Still, patronage did exist, but it was mostly in the form of a few chosen bureaucrats getting a select few post-retirement jobs, mostly as Governors or heads of constitutional bodies like the Election Commission and the CAG. The extent of patronage was too small to damage incentives in the whole system. Politicians were likely more decent as well.

The collapse of the Congress party’s domination at the Centre in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and the rise of the idelogically-different BJP, changed everything. Now, bureaucrats were slotted, in most cases for no fault of theirs, into the camp of one party or the other. In the states, the rise of new regional parties, like the SP and BSP, also saw bureaucrats being drawn into partisan politics. The insulation of the bureaucracy was attacked on two fronts. First, through the distribution of spoils which had grown substantially after the formation of numerous regulatory and quasi-government agencies. Second, and this is more damaging, IAS officers were subject to arbitrary transfers (most famously in Uttar Pradesh) but also at the Centre the moment their political bosses were displeased or if a Government changed. It was at this time that senior officers, like state Chief Secretaries, the Union Personnel Secretary and the Union Cabinet Secretary should have acted to stop the destruction of the ethos of the IAS. Unfortunately, they were too easily tempted by the spoils on offer to even bother about putting up a modicum of resistance.

Even in this degraded milieu, the Nagpal case is a new low. One could have expected her to be transferred in the early hours of that fateful Sunday, but suspending the officer and then hanging her out to dry in a sham political drama on “secularism” – so obviously to pick up votes in the upcoming election – is an act that threatens to destroy what is left of the autonomy of the IAS. What signal does this political act – ignored by senior bureaucrats – send to other officers? It simply isn’t worth taking an honest decision. In one strike of a pen, honest decision-makers are sent scurrying for cover while those who are willing to sell out to politicians rise up the ladder.

In the long run, this will create adverse selection. The finest officers will opt out or will not rise to the top. The steel frame of India is melting away. Politicians may have ignited the fire, but bureaucrats have fanned the flames either by silence or connivance.

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