Call of duty

An atmosphere of suspicion demoralises civil servants. We need deeper reform.

There has been much discussion recently on "administrative paralysis" and "fear among civil servants". The performance of the administration should be viewed in the context of several factors. First, there is always a general decline in both performance and decision-making when an election, whose outcome is not entirely clear, approaches. Second, the economy is not healthy not just in India, but globally. Third, the quest for an acceptable fiscal deficit has led to sharp cuts in plan outlay. Last year, the cut in plan expenditure was estimated at more than Rs 90,000 crore, while non-plan expenditure increased by 6 per cent. Such sharp cuts in the Central plan outlay necessarily result in delayed and inadequate payments, which lead to the perception that the administration is paralysed. This year, the plan outlay is likely to be reduced even further to make room for the increase in non-plan expenditure and to keep the fiscal deficit on target. Fourth, as the elections draw closer, pressure groups allege administrative inaction in an attempt to manoeuvre the government into taking decisions that benefit them.

Having said that, regulatory and investigative overreach can also seriously damage the rubric of governance. If civil servants begin to believe that, even years after retiring, they can be criminally prosecuted for a mistake made in good faith or for a bona fide decision taken on the basis of the data that was available then, there will be serious repercussions on the morale of serving officers and their willingness to commit themselves. To a great extent, good governance depends on committed civil servants, and their ability to take risks when necessary. Indeed, all ministers and senior officers look for subordinates with a "fire in their belly". If this fire is extinguished by the regulators and investigating agencies then a decline in the quality of administration is inevitable.

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