Making it official

Unshackling the bureaucracy is a good idea. Shackling the political executive is not.

In the interests of "professionalism, efficiency and good governance", the Supreme Court has told Central and state governments to ensure fixed tenures for civil servants, as well as liberate them from having to act on verbal orders from their political bosses. It has also asked for civil services boards to be constituted at the Central and state levels to regulate postings and transfers, and asked Parliament to consider ways of insulating them from political interference.This may be a well-meaning attempt to protect honest and hard-working officers, and give them the chance to settle into their roles and deliver results, but the court's order assumes that civil servants are the solution and politicians the problem, and imposes an unnecessary set of rules to govern their relationship. Insisting on written orders may make it difficult to transact routine business, and the court may be overstepping its authority by doing so. While administrators need a predictable work environment, fixed tenures reduce flexibility in the system. They undermine the political executive's capacity to move officers depending on their abilities and their uses. This is a crucial prerogative — politicians are incentivised to deliver and indeed, are ultimately responsible for changes on the ground, and are therefore allowed the discretion to control postings and transfers. They make policy, which civil servants implement.

This relationship is often imperfect in practice. Political leaders can wield their control in vindictive or arbitrary ways, or reward loyalty over competence, and civil servants, too, are often biddable by influential interests. There have, in fact, been several attempts to provide greater stability to civil servants. The Central government introduced the Indian Administrative Service (Fixation of Cadre Strength) Regulations, 1955 (amended in 2010), which provides for a minimum tenure for postings, but only 13 states and Union territories have formally indicated their acceptance. Maharashtra has a law ensuring a minimum tenure of three years for all IAS officers. But a sense of protection for civil servants should not be imposed by an apparatus of civil services boards or fixed tenures, it should be encouraged by other methods, like asking governments to lay out how many officers complete "normal" tenures and to convincingly explain drastic decisions like suspensions.

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