Good Governance : Back to Basics

By R S Tolia • Third Innings • 13 May 2013

“Governance”, it has been said, “ is a set of procedures and institutions though which people and communities set their priorities and mediate their differences.” Good governance is obviously a sub-set of governance. In this definition “institutions” and “procedures” appear as two key words which deserve our attention if we wish to know what ails governance today and why we see a continuous drift ‘away from good governance’ regardless of a definition which one may have in one’s own perception. There is a unanimity that there are more negatives than positives in this over-all picture.                                                                                                                                                                                                 

Institutions

The Parliament, State Assemblies, Supreme Court of India and the High Courts and the entire juridical architecture down to the revenue courts presided over by Naib-Tehsildar and Munsifs, the Union and the State Governments and the entire subordinate administrative architecture, down to the sub-committees of the Gram Panchayat – are all “institutions”. Institutions that we have inherited through a Constitution which the People of this country gave to themselves in 1950. Each institution has its well-defined space with rights and responsibilities, defined by various statutes which are subject to juridical oversight. There is no denying the fact that most of it has been inherited from a colonial, Anglophile, system of governance, and the design part of it is by and large what was contained in the Government of India Act of 1935.  Institutions by definition are inanimate beings and they require to be headed by someone, an individual or a body of individuals who would know how the institution has to be administered, taken forward to accomplish the objective for which it has been established. As no institution can decide by whom it would be headed, this responsibility of the selection of a head of institution has been assigned to someone by some law or statute. So, it follows, that if an institution ( i )  is “headless”, or ( ii ) is having a head who should not have been there, or ( iii ) is having a head who is not performing as he or she should have, the responsibility clearly lies on the authority who was accountable to provide a head to an institution. The buck, as is said, stops at that particular authority.     

On reflection, we find that the first set of deterioration consists in the indifference and/ or neglect that has been taking place in this sphere. News papers and channels are replete with the stories of how we have made a non-sense of every thing in selection, ill-selection or non-selection of ‘heads of institution’. What readily comes to our mind are :

Election Commission of India: Remember the controversy that ensued after TN Sheshan opposed appointment of two other Election Commissioners, and the Supreme Court of India was compelled to comment on the kind of persons who were expected to be hand-picked to man such positions, the way they were expected to conduct themselves, once in office ? 

Comptroller & Auditor General ( CAG ) : Remember the incumbent from Kerala cadre whose empanelment in GoI escaped the fact that he was embroiled in a serious import matter, resigned after the matter came to light ?

These are a few illustrations of the kind of ‘heads’ who were picked up to man such critically significant posts. What really beats one is how certain institutions of eminence, all India eminence, can be allowed to remain ‘headless’ for months and years on end, where the exact day, date and year is known, when the positions are going to fall vacant ! I remember we used to marvel as to how institutions like ICFRE, FRI, WII, IIFM could remain without a regularly appointed ‘head’ when the exact tenure of each incumbent is known to every one. Similarly, I remember GBPHIED, Kosi-Katrmal in Almora remained headless for several months. Nearer home, a University of the eminence of Pantnagar Agriculture University being headed by an officer holding other charges really takes the cake ! Why others, even the post of a Chief Secretary, has been filled ‘by extension of service’ ! Why the process is not set in motion to select the next incumbent of a public-office much ahead of the due date is difficult to fathom and I do not think any explanation can be accepted for such a criminal neglect. This is at the macro-level and about institutions which can not be hidden from either public eye or public criticism. The situation of scores of other institutions say departments, organizations, educational institutions is really far worse.

The bottom-line is that there is no accountability for ‘non-performance’ under such a situation when a head is really not the head or when an institution is ‘headless’. For example, how can one hold the district magistrate of Almora, presently functioning as the ‘in charge director of Tea Development’ ? How much time DM ‘Almora’ has to look after tea development in say Nauti in Garhwal or Champawat ? This is the surest way to kill any or every initiative, i.e. post no head or attach it to some other post. Till recently, it was also an open secret that an officer who was by –passed for the highest administrative post available in the state was posted to a well-reputed Training Academy, meant for training of senior and new civil servants ( admitted, it was a cadre-post, but unwillingness was well-known) and all he did was to, as the reports go, make all out attempts to un-seat the administrative head of the state, indulge in court and tribunal cases against the imputed injustice meted out to him and in sheer defiance of all authorities not attend to office and not doing any work at all ! This situation is allowed to last more than a year, not only finishing the reputation of a well-known training institution located in the state but also setting the worst possible example of bureaucratic mis-behaviour, mis-conduct and mis-demeanour. The worst part is no one either raising a voice, or making an example of such a open defiance by one of the highest ranking civil servant ! If one was asked to fix accountability for such a shocking state of affairs one does not know where the ‘buck should stop’ ? As a former civil servant all I can do is just to hang my head in shame. How such an act can be allowed to take place, not condemned by the so-called association of civil servants is what I am primarily concerned about as I do not have left much faith in other branches of governance. Very frankly, majority of us had not opted for Uttarakhand Cadre for being witness to such a sorry state of affairs in its administrative echelons. People will one day certainly decide who has been accountable for such state of affairs, this much every one should feel sure about.

As we just can not go down any further my sincere advice to the powers that be would be to immediately ensure that no institutions remains in charge of an individual who can not be held accountable for its non or mal-function. If you do not need that institution, just abolish it instead of allowing it to rot and create a nauseating smell. Make Chief Secretary and all Secretaries squarely responsible for ensuring this, along with their Ministers-in-charge. They simply can not run away from this ‘first responsibility’ and if it happens they should be held accountable for such a failure.

Procedures

Next to the institutions come procedures i.e. how governance shall take place, but no less in importance, in so far as ‘good-governance’ is concerned. In dealings of public discharge of duties what has very painstakingly been attempted, during the past two centuries of administration, is to evolve detailed procedures of how any public function will get discharged by institutions through its public servants, collateral or subsidiaries. This is true of all bureaucracies. Verily the very expression ‘bureau’ means an office or department, where work gets systematically defined into smallest possible detail and apportioned to some one with a clear method of its being discharged, or the procedure or the way that will get done. In brief, after mishandling of the institutions, where mal-governance has been high-lighted of late is the failure in following the set procedure, deliberately or otherwise. Take a few recent instances:

Allocation of 2 G Spectrum : One Minister and for the first time a Secretary to the Government of India, is facing criminal charges, and both are under detention, a political debate has ensued over whether a major loss of revenue has been allowed as assessed by the office of the CAG,

Allocation of Coal : Current debate joined by both major political parties, view point of States vis avis the Union Ministry, which led to alleged interference in the investigation being conducted by the CBI on the orders of the Supreme Court of India and alleged oversight by the Ministry of Law & Company Affairs – central to the debate is the issue of autonomy enjoyed by an investigating agency and the alleged interference in the ‘procedure’ of investigation, as prescribed by a Manual under which the CBI conducts its investigation, within the overall architecture of the Criminal Procedure Code-leading to resignation of the Minister for Law, the other day.

Here, what has to be appreciated, however, is the fact that as the Indian economy is opening up, what with abolishment of the Licence Raj, de-regulation and an ever increasing involvement of both the private sector and international entities and business practices, the antiquated ‘procedures’ have not been tweaked to the corresponding extent. Take for example the fact during the next five years, as per the Twelfth Five Year Plan document, approximately half of the investment to sustain a growth rate at 8 per cent and above has to come from the private sector. The opening up of Insurance, Health, Retail business, Natural Resource sectors like coal, gas, oil, road, shipyards, airports etc and other building infrastructural massive investments have to come from domestic sources and abroad. The Public Private Partnership regime has to be stabilised, the Regulators regime has also to be worked-out and made operational. In short, the ‘procedural ’ regime of governance, which was established during the command and control years of our national economy are no more relevant and massive ‘procedure-building’ is already over-due. This rapid change-over from an archaic procedural regime to another addressing issues of private sector and new business order is no small task. Admittedly, the new financial cum economic governance, dictated by simultaneous macro and micro level of governance, has also been responsible for the uncertainities that have emerge by way of so-called ‘procedural-lapses’, where the role of old regulators like CAG etc also calls for a major review, and re-writing of procedural architecture. And, this is where precisely the role of new entities like the various Information Commissions, under the transparency laws and Lok Ayuktas, under the public accountability laws, assume significance. In this age of transition what becomes important is that the Governments of the day support strengthening of such institutions which would prove their capacity to play the role of a deterrant through making the governance transactions freely accessible to all stake-holders, as well as the public at large. Instead of viewing them as a hurdle these institutions, promoting transparency and accountability, should be perceived as facilitator of transitions, facilitating on-line transparency and checks through such an on-line process.   

Nearer home, we are aware of a series of Commissions which the earlier Government constituted over the so-called 56 ‘Ghotalas’, where even after a full 5 year term of that Government, nothing worth-while could relay be unearthed. If one were to look at the subjects covered by this set of the so-called ‘Ghotalas’, many of them would be found to have originated from well-intentioned Cabinet decisions, duly approved at the highest level of decision-making i.e. the state Cabinet. What apparently could have mis-fired later or engineered some kind of suspicion could be either a lack of proper-oversight by the authorities responsible for the same, or sheer resistance from a departmental bureaucracy not well reputed for having shown any results in doing the same work. For example, it would certainly be worth finding out as to what great results were achieved in the working of the 27 government gardens, which were not only the best and left with the horticulture department to work on, while we review the fate of some of the government gardens which were leased out. An RTI application would reveal that their mal-administration was no less a scandal than those one which under some mischief or the other may have gone to wrong-parties ! To one’s mind non-functioning of government departments should be rated as the biggest ‘ghotala’ of all as no one gets punished for non-performance, while being paid at fabulous rates as salary at tax-payers cost.                                                                                                                                                           

Not to be left behind, the next Government, follows in the same ‘procedure’ and pays back by setting up of another Inquiry Commission, whose chairperson, considers it best to quickly get out of this political cess-pool and get personally involved in a mud-slinging match! However, the story continues, no lessons get learnt, and where what was called for to be done, namely look at the slip where the procedural slippage occurred, does not take place at all, and all parties spend time on activities which have nothing at all to do with setting the procedures right, if it was a procedure which was violated and differentiate between an honest mistake of judgement vis a vis a deliberate looting of public resources and or amassing personal wealth at the cost of the tax payers !

While one may have no quarrels with setting up this Commission or that, one certainly would like any government of the day to seriously get examined the procedures which allegedly were either abused or deliberately mis-applied, in all suspected case, so that gaps if any are so repaired that no recurrence of the same takes place in future. Political retribution or paying back in the same coins can not be considered as a substitute for reform in governance practices. This distinction has to be clearly understood and there is something called political maturity and political sagacity, which all major political leaders would do well to display, wherever it is expected, in the field of governance.

The mechanisms like Parliamentary Committees, various Committees of our State Assemblies, the Audit wings of various branches, criminal, civil and PRIs and Local Bodies, have been essentially constituted to ensure that wherever procedural lapses have occurred, or found deficient or where willing maneuvering has been attempted are systematically brought to light, all parties are given an opportunity to be heard before a final decision is taken. A look at the working of a majority of these institutions constituted to ensure procedural propriety being observed by those responsible will show that with the down fall of the institutions within which they are housed or anchored, such systems of improvement have also suffered a similar fate. With the down fall of the Parliamentary system of debate, the various Committees, e.g. the PACs, the JPCs etc have themselves become a miniature of the mockery that the Parliament and the State Assemblies have been reduced to. The public issues are now discussed more in TV channels than in the Committees or within the Parliament or the Vidhan Sabhas buildings.

Exhausted All Cards

Forebodings of what we witness today was once divined by none other than the then Chief Secretary TRS Subramaniam, who later on became the Cabinet Secretary in the Union Government, when once presiding over the meeting of Committee of Secretaries he had warned all of us by saying- “ The problem of  UP is right now inside this room, you have played your ‘ Caste Card’, he referred to the caste-politics which was rampant then, the ‘Communal Card’ which was manifest by support by officials on communal –lines… and now you are left with nothing left in your hands to befool the public with..so much of public time and energy has been spent in such fissiparous activities..at the cost of time which should have been spent on matter of public good.. now you should be ready to face the common man who will hold you accountable for the public-mess you all have jointly created..!” How true his warning has come to fruition. The civil service today is at cross-roads, public representative and civil servants have lost all credibility, both are seen as down right corrupt and self-serving, by the common man at large. They have both lost faith of the common man. 

 

Back to Basics

This writer, as a student of administrative history, has always held that in Uttarakhand, which has almost entirely inherited the administrative norms of behaviour from its parent state Uttar Pradesh, we have a set of administrative architecture which any administrative unit anywhere in the world would be proud of. John Strachey, who once served as the Senior Assistant Commissioner of British Garhwal and went on to become the Lt Governor of North Western Provinces ( as UP was once called ) and later as a member of Governor General’s Supreme Council, has mentioned the UP administrative architecture as the gift of England to the entire humanity ! He naturally was refereeing to the details of governance which one can still find in various departmental Manuals, system of leaving a Charge Note by a departing official to his successor, writing Tour Notes after touring filed and so on. While talking of governance Uttarakhand is lucky to be a successor state to Uttar Pradesh who at the time of Independence was ranked among the best three administered States of India. No wonder the most eminent Cabinet Secretaries that the Union Government has had won their experiential laurels in the remote rural areas of UP or the over-populated cities of that North Indian state. When the Punjab was being given its modern administration after being wrested from Raja Ranjit Singh in 1840s, Governor James Thomson was asked for the crème of UP administration by Lord Lawrence and much of modern day Punjab owes its success to their diligence –  the civil servants sent from UP laid the foundations of modern-day Punjab during Lord Lawrence administration as its Governor. What fall have we managed to register since then, especially after gaining our Independence and particularly post 1970s !

Today UP is best described by its Caste-politics, Crime and Corruption. One topper of IAS batch is sent to jail for being part of NRLM related corruption recently, one Chief Secretary is made to leave his post on Supreme Court’s order on corruption-charges, another Chief Secretary reportedly spends her time reading Bhagwat Gita to Tihar Jail co-inmates, another GoI Secretary from the same state has nearly completed one year of detention in the same jail, one non IAS is made a Cabinet Secretary, having a pilot’s flying- license by way of his administrative credentials to manage a State Cabinet meetings ! These are quotes from our national dailies. One can quite imagine that if these be the ‘heights of achievements’ what people may be suffering as ‘the depths of it’.

We are observing the gradual rot which has been setting in during the recent years and one is not sure that we are doing any better. We still have what John Strachey called as the ‘gift to the humanity’ so let us quickly go about implementing which in our parent state our colleagues in the government are not allowed to practice any more. Here are a few tips for a starter :

Charge Notes

1.       Every officer who hold office for a term more than 3 months at a place will be asked to leave a Charge Note for his/ her Successor detailing in brief, what he was able to do and what in his view remains to be done on top priority – this will leave a record which can also be used for his annual assessment and action-agenda for his successor, also an institutional –memory for his/her office. A copy of this Charge Note will also be forwarded to his/her controlling officer,

2.       Such a Charge Note will be made mandatory for all District Magistrates, Commissioners, Head of Office, Secretaries/ Principal Secretaries and all officers above Super time levels; even Vice Chancellors and Principals of Colleges will do well to star such a practice,

Tour Notes

3.        All officers who are responsible for over-seeing work of their subordinates must be asked to submit their tour-notes in writing, briefly indicating what they have supervised during their inspections, what corrections they have applied, what directions they have given to their subordinates and what mistakes have been observed and set for correction. No tour should be paid for from the public exchequer without a Back to Office tour note. More-over these Tour Notes should form the basis of their Annual Assessment by their controlling officer, and

4.       All Tour Notes of District Magistrates, Commissioners and super-time officers should be forwarded through their controlling officer and should be put up before the Chief Minister with the observations of the Chief Secretary. Such Tour Notes should be made mandatory and every month the Chief Secretary should discuss the contents and observations made in these Tour Notes and they should form the basis of the action-agenda of the government, of various departments, as these are based on ground-realities. This will significantly establish the principle of accountability as these Tour Notes will be expected to mention all or any short-fall that may be discovered later and if it had failed to be captured in a related Tour Note the senior official could be called upon to explain as to why he or she should not be held for a slack supervision,

Abolish and Punish the AOD regime

5.       Any Secretariat file would explain a system which has developed over the years and is known as the AOD system i.e. Aek Our Dustakhat ( One More Signature ). A series of officials simply append their signatures ( dustakhat ) to a file-note travelling-up or down, a signature above a stamp, neither adding anything nor commenting anything ! Reform establishing not more than 2 or 3 maximum, including final orders, should be enforced and ‘level-jumping’ where no contribution is made should be introduced. Time limits for file-clearance should be worked out and strictly enforced, and

6.       On matters of significant policy or reform, first note should originate from not below a Secretary level. Secretary’s annual assessment should be strictly from one criteria i.e. How many notes originated from him or her and what was his or her contribution through such an original note. These self-originated note should be made an integral part of his or her self-assessment at the end of an year. These self-originated notes could be on any original idea, scheme, a reform being introduced on any theme under his/her charge – any things which shows his/her original contribution to the sector.

These six suggestions, under three heads, have in them one single message i.e. ‘being accountable’ and ‘fixing accountability’ at all levels. That is what was attempted during the British times through various Manuals and Codes. This is where governance has to be re-introduced with baby-steps. We have to go back to the basics, the basics of governance. “Accountability” differentiates good-governance from just governance.

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