Some priorities for political reforms are highlighted in the following paragraphs. These reforms are likely to strengthen the governance structure, alleviate poverty, and make the government more accountable for its performance. The suggestions are few in number and have no party-specific agenda, either on the right or the left.

Criminals in politics

A related urgently required political reform is to reduce the attractiveness of politics as a career of choice by people with criminal records. There is a natural reluctance among the investigating agencies and ministries of government to speed up investigations and the prosecution of people who are leaders of political parties and/or members of the Cabinet.

According to the statistical survey of elections to the Lok Sabha in recent elections, it has been found that nearly 20 per cent of the candidates surveyed, cutting across party lines (excluding independent candidates), had criminal antecedents. In the present Lok Sabha, which has 543 seats in all, well over 100 members had criminal cases pending against them.

The present incentive for people who have criminal cases pending in higher courts of appeal (either the High Court or the Supreme Court) should be effectively reversed by giving such cases the highest priority if the concerned person is actually elected to Parliament or a state legislature. Their “presumed” innocence should be proved within six months of election before they can take their seats in the assembly or Parliament.

The fast settlement of such cases would provide a big relief to persons with criminal charges who are actually innocent and not only “presumed” to be so. And those who are actually guilty may choose not to contest elections so that they are in a position to delay hearings through normal legal procedures!

Administrative reforms

Another important priority is to simplify administrative procedures and reduce the number of agencies, at different levels, involved in providing clearances for undertaking any activity. For example, at least 30 different clearances involving several agencies at the Centre and the states are required for setting up even a modest-sized industrial factory.

With the exception of selected areas where strict timelines can be prescribed for giving approvals (such as in the case of forest and environment clearances), it is desirable to cut through the elaborate red tape and rely primarily on “self-certification”. The government can lay down standards and norms (for example, in respect of pollution or fire safety), and the entity concerned may be required to “self-certify” at the highest levels of management that these have been complied with in accordance with the notified procedures.

Government agencies can make random checks, and in case there are evident violations, appropriate penal action can be taken. Similarly, the present complexity in regulations should be reduced drastically. Such simplification has been tried out in some areas with success (for example, with regard to foreign exchange transactions).

A related area is transparency in the decision-making process of the government. A major step in this respect has been taken with the enactment of the Right to Information Act, 2005. The beneficial impact of this legislation in making the government accountable and citizen-friendly is visible.

A further step in this direction is to make it mandatory for all ministries and departments of the government to voluntarily make information on the decisions taken by them available to the public (excluding security-related subjects). It may be clarified that information should be released by the ministries themselves, without the need for any member of the public to ask for it. If this is done, the free media and civil society institutions will constitute an effective instrument for enforcing accountability in the decision-making process of the government.

Case studies of international experience in the management of public services show that the objective of such programmes can be achieved better, and at a lesser cost, if a distinction is made between the ownership of these services (by the government) and the delivery of such services (by non-governmental organisations and local enterprises).

In such cases, the public authorities retain the responsibility for regulating and monitoring the activities, providing subsidies where necessary, and laying down distribution guidelines. In India, two noteworthy examples of public–private collaboration in the area of public services are the public call offices (PCOs), which revolutionised the availability of telephone services all over the country in the 1990s, and the Sulabh Sauchalayas, which, despite some problems, are estimated to have provided sanitation facilities to more than 10 million people at a very low cost.

The suggestions made here for redefining the role of government in the economy are by no means exhaustive or permanent over time. The role of the government in the economy should be kept under continuous review and should evolve as necessary for the benefit of the people as a whole.

Ministerial responsibility

A minister, as the political head of a ministry, enjoys enormous executive powers. Part of the rationale for entrusting politically appointed ministers, of whom several have very little previous administrative experience, with great power is that the ministry is supposed to be accountable to the Cabinet and to Parliament through them.

While this system is sound in principle, in practice there has been a substantial erosion in the ability of Parliament/ legislatures to hold ministers responsible, either collectively or individually, for the decisions taken by them on behalf of their ministries. In addition to the principle of collective responsibility (which shields ministers from taking individual responsibility), another reason why ministers are not held accountable is that most subjects of direct interest to the public in the economic area are in the Concurrent or State Lists of business.

The Central ministers are free to make pronouncements, approve policy guidelines, and set all-India targets, but the actual implementation of many programmes is in the hands of individual states. A familiar excuse given by Central ministers for their failure in meeting the targets announced by them is that the states are responsible, not the Centre.

The states, on the other hand, blame the Centre for the inadequate allocation of funds, inappropriate guidelines, or approval delays by one or more ministries at the Centre. The present situation, where the Central ministers are quick to announce policies and targets for removing poverty or illiteracy, but where they take no responsibility for achieving these targets, is clearly untenable.

An important political priority for the future is to ensure that whatever annual targets are announced by a ministry (in consultation with other concerned ministries) are carefully reviewed for their feasibility in implementation. Once an annual target is announced by a ministry, it should have the full authority to implement it, and it should be the ministry itself that is held accountable for the actual performance. If there is a change of ministers during the course of the year, then the new minister must once again affirm or change the target with the approval of Parliament.

Depoliticisation of bureaucracy

The basic issue that needs to be tackled for improving the morale of the civil service is really that of the “separation of powers” within the executive – between ministers and civil servants – insofar as postings, transfers, promotions, and other similar administrative matters are concerned. The separation of powers among the three branches of the government – the executive, the legislature, and the judiciary – is already enshrined in the Constitution.

Although there has been considerable encroachment of the executive powers into the legislative and even judicial areas(as well as the other way around), it can still be said that these three separate branches enjoy a certain measure of autonomy and independence. Within the executive branch, as it happens, the civil service has become, over time, completely dependent on the pleasure of the ministers with regard to even the most mundane and routine administrative matters. It is essential to revert to a rule-based system of administration, which circumscribes the powers of politicians and confers greater authority on the civil service itself for self-regulation.

The greater empowerment of the civil service must, of course, go hand in hand with the greater accountability of civil servants for their performance and ethical conduct. Part of the reason for the insensitivity of civil servants to the concerns of the public is the unlimited protection provided to “public servants” under the Constitution and various judicial pronouncements.

In view of the time-consuming process of inquiries and judicial delays, the possibility of any penal action for even the most blatant actions of civil servants is considered remote. They may be apprehended and sent to judicial custody for a few days. Thereafter, more often than not, they are released on bail and enjoy complete freedom of action, including the right to contest elections after their retirement from service.

Except for the security, police, and defence services, the constitutional protection provided to civil servants needs to be withdrawn. They should be covered under the country’s regular rules and laws that are applicable to other citizens, employees, and workers. Two statutory provisions, in particular, namely Article 311 of the Constitution and the Official Secrets Act, 1923, require urgent reconsideration.

Article 311 provides comprehensive constitutional protection, which has been widely misused, for a person holding “a civil post from being reduced in rank, removed or dismissed from service”. The Official Secrets Act, 1923, provides protection to civil servants and ministers from being held accountable for any action that can be labelled secret by them. The Right to Information Act, 2005, has substantially reduced the power of civil servants to deny information to the public. There is no reason why the 1923 Act should still remain valid.

It may be clarified that the withdrawal of constitutional and special statutory protection provided to civil servants will not, in any way, affect their service conditions, pay, and other benefits. These will continue to be determined as per the present rules and procedures.

India Reckoning: Rewards and Discontents of Democracy

Excerpted with permission from India Reckoning: Rewards and Discontents of Democracy, Bimal Jalan, Bloomsbury India.