(Sample Material) Study Kit on Current Affairs for UPSC Mains
Ethics & Integrity: Ethics and Administration Shekhar Singh
Ethical Crisis in the Civil Services
Though unethical behaviour has affected all sections and
levels of our society, this article focuses on the higher levels of bureaucracy,
as perhaps it has done the most harm there. Nevertheless, much of what is true
about the higher bureaucracy would also perhaps be true of other levels of
bureaucracy, and of other institutions. But what is the nature of the ethical
crisis. Perhaps the bulk of what is wrong in the system can be characterised by
identifying four types of unethical behaviour.
Types of Corrupt
The first type of unethical behaviour is exemplified by the
corrupt, whose primary purpose is to amass wealth and influence. They have no
qualms about abandoning all ethical norms of behaviour and their only value is
to look after themselves. The system’s unwillingness or inability to restrain
them fuels their audacity. They form alliances with others of their ilk, for it
is difficult for them to operate alone, and service the corrupt among their
bosses and masters, in turn getting protection and patronage. They also, in
turn, get serviced by their subordinates and offer them protection and
They also work at isolating and marginalising the upright
Many of the corrupt are otherwise efficient and effective, and they use these
abilities to appear indispensable to even their upright bosses. The fact that
they are efficiently and without questions willing to carry out instructions
often makes even honest superiors condone or ignore their corrupt habits.
These are clearly the most dangerous elements in the
bureaucracy and it is imperative that individuals with such tendencies and
potential should be scrupulously excluded from the civil services. Those who
nevertheless slip through, or who are already there, have to be comprehensively
There is another class of bureaucrats who might not
themselves indulge in corrupt practices, especially not for personal gain, but
who collaborate with the corrupt. These include those who, under pressure, might
agree to do or allow to be done something that is wrong, but fastidiously refuse
to personally accept any of the gains or benefits. They also try use their
ingenuity to act in a way such that they neither obstruct their corrupt
superiors, nor can be held responsible for any misdeeds if the matter comes
They are adept at finding a rule to suit a case, and experts
at manipulating the system with least risk to themselves. They try and keep
within the letter of the law but have no compunctions in sacrificing its spirit.
If challenged, they talk about being practical and worldly
wise, or blame the system, the politicians, the electorate and everybody else.
Interestingly, they also see themselves as being very
vulnerable. They argue that their bosses are very powerful, as are their
subordinates. They believe their subordinates to have independent links with
their bosses and an ability to paralyse the work of the department.
Consequently, they consider any resistance to the nefarious activities of either
as being ineffective and fraught with danger. Surprisingly, they do not see
themselves as having the same powers, both as a boss and a subordinate, that
they so readily recognise in their own bosses and subordinates.
In any case, by immunising themselves from the possible
adverse consequences of being actually upright, they also become beneficiaries
of the corruption they collaborate with. Their demand that honesty can only be
expected if being honest involves no cost to them, is clearly illegitimate.
There is also a class of apathetic officers who, though they
refuse to participate in or condone corruption, are not willing to fight it.
Very often such officers are erstwhile fighters who have been beaten down or
become cynical. They withdraw into themselves and are often marginalised within
the system. They sometimes take to other, non-administrative, pursuits, and try
to revive their sagging spirits and sense of self worth by excelling in the
arts, or as intellectuals or sports persons.
Their immorality lies in the fact that they continue to be
public servants without serving the public. They do not directly seek any
benefits from their office except their salaries, their legitimate perks, and
the freedom to do their own thing. But even in doing so, they take their due
from the public, without in return giving the public its due.
There is another category of bureaucrats who subvert the
system by acting as if they are above the law. In this category are men and
women who arrogate to themselves the right to act extra legally in pursuing what
they consider to be public interest.
The blindings in Bhagalpur, the illegal detention, torture
and even extermination of suspects in Punjab, Kashmir, the North eastern states
and other parts of the country are blatant examples of such tendencies. So are
the so-called ‘third degree methods’, which have been a part of police
investigative methods for many years.
However, it is not just the police or the military and
paramilitary forces who indulge in such acts. Even intelligence agencies,
including revenue intelligence agencies, have been accused of illegally tapping
phones, planting evidence, and indulging in various other illegal acts to ‘bring
the guilty to book’.
What makes such acts different from the sordid and mundane
types of corruption described earlier is that the officers involved are not
acting out of self interest but out of their perception of public interest,
misguided though it might be. Such officers see themselves as saviours of a
society which is being threatened by its own softness, sentimentality,
preoccupation with fair play or, at best, a host of inappropriate laws. They
also often convince sections of the public to see them as knights in shining
armour. Recent pronouncements from some serving and retired officers of the
Punjab Police, and the response from some segments of the public, are good
examples of such a tendency.
However, if their arrogation of the right to act extra
legally can be considered ethical, then the principles of natural justice
require that such a right must be available to every individual. What, then,
would be the plight of a society if every individual was ethically free to break
any law, whenever he or she so desired. Where, then, would be public interest,
especially the interest of the poor and the oppressed, who are the most
vulnerable to chaos and anarchy.
Subjective View of ‘Public Interest’
Besides, every individual interprets public interest
differently. Hitler, for example, thought it in public interest, in fact in
world interest, to exterminate the Jews. Others think it in public interest to
exterminate people belonging to a particular religion, caste or even a
socio-economic class. Perhaps, because of this subjectivity, laws were codified
in the first place to represent those actions and processes which, after
considered debate, could be said to be universally in public interest. For
example, it was after great thought that public interest was seen to be served
if an individual was punished for a crime only after being convicted through a
defined and due process of law. By opting to violate this law we are actually
imposing our own subjective perception of public interest over the more
universal notion of public interest, as determined by the society. Clearly,
then, we cannot take refuge behind the notion of public interest itself.
Apart from the ethicality of such actions, even their impact
on public interest is generally adverse. Such violations of law lower the
respect for all laws, and often encourage or provoke people to progressively
take the law into their own hands. It creates a situation where, even if the
initial motive was public interest, the inhibit to be lawless erodes away and
the law starts being broken for other, less noble reasons. Besides, where
individual administrators are willing to “fire fight” by using extra legal
methods, they succeed in obfuscating the real issues and deprive the society of
an opportunity and of the incentive to find more sustainable solutions to the
more fundamental issues.
Even where exceptional conditions demand exceptional
measures, there is nothing to prevent these exceptional measures from being
found within the law. If need be, the laws can be strengthened or made more
Besides, short term ‘solutions’ of basic social problems can
never be in public interest. The costs that the society has to pay for these
extra legal interventions are always greater than those that would have been
paid if a permanent solution had been allowed to evolve.
REMEDYING THE SITUATION: THE CHOICES BEFORE THE NATION
But are we a nation bereft of moral character? Can we not
find among our nine hundred million people the few thousand who are both willing
to govern and worthy of the responsibility of governance? Clearly we are not
looking hard enough.
In some ways, the fact that corruption has become a high
profile issue is an advantage. The fact that we have a political dispensation,
at the Centre, which because of its tentative and minority character cannot
easily brush aside such as politically volatile issue, is perhaps another
advantage. And the presence, still, of a significant number of men and women of
character, both inside and outside the government, and the fact that they have
not yet become cynical and given up, is a further asset. But these advantages
and assets must not be frittered away and a serious counter offensive against
corruption and lawlessness must be launched without further delay.
War against Corruption through Targeting the Individual
Clearly any war against corruption must attack both systemic
and individual issues. Systems must be changed so that they become inhospitable
to the corrupt and supportive of the honest. However, changing systems is not
enough, for ultimately these systems are set-up and operated by individuals.
Therefore, it is also important to ensure that the right types of individuals
enter and remain in the government, and that these men and women of character
are supportive and nourishing of each other and are united against the corrupt.
In the final analysis, the individual is more important than the system, for it
is easier for good individuals, if there are enough of them, to improve even a
very bad system, but the converse is far more difficult.
There is an oft repeated cliche, often given as an alibi for
corrupt bureaucracies, that a bureaucracy can be nothing more than all image of
the society that it comes from. However, what this seemingly true generalisation
hides is that as the bureaucracy is a small subset of a society it must
represent the best of the society. This, of course, does not mean that all the
best must join the bureaucracy, but that all in the bureaucracy must be from
among the best. Are we really selecting from among the best?
Selecting the Right Bureaucrat
Civil servants, at various levels, are mainly selected
through written examinations and an interview. The written examinations are
expected to judge the candidate’s grasp of academic disciplines and-their
ability to express themselves in writing. The interview is meant to assess the
candidate’s personality, verbal ability, general knowledge and perhaps
analytical and retentive capacities. What is missing in all this is an
assessment of the candidate’s character.
Perhaps initially an independent assessment of the character
of a candidate was not considered necessary. Aspirants to the civil service
belonged to a certain strata of society and it was assumed that young men and
women brought up in such homes would automatically have the values required of
good civil servants. Breeding and the college one read in was a critical
qualification, and perhaps many aspirants were at a disadvantage because they
did not possess these, even though they were otherwise more than suitable.
It was also believed, at least by some, that an intelligent
and well-read person must necessarily be a morally upright one. Also, it was
believed that applicants to the civil services were too young to have a fully
formed character, which could be appropriately moulded during the training
period. Perhaps it was also not clearly understood how to assess the character
and value systems of the candidates. All this might have been so a hundred years
ago, but it is certainly not true today. Of course, even today, it can been
argued that personality tests are not fool proof and a clever person can get
around them. Perhaps so, but then the test designed to judge the intelligence or
scholarship of the candidates is also not fool proof. Yet, nobody will argue
that they are worthless.
Such testing would not keep out all the undesirable elements, but it would
certainly go a long way in reducing their number and, thereby, preventing the
civil services from getting swamped by undesirable elements.
Changing the System
However, even if one progressively ensures that new entrants
into the civil service are of the right sort, whether they remain the right
sorts depends a great deal on their working conditions and environment. Young
civil servants tell stories of how, from their first day in the job, they are
relentlessly pressurised to compromise. The alternatives presented to them are
stark: either co-operate and nothing untoward will happen to you, you might even
benefit, or resist and you will be harassed and humiliated, without any respite.
Colleagues and seniors advise them to be ‘practical’ and ‘realistic’ and not be
difficult. They are told horror stories of what happened to people before them
who were difficult. If they try and reassure themselves by thinking of some of
the upright officers who made it to the top, they are derided and informed that
those they think upright made their own compromises. Besides, those were
different times, they are told, and what was possible then is no longer possible
With such relentless pressures, day after day, many break and
then withdraw into an apathetic passivity, where they keep their self-respect by
not personally benefiting from their compromises. Others join the bandwagon and
are soon indistinguishable from the rest. The few who refuse to break are
harassed and humiliated, and become demoralised. Into such a system even the
noblest of souls would be hard pressed to survive. But what can be done to
change this system?
The government constantly tries to strengthen the laws and
institutions designed to control corruption and lawlessness. It creates new
institutions and laws. The judiciary, the press, the NGOs and the common public
have all stepped up their fight against these evils. But the downward slide
seems to continue, perhaps only a little slower for all the efforts.