(Sample Material) Study Kit on Current Affairs for UPSC Mains Exam: Ethics & Integrity: Ethics and Administration Shekhar Singh

(Sample Material) Study Kit on Current Affairs for UPSC Mains Examination

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 patronage.

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 dealt with.

The Collaborators

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 under scrutiny.

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.

The Apathetic

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.

The Lawless

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 appropriate.

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.


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 today.

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.

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