Shamim Banu had barely completed a few months in her post-retirement job as member of the Karnataka Administrative Tribunal (KAT) when a CBI court in Bangalore sent her to judicial custody last month in an illegal mining case registered by the CBI.
The low-profile, soft-spoken lady from the IAS 1977-batch retired last year after 34 years of service with a record for impeccable integrity and competence. She apparently took up the post retirement job to fund her daughter's higher education overseas, but will now spend the rest of her life fighting the CBI case.
The latest retired bureaucrat to be ensnared in a similar CBI case is former Coal Secretary, P.C. Parakh. The CBI has registered an FIR naming him as part of a 'conspiracy' in the allotment of a coal mine to the Aditya Birla Group-controlled Hindalco.
Shaken by the action on Parakh, many bureaucrats have now gone back to the read, re-read and read between the lines of the Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988 to understand its wide reaching powers. Under this law, a bureaucrat does not have to indulge in a corrupt act to invite trouble. Even a decision leading to a private individual or firm benefiting is enough to ignite the spark. Section 13 of the law says: "A public servant is said to commit the offence of criminal misconduct while holding office as a public servant, (if he) obtains for any person any valuable thing or pecuniary advantage without any public interest." Interestingly, the protection of prior sanction is available to a public servant only as long as he or she is in office. The protection stops on the official's retirement. A decision taken while in service can come home to haunt a person long after his or her retirement.
Stunned by the CBI action, many bureaucrats may dodge postings that involve sensitive responsibilities of dealing with allocation of natural resources. Those occupying such posts may back off from taking firm calls, or postpone decisions, especially if these involve private industrial houses. The fear of CBI, an officer says, may lead to many bureaucrats sleeping over files, or simply kicking files upwards for a decision. "Every day we sign 30-40 files, each one based on the variables at that point of time. The decisions may change according to circumstances," says a senior bureaucrat.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh once said, "I would like to tell you that if you are taking governmental decisions, particularly big macro decisions, we don't know all the facts and yet we have to take decisions." According to the officer quoted above, at best an officer in the government is able to spend no more than 35 per cent of his or her time for office work - the rest of the time goes for dealing with legislature /parliamentary committees, CAG, courts, Lokayukta, RTI applications etc.
A few years ago, an IAS officer heading a public transport undertaking in a state had to sign off on a deal involving the purchase of tyres for buses. The lowest bidder turned out be a new company. The overcautious IAS officer wrote to the CAG asking if they could do a 'concurrent audit' of this tender so that they could take a call. The government auditor replied saying they have no such power - they would only do a post facto audit.
PM: 10 on 10!
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told a group of editors in New Delhi in June 2011: "When I was a student at Cambridge, Sir Paul Chambers, who was then the Chairman of Imperial Chemical Industries, came and addressed us on who is a good manager, who will be considered by industry as a good manager.
"He told our student group that, in an uncertain world in which we live in, if 5 out of 10 decisions that I take ex-ante turn out to be correct ex-post that would be considered a job well done. If out of 10 decisions that I take, 7 turn out to be right ex-post that would be considered an excellent performance. But if you have a system which is required to perform 10 out of 10 cases I think no system can be effective and satisfy that onerous condition.
"We live in a world of uncertainty and ex-post whether it is the Comptroller and Auditor General, whether it is a Parliamentary committee, they analyse post facto. They have a lot more facts which were not available to those who took the decision."
So is it a case of no hope for many well-meaning, honest, and competent bureaucrats?
Not quite so. There are ways to deal with it. A serving bureaucrat gives the example of how courts helped usher in the system of tribunals, which are saving courts' time as well. Earlier, courts used to deal with petitions on disputes in official postings. Later, the courts found tribunals were best suited to deal with them, and creating a system involving both judges and retired bureaucrats. The government and courts, he says, could now move into a similar system to deal with cases booked under the Prevention of Corruption Act as retired bureaucrats, sharing a bench with a judicial member, could help speed up trails, and save courts' time.