Modi's 'corruption-mukt Bharat' still a distant dream: Bureaucratic hurdles derail timely action against dishonest babus
Four years into Narendra Modi's rule, bureaucratic manoeuvres continue to derail the corruption clean-up drive as far as tainted babus are concerned.
New Delhi: When Narendra Modi came to power in 2014, his government decided to clean up the deadwood in the bureaucracy, punish corrupt officers and put the brakes on the nexus in Lutyens' Delhi that compromises the official machinery.
Four years down the line, as far as timely and exemplary action against tainted babus is concerned, it is a sense of déjà vu. Due to bureaucratic manoeuvres, the clean-up drive has a long way to go before its intended target.
Firstpost has reviewed documents that show in certain high-stakes departments, action against dishonest babus is being taken at snail's pace. In the Central Board of Excise and Customs (CBEC), the most important arm for indirect taxes, vigilance cases have not been able to overcome the roadblocks.
"At present, 263 officers are facing departmental action for a major/minor penalty, including in non-vigilance cases, which constitute 6.38 percent of the total strength of the service. The strength of the Indian Revenue Service (IRS) Custom and Central Excise Group 'A' officers is approximately 4,122," the CBEC note reviewed by Firstpost revealed.
Group 'A' officers are executive officers at the level of chief commissioners, commissioners, additional/joint commissioners, deputy and assistant commissioners. What is shocking is that some vigilance cases are pending for the last 10 years.
A CBEC note regarding alleged corrupt officers said: "... the government servant is required to submit his written statement of defence within a period of 15 days, which may be further extended to a period not exceeding 15 days at a time.”
Subsequently, after a month, "inquiry authority is required to conclude the inquiry and submit his report with a period of six months from the date of receipt of the order of his appointment as inquiry authority.”
So, why there is a delay of almost a decade in tackling certain cases of corruption and ensuring clean up in the system?
A senior officer on the condition of anonymity said the matter was taken up by CBEC chairman Vanaja N Sarna after she took charge last year and directed to expedite the cases to punish delinquent officers.
Firstpost reviewed a note by Sarna, who warned that serious action would be taken in case of delays in disciplinary cases against corrupt babus. Sarna's letter dated 30 August, 2017, said: "... the board will be taking a serious view where the departmental proceedings are allowed to prolong till the superannuation of the charged officer without valid reasons."
According to vigilance watchdog the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC), the CBEC, involved in indirect tax collection, is a sensitive department and carries out one of the most potent instruments of policies available with the government.
Cases caught in a bureaucratic cobweb
A note prepared by the CVC said: "Tax administrators deal with revenue collection and since the stakes involved are often very high, possession of assets, disproportionate to known sources of income can be expected with a higher degree of probability. It is inherent in the nature of the taxpayer to avoid paying taxes that he can evade without too much risk. The importer/exporter/manufacturer has a tendency to misdeclare quantity, value or the rate applicable. The smuggler may like to import/export prohibited goods,"
"Effectively, the forces of vigilance can be unleashed only if a customs officer is apprehended while abetting a smuggler or duty evader. Any act of a tax collector related to the recovery of duty or penalising smugglers is adjudicatory and of wide discretion; the scope for misuse is immense but the scope of scrutiny is also limited."
Despite repeated attempts, Sarna and Director General Vigilance RK Barthwal could not be reached for comment. A detailed questionnaire sent to Barthwal yielded no response.
N Vittal, who headed the CVC between 1998 to 2002 admitted that the concerned departments are not taking action against the corrupt officers and ultimately the efforts to eliminate corruption is being defeated. Speaking to Firstpost, the former CVC said the vigilance watchdog must be empowered by the government to take action in the cases where ministries and departments are sitting on the file and pushing the cases towards infinite delay. Vittal said a government could earn huge public support if the officers involved in dishonest dealings are held accountable.
"All the corrupt people know the rule better than anyone else and misuse it to the hilt. It is not the guidelines, which are important, but the people who administer it. If the department heads are scared to take action, the government must hand over the job to the CVC and it could swiftly go ahead with the appropriate action," he said.
Hiding beneath a rubble of rulebook
It is pertinent to mention the PC Hota Committee that was formed by the UPA government to look into the issues related to discipline and vigilance inquiry against allegations of corruption in the bureaucracy. The Committee's report was examined by a panel of secretaries and it had recommended that the government machinery must take immediate and prompt action.
One of the recommendations accepted by the government on 14 October, 2013, said: "As far as practicable, an inquiry officer should conduct the hearing on a day-to-day basis to complete the inquiry expeditiously. Each inquiry officer should be required to maintain an order sheet to record proceedings of the inquiry on the day of inquiry and other relevant matters. If the inquiry cannot be conducted on a day-to-day basis, the inquiry officer should record in the order sheet the reason why the inquiry could not be held on a day-to-day basis."
Even under the NDA government, the Ministry of Personnel on 15 March, 2017, had directed through File No 106/7/2015-AVD that, "under no circumstances, the extension to complete the inquiry shall exceed 45 days from the date of receipt of the article of charge."
But, what happens when the inquiry and CVC recommendation become another side of the sordid tales of the bureaucratic system. A CVC report in October last year revealed that 31 cases against babus seeking sanction for prosecution were pending since June 2017. The list included five IAS officers from the Ministry of Personnel, the Ministry of Commerce and Industries, the Ministry of Coal and Mines and an IAS officer serving in the home cadre of Andhra Pradesh.
In one case the sanction was solicited in September 2014 (Case No RC-12 –A-/2011, AC-II) but the action against the tainted officer was thrown into the dustbin and no action was taken by the government machinery. A branch manager of Punjab National Bank (PNB) was found guilty (RC-6S/2015, EOW) and action was proposed on 10 November, 2016, but the government-owned bank – now caught in a massive fraud – turned a blind eye.
The CVC report further revealed that till 31 January, 2018, at least 28 cases seeking sanction for prosecution were pending for the last four months. The highest existing anti-corruption body said a file related to one officer, who was investigated by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), has already retired (File No. RC-55 (A)/2012, ACB, Chennai). Action against six tainted senior level officers from State Bank of India (RC-4-E/2015, BS&FC, Mumbai and RC-1-E/2015 BS&FC, Mumbai) and 13 officers under the Ministry of Defence (File No RC-2-A/2016, ACB, CBI, Hyderabad) is also pending.
The vigilance chiefs of State Bank of India and defence ministry could not be reached for comment despite repeated attempts. A questionnaire sent to SBI's Shiva Kumar remains unanswered.
There are also suggestions from the CVC that honest officers, taking decision for the benefit of the common man must be protected.
Vittal asserted that intent of the officer under the scanner is another aspect, which has to be examined before taking disciplinary action. "We must protect honest officers but not spare those working with corrupt motive and contaminating the entire system," he said.
In January this year, the CVC advised initiation of major penalty proceedings against 135 officials of various ministries and departments, including maximum 20 from Syndicate Bank followed by 15 officers of the Ministry of Railways. The vigilance body processed 3,072 complaints including 46 whistleblower complaints and sought investigation report in 30 complaints from the concerned organisations.
According to the CVC, it has directed the Department of Coal to initiate major penalty against six officials and five from the Ministry of Defence. In January, prosecution sanctions were issued by the competent authorities against 11 officials of various ministries, including three from the Ministry of Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises and two officers each from the Ministry of Railways and Commerce.
N Gopalaswami, a 1966 batch IAS officer and former Chief Election Commissioner of India, told Firstpost that the system has become lax and cases go on for years.
"We have unfortunately built a system that helps the corrupt. Until we tackle the issue at the grassroots level, corruption will not go away. Consciously, the government needs to look for ways to avoid interaction with the applicant. Everybody – from politicians to officers – feels that even if they are caught, they will not be punished for at least 10-15 years. Start rewarding performance and start punishing the corrupt," Gopalaswami said.
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