Saturday, August 24, 2013

What Anna Hazare, Kejriwal, and Co should have pushed for?

I strongly believe, like most others, that there are no magic bullets to address complex issues like corruption or development. Having said that, there are interventions which are likely to have substantially large impact on the problem. 

The civil society movement in India been very vocal in recent months on the establishment of a strong ombudsman, the Lok Pal, as the most important instrument to combat corruption. I think that if it did want to raise the pitch on one issue, a more effective choice would have been to force the government to promulgate a Manpower Deployment Act. 

Frequent and completely discretionary, most often whimsically so, transfers are a feature of personnel management within governments in India. It is an open secret that in many states, most of the influential local officials are brought (or bought!) in by the local legislator and function at their behest. It has become arguably the most important cause for politicization and corruption in the administrative system, from the lowest to the highest levels. 

The state and central governments would have to promulgate their own legislations. Individual departments, in turn, should frame rules that govern their employees transfers, in accordance with their state or central legislation. It should clearly define those eligible, the criterion, and the process for transfers. Further, all transfers should be done only in a small, preferably two-week window, in the summer each year. All transfers done in violation of these rules should be explicitly recorded with reasons, and be subject to an appeal process. Furthermore, these deviations should be compiled by the Department and placed before the state Assembly or Parliament in their respective annual reports on the Manpower Deployment Act. Transfers done in case of exigencies like vaccancies arising due to retirements and promotions too should be covered by a transparent and rules-based regime. 

Apart from minimizing corruption, this will go a long distance towards promoting good governance too. Stability of tenure, by itself, brings in a tremendous amount of accountability. Short tenures are inefficient for many reasons. Primarily, it takes a few months for any official, howsoever experienced, to become familiar with their operational jurisdiction. Further, when officials are transferred once a few months, they have no incentive to plan and implement programs. More importantly, it becomes easy for them to shift blame on their predecessors or on some extraneous factors. But if an official has been in place for atleast two years, he cannot either feign ignorance or evade responsibility about problems in his jurisdiction.

I am dismayed not so much at the civil society movement not reflecting this view, but at the failure of the opinion makers and media is channeling the movement's energy into more purposeful reforms like these.  

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