Many months ago, during the peak of the anti-corruption campaign, a friend from Delhi was visiting me. He was a high-ranking official in a large and reputed industrial group and we started talking about corruption and the problems of public service in India. During the course of the conversation, he mentioned that his company had a policy of not bribing any public servant in the Central Government or in any of the States that they operated in. Knowing their standards of business ethics, I was not surprised at his remarks. What started me thinking was his subsequent remark made very innocuously. He said that his company spent a few crores on sending costly gifts to officials and politicians on the occasion of Diwali and New year. Both he and his company did not see anything wrong in this and they genuinely felt that they were only being courteous and culturally responsive. His view was that these were after all gifts given unconditionally and not bribes in anticipation of any services that could be rendered to them in the future.
While we did debate this at that time, I am reminded of an amendment to the service rules that the Government of Karnataka quietly made in January this year. The rule, which restricted Group A, B and C officers against accepting gifts worth more than Rs 5000, was relaxed. The Government’s logic was that it considered the depreciation of money value, pay revision of Government servants and market rates, before amending the Karnataka Civil Services (Conduct) Rules 1966. With this, officers could now accept gifts whose worth is equal to their monthly basic salary. The basic salary varies according to the ranks and promotions. The rules also permits these Government officers accepting gifts during weddings, anniversaries, funerals or religious functions in conformity with the prevailing religious or social practice. Though Section 14 of the conduct rule says that if any officer or servant accepts gifts worth more than the prescribed limits, he will have to report it to the Government, most of them don’t report excess gifts and one hardly hears of anybody being penalized for violation.
Very few newspapers reported this change in rules and when I mentioned it to some of my friends and colleagues, they were amused that such a thing would really matter. We live in times where corruption scams are measured in thousands of crores and it does seem incongruous that one should make an issue of gifts being given to our Government servants. One argument could be that they are also people with social lives and relationships and the Government should not try to own them. While this may be true, we need to consider the issue of probity in public life. A public servant willfully and consciously agrees to enter this domain knowing fully well the expectations of society from him. He not only needs to be honest and transparent in his dealings and actions, but should also be seen to be so. Bribes can be masqueraded as a gift and one can end up legitimizing this bane of public administration.
We also need to keep in mind that countries around the world have prescribed code of conducts for public servants. We in India have inherited most of the rules from the British era. Kautilya in his Artha Shastra has also mentioned the rules that public servants need to go by. I was discussing this issue with Dr Rajan, an accomplished cardiothoracic surgeon who retired as a Brigadier from the Indian Army a few years ago and now volunteers with us. He recollected an experience of his that happened in 1946 just after the Second World War.
There was a field medical unit stationed in a remote area in North Bengal and there were no other medical facilities anywhere around. This unit also provided medical help to the local villagers and it one day received a call for assistance from one of the local Zameendars. Being a locally prominent person, the head of the unit deputed young Captain AB Ray to undertake this house call. Capt Ray attended on the Zameendar who soon recovered. The Zameendar sent a gift of a large basket of mangoes to the doctor in appreciation of services received. The Captain promptly reported this matter to his Commanding Officer who was an Englishman. Sending back the mangoes would mean hurting the sentiments of the Zameendar, while accepting it meant breaking the rules of conduct. Unsure of what to do, the Commanding Officer shot of a telegram to his local headquarters. The telegram read “Prominent local leader donates basket of mangoes to the unit for services rendered. Advise action to be taken”. The local headquarters sent a reply asking to know the value of the gift. Capt Ray was now dispatched to the local market to find out the cost of these mangoes. The unit shot back a telegram saying the gift was worth Rs 4.50. The reply that was received was to accept this gift. By the time all this took place, the basket of mangoes had rotten.
While this incident may seem an extreme interpretation of rules, we need to understand the spirit behind this. In the context of India being a welfare state, public servants are key in ensuring that goods and services provided by the state reaches the intended citizenry. Any arbitrariness or lack of transparency can severely affect the functioning of public services. Public servants are expected to remain unbiased and not allow them to be influenced by considerations of any kind. Accepting gifts from people that they are interacting with can influence their decision-making abilities and render them pliable. It would indeed be impractical for the State to implement the laws that it enacts when it comes to probity in public life. What would really work are the ethics and value systems that each individual public servant prescribes for himself.
At the end of the day, we need to realize that rules can only serve as guidelines and provide a framework for operations and 1.5 crore public servants cannot be policed all the time. What will work is living by one’s own conscience and subscribing to standards of transparency and probity that will leave no room for doubt in any one’s mind. The State can only create a facilitatory environment and should not seek to dilute any standards that already exist.