I feel privileged to have been invited to deliver this year’s lecture to remember Sir Syed Ahmed Khan. He was a great scholar, an outstanding leader of Indian Muslims, a visionary social reformer and a protagonist of Hindu-Muslim unity who strongly believed that religious discord would destroy the fabric of our society.
Sir Syed, born in a well established family, joined the East India Company and served in several parts of northern India. He received honours and awards for his innovative ideas and commendable achievements.
Deeply perturbed by the atrocities inflicted by the British during the 1857 Mutiny and the enormous sufferings undergone by his people, particularly the Muslims in and around Delhi, Sir Syed vowed to uplift his community. He spent the rest of his life in carrying out reforms to encourage freedom of thought and eliminate bigotry, fanaticism and sectarianism.
To counter the propaganda, which was being methodically spread, that the Mutiny took place because of the activities of Muslims, Sir Syed wrote a wellargued monograph which held that 1857 happened because of the government’s own lapses, particularly its failure to redress serious grievances of the people. He pointed out that another reason for the mounting public anger which had led to the revolt was the failure of the British to provide for Indian representation in the Imperial Legislative Council. He continued to fight for this cause till the British agreed, in 1861, to Indians being nominated to the Council and for some of them to be given positions in the judicial system.
Sir Syed strongly believed that Muslims, who were an intensely religious community steeped in conservative traditions, would not be able to progress and achieve advancement unless the upcoming generations were enabled to pursue modern education, particularly the sciences and engineering. In his long battle to end orthodoxy he vigorously campaigned for Muslim youth being encouraged to learn English, which would open the door to their gaining admissions to institutions of higher learning. To motivate and expose his community to western concepts and develop a scientific temper he set up the ‘Scientific Society’ and started bringing out the “Aligarh Institute Gazette”.
An Islamic modernist, Sir Syed stood for tolerance, reason and a scientific outlook. Being convinced that orthodoxy and ignorance could not be reduced unless the Muslim society was exposed to wide-ranging reforms, he launched a vibrant campaign which soon became widely known as the “Aligarh Movement”. To acquaint himself with the latest advancements in the field of higher education he visited England and came back with many new ideas which he spread by bringing out a journal, “Tahzeeb-ul-Akhlaq”, which became an important agent for triggering social reform. The writings in this publication, and those generated by the Aligarh Movement, were aimed at reforming the Muslim society by attacking ignorance and, side-by-side, propagating a rational interpretation of the Quran. Among other objectives, he sought to establish that there was nothing in Islam which opposed or debarred Muslim youth from learning English, pursuing western education and becoming highly qualified teachers, scientists, engineers and doctors. Undoubtedly the most notable Indian Muslim leader of his time, Sir Syed worked assiduously towards the advancement of his community to see that it excelled in all fields and was not left behind in any arena.
In furtherance of his conviction that the Muslim society could not be reformed unless the youth were provided opportunities to gain higher education, he established a school which soon became widely reputed for its high quality of teaching. His endeavours to establish a modern university could not go through for lack of the required resources. However, In 1877, he succeeded in setting up the Muslim Anglo-Oriental College, an institution modelled on the pattern of Oxford and Cambridge universities. Over the years, many alumni of this college rose to occupy positions of great eminence in various walks of life, all over the country.
Over four decades later, in 1920, the Muslim Anglo-Oriental College achieved the status of a university. Today, the Aligarh Mulsim University is among the foremost in the country. Over the past century, since its inception, the AMU has played a pivotal role in shaping the destinies of all those who were lucky in gaining entry into its portals. Today, this university is providing education to over 34,000 students, in almost every area of learning.
In my view, perhaps the best tribute which can be paid to Sir Syed’s life long work would be to recall the following words of Dr. Tara Chand, the eminent historian:
“The Aligarh Movement exercised a tremendous influence on the minds of Muslims; it created among them the ambition to achieve for their community its proper place among the communities of India and turned their thoughts from the fruitless contemplation of their past glories and defeats to the actual pursuit of progress and advancement in the modern world”
India is the world’s largest democracy. Since attaining freedom our people have been governed by their own chosen representatives, elected every five years in freely conducted polls.
While seven decades is not a particularly long period in the life of a nation, it would be beneficial to look back, even though fleetingly, to reckon how far we have travelled towards the attainment of the nation building goals envisioned by the founding fathers of our Constitution.
Among the mandated tasks of establishing a strong and caring democracy, built on the pillars of Secularism, Equality, Liberty, Justice and Fraternity, a crucial goal which continues to await attainment relates to our failure to provide food, shelter, safe drinking water, healthcare, literacy and employment opportunities to millions of our people who subsist below the poverty line. Unfortunately, the continuing pandemic, Covid-19, has added many more millions to the number of those already poverty stricken. Thus, by all accounts, we still have to travel a long way to eradicate poverty and inequality, alleviate the lot of the economically downtrodden and socially depressed segments of our population and empower them to truly enjoy equal opportunities with all others in the country.
In any discussion on the governance of India it would do well to remember that we are a vast country of sub-continental dimensions and a land of awesome geographical dissimilarities. We have large desert areas, the highest mountain ranges in the world, land and sea borders of nearly 23,000 kms, over 1200 island territories and an Exclusive Economic Zone of several million square kilometres.
Even more daunting is the heterogeneity of our population. Our people, nearly 1.38 billion today, comprise over 4600 communities which practice all the world religions, speak 122 languages and nearly 2000 dialects. Their vastly diverse traditions and practices are imbedded in thousands of years of history and the life styles of our different communities reflect the myriad social, cultural, linguistic and religious diversities which comprise India.
At the time of Independence, after the country was partitioned, millions were killed in the communal riots and millions more were uprooted and rendered homeless. Large parts of the country, from Bengal to Panjab, were devastated by widespread lawlessness, arson, loot and killings and a famine like situation prevailed in the land. India faced a grave financial crisis and a horde of complex challenges. The British, who ruled India for nearly two centuries for advancing their own interests, had left behind a backward and feudal agrarian economy, huge regional imbalances, a weak industrial base, large scale unemployment, poverty and abysmally low income levels.
It was the selfless commitment of the tall leaders who had carried out the long struggle for freedom, and the strong determination of other front ranking political personalities of that time, which inspired the Interim Government — our first national government in 1947 - to deal with the prevailing communal violence; restore law and order; provide food, clothing and shelter to millions of refugees; set up thousands of ration shops to distribute essential food supplies; fight droughts and floods and, in the midst of the endless troubles on various fronts, to also counter Pakistan’s aggression in Kashmir. Besides the benefit of an enlightened leadership, the endless challenges were successfully met because of the devotion and sustained hard work put in by the limited cadres of the Civil, Police, Defence and other services, all of which had been badly splintered by the partition of the country.
While the Interim Government was engaged, day and night, in battling with the virtually insurmountable problems facing the country, the Constituent Assembly remained involved in prolonged debates to finalise the Constitution of free India. Adopted on 26th January 1950, our Constitution provides the broad framework of cooperative federalism for the governance of the Sovereign, Democratic Republic of India and lays down a largely socialistic pattern for India’s economic development. It demarcates the respective jurisdictions and responsibilities of the Union and the States and the subjects which can receive concurrent attention.
Under our Constitution, the people of India set out to attain for themselves:
JUSTICE – social, economic and political LIBERTY – of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship EQUALITY – of status and of opportunity FRATERNITY – for assuring the dignity of the individual and unity of the nation.
The Constitution contains specific provisions for safeguarding the fundamental rights of citizens and the chapter on the Directive Principles of State Policy provides the direction of the tasks to be carried out for building a strong and vibrant nation, particular attention being given to secure the upliftment of those segments of our society which had suffered neglect and oppression for centuries. The Constitution provides for the establishment of a uniform set of inter-related institutions which lay the basis for a common framework of governance across the country and a strong Centre for guiding and supporting the States in the collective tasks of nation building.
It would be relevant to recall that, during the debates in the Constituent Assembly, Sardar Patel had repeatedly cautioned that the effective governance of free India and the harmonious working of Centre-State relations would be crucially dependent on the collective pursuit of a national perspective. He strongly believed that the unity and integrity of India could be safeguarded by a federal administrative system in which the all India services would be required to play a vital role. Thus, our Constitution provides for the establishment of All India Services of such kind and in such number as may be required. However, we have only three pan India Services viz the Indian Administrative Service, Indian Police Service and the Indian Forest Service, besides the stand alone Indian Foreign Service. All these four services together have a total of about 12,500 officers.
For securing balanced human development and economic growth it was decided to implement five year plans, which would be finalized by the Planning Commission and the National Development Council after discussions with the States and other stake holders. It is fortunate that those at the helm after Independence recognised, right in the beginning, that any failure in bringing about orderly change to establish a stable environment across the country could lead to unrest and disorder on a scale which would not be easy to control. Thus, it was wisely decided that tackling the problems of poverty and unemployment would be among the government’s first and foremost priorities. Because of the extreme paucity of financial resources in that period, another sound decision taken was to mobilise the local communities to render voluntary services for implementing rural development programmes in the villages. This approach engendered very good results, at least in the early years. As a district officer in the early 1960s I recall our significant successes in building village roads, wells, dispensaries and other assets with the help of voluntary labour we mobilised from the beneficiary villages.
Considering the severe financial constraints and many other serious problems, all of which required to be dealt with at the same time, it could well be concluded that in the first two decades after Independence the successive governments at the Centre worked satisfactorily and successfully laid the foundations for the country’s future growth and development in almost every arena. Briefly recalled, this period witnessed considerable enlargement of the educational and health systems; establishment of rural dispensaries, hospitals, colleges, universities and institutions for teaching and research in medicine, science and technology; expansion of civil aviation, sea ports, highways, railways and public transport systems; implementation of land reforms, consolidation of holdings and security of tenure to the actual tillers; construction of large dams and irrigation systems which later enabled the phenomenal success of the Green Revolution; enhancement of power generation and steel and cement production; establishment of Space and Atomic Energy Commissions and many other visionary initiatives which paved the way for the many creditable advancements which our country has been able to achieve in the recent years. During this period, besides Pakistani’s aggression in Kashmir immediately after Independence, the country faced war on three occasions. While we had to accept humiliation in the 1962 conflict with China our military acquitted themselves with great honour in the 1965 and 1971 wars with Pakistan.
Around the end of the 1960s the Congress party, which had continuously ruled at the Centre and in most of the States since Independence, was faced with serious internal feuds and dissensions. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s determination not to yield office and authority, at any cost, led to the enforcement of Emergency during 1975-77. This regrettable period witnessed the infringement of the rule of law and the Constitution and severe damage being done to the functioning of the cabinet system.
While there may have been no dearth of corruption in the earlier years, the period of Emergency saw the growth of a most unwholesome link-up between dishonest politicians and the brand new breed of unprincipled officials, the so called “committed” civil servants who pledged loyalty not to the Constitution but to the ideology of their political masters. The wanton abrogation of laws, policies and the well laid down systems led to the emergence of extra constitutional elements who played unlawful roles in governmental functioning, both at the Centre and in the States.
The post Emergency period was marked by the growth of political instability and rapid changes in the ruling hierarchies at the Centre. During 1991-2004 the country faced five elections to the Parliament and six Prime Ministers were at the helm in this short period. The 1980s and 1990s also witnessed the exposure of a series of murky corruption scandals which involved allegations against the senior most echelons in the polity, including the Prime Minister of India. In the States, at about the same time, there were alarming cases of corruption and gross abuse of authority which involved high ranking civil and police officers, ministers and chief ministers.
A look back at the evolution of the polity would show that while the elections in the past decades have not been related to contests between differing ideologies or to opposite positions in respect of important public issues, there has, nonetheless, been an enormous growth in the number of political organisations all over the country. In 1951, at the time of the first General Elections, there were only 54 National and State Parties and today we have 8 National, 53 State and 2538 Unrecognised Political Parties registered with the Election Commission of India! Besides this highly wasteful proliferation, another alarming phenomenon which has taken root relates to the extremely damaging role which money and muscle power have been playing in elections at all levels in the country. Among many other adverse consequences, this has enabled candidates with criminal backgrounds to gain entry into the State Legislatures and the Central Parliament.
While the Legislature and the Judiciary are vital organs of the Constitution, the Executive is perhaps the most important pillar as all our nearly 1.38 billion people, in their day to day existence, have to approach one or the other wing of the governmental machinery for the resolution of their grievances. The Executive comprises the elected representatives, i.e. the political Executive, and the public servants who are the appointed or the permanent Executive. For the past many years now the functioning of the Executive has been on the decline. Among the varied factors which have led to its continuing failures and which, in turn, have resulted in delaying the achievement of crucial nation building goals, perhaps the most damaging have been those generated by manipulative politics, politicisation and interference in the working of the administrative apparatus, unchecked growth of corruption and unaccountability.
The unfettered inter-play of corrupt and unlawful practices has resulted in severely eroding both the capacity and the credibility of the governmental machinery. Leave aside ensuring the efficient functioning of the key institutions of governance, it is regrettable that even the management of the day to day public dealing offices and agencies has been invariably entrusted not to functionaries of proven merit and integrity but to those who are generally selected on considerations of caste, community or proximity to the political masters. Continuing deficiencies in the delivery of important public services has led to enormous dissatisfaction among the people, but to no avail.
Unceasing political meddling in the orderly working of the governmental apparatus has generated indiscipline, inefficiency, corruption and unaccountability among the employees. Functionaries who carry out unlawful orders and collect funds on behalf of their political masters, as well as for themselves, are not accountable to anyone, least of all to their hierarchical superiors who dare not question such elements. In such an environment the common man is the worst sufferer; his grievances remain unheard as he cannot pay bribes.
Political interference in the working of the police organizations in the states has caused irreparable damage to the discipline, morale and professionalism of these forces. Instead of being allowed to work unfettered and being held fully accountable for enforcing the law and maintaining public order, for which they were by law established, the constabularies have been misused for carrying out unlawful behests and, over the years, they have got mixed up with the very elements whose criminal activities they are duty bound to check and bring before the law. A grave consequence of this situation has been the progressive deterioration in the maintenance of law and order and, consequently, the virtually unchecked growth of criminality. The police has acquired a frighteningly negative image and the common man is mortally afraid of visiting a police station even if for no better reason than to report the commission of a serious crime which he may have witnessed.
With known criminal elements enjoying the protection and patronage of powerful elements in the ruling hierarchies, a “criminal nexus” between the polity, corrupt public servants and the mafia networks has been functioning for the past many years now. In this context it may be recalled that, consequent to the serial bombings in Mumbai in early 1993, Prime Minister Narasimha Rao had directed the Union Home Secretary to take stock of the activities of Crime Syndicates and Mafia organisations which were being protected by government functionaries and political personalities with whom they had developed links. Essentially, the Prime Minister was anxious to know the circumstances in which the mafia had been able to transport large quantities of explosives into the city of Mumbai and freely carry out serial bomb blasts in the financial capital of India. The Home Secretary submitted his report in early October 1993. Nearly three decades have since elapsed. The action taken on the findings in this report, which has generally been referred to as the “Vohra Committee Report”, is not in the public domain. However, meanwhile, the criminal nexus has enormously extended its reach in several parts of the country and become many times more powerful.
It is equally unfortunate that the Enforcement Directorate (ED), Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC), the apex central agencies which deal with complaints of corruption against public servants, are no longer looked upon as credible professional agencies whose functioning is beyond the pale of political pressures and extra-legal influences. The sharp decline in the integrity of these vital institutions has led to the general belief that the rich and the wealthy, who provide funds to successive political regimes at the Centre and in the States, and persons who hold high public offices, are beyond the reach of the law, no matter how serious the crime which they may have committed. In this context it may be recalled that in 1997 the Chief Justice of India (CJI), Justice J.S. Verma, while hearing a case involving a bunch of corruption scandals, had directed the Union of India to set up an Independent Review Committee (IRC) to examine the manner in which personnel were appointed to run the ED and CBI and to also review the functioning of these agencies. The IRC Report, drafted by me, was accepted by the CJI and all its important recommendations were reflected in the Judgement in the well known case of “Vineet Narain and ORs vs Union of India” (1997). The concerned echelons in the Government of India may benefit by revisiting the IRC Report.
Successive governments at the Centre, irrespective of their political complexion, have failed to enforce an effective pan India law to curb corruption at the highest levels, including the Prime Minister of the country. The proposal to appoint a Lok Pal was mooted almost half a century ago. Several draft bills were examined and endlessly debated by successive Parliamentary Committees and expert groups till the Lokpal Bill was finally passed. Consequently, after delay and dithering for several decades, the incumbent government at the Centre appointed the first Lok Pal in early 2019. Sadly, till today, there is no indication whether and when this important institution is likely to become functional.
The successive governments in the States have not been able to satisfactorily discharge their mandated role of providing clean and efficient governance. There has been failure to maintain public order and achieving rapid growth and development for equitably promoting the welfare of all their people. It is shameful that, from year to year, even the outlays earmarked for executing schemes and programmes which are specially conceived for poverty alleviation have continued to remain unspent or got embezzled and eaten-up. Needless to stress, the Executive has not succeeded in discharging its responsibilities constitutionally, to the satisfaction of the people.
The Legislature has also failed to effectively deliver its constitutional role of passing wholesome laws which would empower the people, specially the weaker sections of the society; strengthen the framework of the rural and urban self-governing institutions; enhance the efficiency and accountability of the public services; and protect the common man from suffering from hunger or want. It has also failed to act as the parliamentary watchdog of the Executive’s functioning. Another alarming development has been that almost one third of the total strength of the Legislatures in the country is represented by persons of unseemly backgrounds and known involvement in criminal offences. This despicable phenomenon, generally referred to as the “criminalisation of the polity”, has degraded the Legislature and adversely affected its functioning.
The continuing shortcomings in the functioning of the Executive and the Legislature have thwarted rapid growth and development and the achievement of important nation building goals. Among the many shameful consequences of this failure: India ranks 129th among 189 countries in the Human Development Index, published by the United National Development Programme in 2019 Equally deplorable: India continues to retain an elevated position in the global ranking of the “most corrupt countries.” In the 2019 report of the Transparency International our country was at the 80th position among 180 countries listed under the Global Corruption Perception Index.
Besides corruption, which has ruined the very foundations of our society, growing inequality is another worrying challenge. While the ten fold increase in the per capita incomes achieved in the past years is an encouraging development, it cannot be ignored that, as per a recent assessment, one per cent of the richest in our country possess sixty per cent of the total national wealth of which only 2 % is owned by the entire bottom half of our population! Needless to stress, meaningful steps require to be taken to timely reduce the stark socioeconomic disparities which exist today.
Every year the annual reports of the Comptroller and Auditor General of India and of the Public Accounts Committees of the Parliament and the State Legislatures bring out substantive information about the manner in which scarce public funds, allocated for achieving important economic and human development goals, remain only partly spent or are mis-spent and even eaten up. It is indeed most regrettable that none of these reports have so far resulted in reducing corruption or sending the offenders to jails.
Social activist groups, NGOs and the media have been perennially exposing scandals and cases of corruption which involve political persons and public servants holding high positions. In many cases the higher courts have also been passing strictures against the concerned governmental agencies for their failure to investigate and prosecute those involved in serious cases of fraud, embezzlement and corruption. It is unfortunate that these various interventions have not so far led to deterring the corrupt and criminal elements.
Recurring failures in the functioning of the governmental apparatus, corruption, criminalisation of the polity and the unchecked enlargement of the “criminal nexus” could perhaps have been controlled and contained if the Judiciary had remained intact and effective. Unfortunately, the functioning of the judicial system has also got grievously impaired, alongside the downward slide of the Executive and the Legislature. Interference in the functioning of the judicial framework, side by side with the politicisation of the state police organisations, has adversely affected the functioning of the entire system, particularly the effective delivery of criminal justice.
Governance cannot be effectively delivered unless the laws of the land are fearlessly enforced, public order is maintained and the safety and security of all the people is assured. And such an objective can be achieved only when the entire criminal justice system, including the police and the prosecution, functions with efficiency, speed and fairness. However, presently, the capability and the very integrity of the system are being questioned.
Reportedly, nearly forty million cases continue to await trials in courts all over the country, including the higher judiciary. As per the National Crime Research Bureau’s Report of 2018 : nearly 4.5 million cases were pending trials in the various High Courts. Justice delayed is not only justice denied but also breeds disregard of the law. No wonder then, as reflected in the National Crime Research Bureau’s Report of 2018, on an average, 289 kidnappings, 91 rapes and 80 murders are being committed in our country every day.
It is cause for even greater concern that besides the many serious organisational and logistical deficiencies which plague the functioning of the justice system, there have also been growing complaints about the inadequacies in the competence and integrity of the judicial cadres. In the recent past, the independence and integrity of judges, even up to the august level of the Chief Justice of India, have been the subject of serious allegations. This has generated a widespread perception that the gaps in the judicial apparatus have already resulted in weakening both the will and capacity of the superior judiciary to fearlessly enforce the Constitution. In the context of the failures of the Executive and the Legislature, a weakened Judiciary, with cracks appearing in the highest echelons, is cause for great anxiety.
It is the Union’s crucial responsibility to ensure that national security is effectively managed at all times, and on all fronts. For the past many years now, the geo-political environment in our immediate neighbourhood has been generating unceasing security challenges. Pakistan’s proxy war in J&K has now continued for nearly three decades and, side by side, terrorist groups and adversary external agencies have been vigorously pursuing their agenda to destabilize our country by spreading religious fundamentalism, inciting communal conflicts and perpetrating violent disturbances.
It is regrettable that, despite the continuance of serious security threats to our country, the States have been questioning the Union’s authority in the arena of national security management. Among other matters, the States have been perennially raising issues about the competence and jurisdiction of the National Investigating Agency (NIA), the only central institution which has been investigating and prosecuting terrorist crimes since its hurried establishment in 2009.
It may be recalled that following Pakistan’s terror attacks in Mumbai, on our Parliament and on the Air Force Base in Pathankot, there was heightened concern, all over the country, to enlarge and strengthen the national security management apparatus. While there have since been several positive developments, we are still in the process of establishing the required pan India legal and logistical frameworks which would enable the Union and the States to set up and efficiently operate a country wide network of inter-connected institutions which shall be responsible for effectively safeguarding both internal and external security which have got inextricably intertwined ever since Pakistan launched its proxy war in J&K.
The State governments should know that terrorist networks do not recognize geographical or territorial boundaries; even if operating from long distances they can strike at their will, with lightening speed. It is necessary that the Union Government loses no more time in securing the essential understandings with the States to urgently establish the required security management framework and, particularly, to enact a comprehensive anti-terror law which has pan-India jurisdiction. Side by side, we must have a competent federal agency, manned by highly trained personnel, which can take immediate cognizance and forthwith proceed to investigate any terror offence, no matter in which part of the country it takes place, without having to lose any time whatsoever in seeking clearances from any quarter. Further, no more time should be lost in establishing a powerful central agency, and a country wide network of competent counter-organisations, to combat cyber offences and protect all our vital establishments and national assets against cyber attacks from any quarter.
Experience in the post Independence period has amply demonstrated that, other things being equal, meaningful growth and development is achieved when there is political stability and public order is maintained in the country. Needless to mention, domestic entrepreneurs and foreign companies shall make investments and be able to function profitably only if peace and normalcy prevails in the land. For securing such an environment it is imperative that the governance apparatus works with speed and efficiency, law and order is effectively maintained, corruption is controlled and the well being and safety of all our people is safeguarded. Thus, briefly, if progress is to be achieved on all fronts and our country is to advance rapidly towards the attainment of its awowed goals, then it is of the highest importance that clean and efficient governance is delivered and an environment of trust, safety and security prevails across the land.
For calm and normalcy to obtain in the country the Union Government shall need to ensure that the States effectively maintain law and order and see that no incident is allowed to occur which can disturb communal harmony, trigger internal disturbances or adversely impact national security in any manner. However, in the arena of security management, as the situation has evolved over the years, the States have not been adequately mindful of the advisories which they receive from the central agencies. In this context, the Union Government shall need to take timely initiatives for forging sound understandings with all the States, irrespective of the complexion of the political parties in power in various parts of the country. Towards this objective, it would be beneficial if the Union, making full use of the constitutional instrumentality of the Inter State Council, initiates dialogues with the States for timely resolving all obtaining and arising problems. Side by side, the Union Government should also proactively promote the settlement of festering inter-state disputes which have been sapping the national strength for decades. For achieving tangible outcomes the Union Government would need to pursue fair, objective and clearly non-partisan approaches, particularly while seeking to resolve issues relating to the safety, security and welfare of the minority communities.
Almost every other day we see media reports about the outstanding successes achieved by engineers, scientists, doctors, and others of Indian origin who are living and working in various parts of the world. It needs being noted that the glorious achievements of such persons are not merely due to their superior competence and high commitment but also to the fact that they operate in an un-interfering work environment which recognizes merit and rewards performance. On the other hand, in our own country, the efficiency and productivity of our public servants and professionals is far below optimum, perhaps even outrightly unsatisfactory in certain organisations, because the establishments in which they function are eroded, in varying degrees, by political interference, indiscipline, nepotism, corruption and unaccountability.
Notwithstanding our various failures, about which I have spoken briefly, it is creditable that, in the period since Independence, India has been able to achieve growth on many fronts. To cite a few examples: our life expectancy has increased from 31 years in 1947 to 69 years in 2017; the literacy rate has risen from 12% (1947) to 73% (2011), and the infant mortality rate (IMR), which was very adverse earlier, now stands at 33 per every 1000 live births (2017).
In the field of agricultural production: while in the earlier years we faced famines and were almost wholly dependent on imported food-grains it is a matter for rejoicing that today we are among the leading exporters of food commodities in the world. It is equally praiseworthy that our scientific and technical manpower pool is the second largest in the world and we are among the top in the arena of space and nuclear technologies. While we do not stand very high in industrial growth, it is noteworthy that we rank among the major world economies which have been achieving the fastest growth rates. We also take pride in possessing the third largest military forces in the world.
While I have referred to certain satisfying or even cheering aspects of India’s growth trajectory in the past decades it needs being understood that the size of our democracy or of our fast growing economy may not, by themselves, be enough to enable our country to achieve its envisaged goals. If we aspire to emerge as a strong and prosperous nation, all of whose people are free from hunger or want, then we shall need to take rapid steps to root out poverty and inequality, establish communal harmony and foster a societal environment in which all our people, particularly the minority communities, live without want or fear of any kind.
On account of the time constraint, it would not be possible to dilate on all the challenges which require the attention of our polity. However, I shall speak briefly about one or two matters, which deserve urgent attention.
First and foremost, if stability and public order are to be maintained and rapid advancement achieved on all fronts, we just cannot afford to have recurring incidents of communal disturbances of the kind we recently witnessed in the national capital, which resulted in violence, killings and large scale property losses. It is cause for grave concern that, as widely reported in the media, these disturbances occurred because the beliefs and socio-cultural practices of one community were allowed to be questioned and derided by political elements of another community, essentially with the objective of creating religious divisiveness.
It must be remembered that, besides resulting in the immediate loss of innocent lives and large economic losses, every incident of communal violence also leads to many longer term consequences: it generates suspicion, fear and hatred among people of different castes and faiths and lays the seeds of discords which may not be bridged for generations to come. Also, as was the case in the Delhi incidents, such occurrences create an irreparable divide among people of different religions who had been living happily together, in the same clusters and colonies, for decades past. Sadly, the communal virus, once it gets into the societal blood stream, is extremely difficult to eradicate.
It is singularly unfortunate that efforts have also been made to inject the cancer of discord and divisiveness in educational institutions. In the recent past, two eminent universities in the national capital witnessed ugly clashes and unprecedented violence in the campuses, besides irreparable disruption of their academic schedules. It is regrettable that instead of providing the best opportunities to the student community and fully exploiting India’s youthful demographic profile to achieve rapid economic gains, efforts are being made to misdirect the youth to create separateness for securing electoral advantages.
Whenever questioned about the failure of governmental functioning, it has become customary for the Ministers, particularly in the States, to lay the entire blame on the misdeeds of the “bureaucracy” or “civil servants”, by which they actually intend to refer to officers of the Indian Administrative Service (IAS).
We have a total of about 5200 IAS officers who are deployed all over the country. While accurate figures are not readily available it is assessed that perhaps there are about 40-50 million functionaries in the country who are employed by the Union Govt, State Govts, Union Territory Administrations, Central and State Public Sector Undertakings, Public Sector Banks, Defence Services, Municipalities and Urban Local Bodies, Panchayati Raj Institutions and varied other institutions which are supported by State or Central funds. For the purpose of discussion I would call the entire lot of these employees as “public servants” as all of them, from the village level Patwari to the Union Cabinet Secretary, get paid from public funds. Of the total strength of public servants in the country perhaps less than 1% are generalists, like the IAS and the State Civil Services, while the entire remainder lot represent professional cadres which contain school, college and university level teachers, police forces, defence services, bankers, engineers, scientists, technologists, doctors, foresters, judges and magistrates, and all those who work in various other professional arenas.
All public servants, belonging to different services in the States and at the Centre, are deployed in various departments and organizations which function under the control of the concerned Ministers who are members of the Union or the State Cabinets. Thus, briefly, it is the elected or the political Executive, headed by the Chief Minister in the State and by the Prime Minister at the Centre, which is constitutionally responsible for the governance of the country and,consequently, answerable for any failure in the functioning of the administrative system within their respective jurisdictions. The entire gamut of public servants, including the senior most I.A.S. officers, work under the control and direction of Ministers, who may hold charge of one or more departments. Thus, if there is any fault or failure in the functioning of a given department, it would be the concerned Minister who shall be answerable, individually and collectively as a member of the Cabinet. In case the Secretary of the Department or any other functionary is found to be at fault, then he shall face due punishment, which could even include removal from service.
I have commented on the Minister – Public Servant relationship to particularly point out that the elected leaders who are in authority, at the Centre and in the States, cannot flippantly brush away their constitutional responsibilities merely by passing the blame to the failings of public servants who function directly under their control and supervision. As per the constitutional framework it is the responsibility of the political Executive to run the governance apparatus.
Accountability is the foundation of the rule of law and constitutional governance. The working of the governmental apparatus shall become efficient only when the functioning of every Minister, and of all the officials who work in the departments under his control, becomes accountable. However, as it happens, barring a very small percentage, most of the elected persons who become Ministers have no earlier experience in administration, much less of formulating and implementing policies. Also, sadly, most of them do not have the urge, and perhaps not even the capacity, to put in the required effort to adequately understand the working of the departments placed under their charge, identify problems which require solution, take sound decisions and ensure the timely achievement of the targeted goals. Instead, from day one, Ministers get accustomed to excercising authority in an arbitrary manner and remain perennially engaged in ordering postings and transfers to favour functionaries who will collect funds and carry out their unlawful directions. Even worse, they pressurise and influence the officers working under them to see that contracts for sales, purchases or other matters which involve financial dealings are illegally awarded to persons whom the Minister wants to favour. It is this manner of unethical and irregular functioning which has led to promoting corruption and failures in the functioning of the administrative apparatus, besides seriously eroding the discipline and accountability of the public services.
Due to the politization of the administrative system a certain percentage of officials, of various services, have climbed the political band wagon and unawkwardly flaunt their loyalties to powerful elected leaders. The honest officials are invariably side lined and the functioning of many others is severely constrained by the threats which emanate from the ‘criminal nexus’ which conveys directions how certain important matters should be decided. Corrupt public servants are not afraid of the law as they are protected by their political masters. Past experience has repeatedly shown that the existing punishment and appeal systems relating to the cadres of the various services in the country do not deter the dishonest functionaries. A speedier and perhaps more punitive approach is required to deal with corruption among government employees. However, the public services shall start mending only when the political Executive starts functioning constitutionally and every Minister starts enforcing accountability, answerability and timely achievement of the departmental goals and targets in all the organisations which work under his charge.
For improving the functioning of the administrative apparatus it is necessary to create an environment in which every public servant functions fearlessly, discharges his duties with efficiency and is enabled to gain advancements in service on the basis of his proven performance and integrity. Towards this objective it would be beneficial if the senior echelons of all services -- generalists, specialists, scientists, technologists, military leaders and all others who assist and work with Cabinet Ministers—are allowed to work with total independence, without being constrained by fear or pressure from any quarter. For rendering sound and objective advice it is of vital importance that the functioning of the senior most public servants remains conspicuously apolitical.
Many of the serious problems which face us today, including worrying internal security challenges, arise from corruption, mismanagement and unaccountability. It is, therefore, of prime importance that the Executive functions constitutionally and ensures that the various developmental and welfare programmes are efficiently implemented to alleviate the lot of each and every poverty stricken family, special attention being given to ensure that the problems of the tribal and other communities who live in remote and unconnected areas are handled with utmost care and sensitivity.
In this context it may be recalled that Naxalism, which at one time was labelled by the Union Home Ministry as the most serious threat to the Indian state, was born and took root in several parts of the country where the tribal and other local communities had faced neglect and severe economic deprivation for long years. Having been denied access to resources, even to the natural produce of the forests in which they lived, these people took to extremism and rose against the established system. Several decades have since elapsed and the Indian state is still combating with its own people, whom we call the Naxals.
We have no more time to lose in putting our house in order. The millions of our long neglected, oppressed and poverty stricken people may not wait endlessly for their sufferings to end. Their anger and despair may lead them to the path of confrontation. And if such an unfortunate consequence emerges, it may not be possible to control the arising disorder merely through the application of force – an approach which has been unsuccessfully followed for decades now.
As I had stated earlier, the numerous and far spread communities which comprise our vast population represent indescribable religious, linguistic and cultural differences which make India a land of unbounded diversities. These differences and divergencies were sensitively recognised by the founding fathers of our Constitution when they set out the rights and privileges of citizens and the Directive Principles of State Policy.
In their public speeches and statements political leaders invariably refer to the several thousand years of our country’s civilizational past and express rightful pride in pointing to the enormous strength we draw from our “Unity in Diversity”. However, it appears that, as a people, our sensitivities to the manifold diversities in our society have been getting progressively dimmed. This erosion is due to certain political parties creating divisiveness among the castes and religions of our people to secure electoral gains.
As mentioned earlier, we need stability, calm and normalcy in the country to achieve rapid growth, eradicate poverty and inequality and advance towards becoming an economically and militarily strong nation. In this perspective we cannot afford any disruption of communal harmony which, as has been repeatedly demonstrated, leads to devastating consequences. Instead, we must maintain sustained societal harmony and draw strength by reviving our traditional forbearance of the differences in race, religion, language and culture which embrace our vast population.
In recent years, in the search of jobs, young men and women in different parts of our country have moved far away from their homes . Today, we have Mizo, Naga and Manipuri youth working in the mountains of J&K and in the deserts of Rajasthan and Panjabis and Haryanavis working in Kerala and the Andamans. This is a most welcome development as it helps to promote cultural integration. It is our duty to educate our children about the background and cultures of the people they have never seen before. They must learn to respect not only their religions, cultures and languages but also the eating habits, clothing styles and even the hair-cut patterns of the many new faces we are getting to see and meet every day.
In the recent years there have been ugly incidents arising from caste and religion clashes, kangaroo trials and road side lynchings. No government must allow such incidents to recur, ever again. I would re-iterate that hatred and intolerance provide an assured route to disruption and chaos.
Our polity must recognize the dangers which lie ahead if the faults in the functioning of the governance apparatus are not remedied soon. Taking stock of the existing failures and the arising challenges the Executive and the Legislature must urgently commence discharging their true constitutional roles. And the Judiciary should not wait any more to fully regain its supreme responsibility to defend, protect and fearlessly enforce the Constitution. The very long pending electoral reforms, which are required to remedy the many ills from which our democratic framework is suffering, must be implemented with the highest priority. Side by side, the polity must accept the need for self-purification, a thorough cleaning up of the entire administrative machinery and reforming the functioning of the multitudinous minions of the state.
It shall require enormous political will and unflinching determination to carry though the required reforms, without which we cannot deliver satisfactory governance to the people of India. One hopes that our polity will muster courage and pick up the gauntlet.
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