Friday, October 14, 2011

How to restore the government's credibility ?

(Vinod Rai is the Comptroller and Auditor General of India. This article is an edited excerpt, prepared by The Hindu , of the speech he delivered to young police officers at the Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel National Police Academy in Hyderabad on October 11, 2011.)

I wish to make three propositions today and seek your reactions on whether you agree and whether you are in a position to be a participant in ensuring that the All India Services regain their past glory.

First: That governance is at its lowest ebb. That the morale of the civil servants is low. That credibility of the government is at its lowest. That decision-making has become a casualty. Second: That this situation is deleterious for the nation. That too much is at stake for too many in such a situation. Third: On you and officers of the All India Services, among others, rests the onus to remedy the situation.

Why do I make my first proposition? We have Chief Ministers who have had to vacate their positions allegedly for graft, on whom courts and other judicial bodies have made adverse pronouncements. We have Union Cabinet Ministers who are in prison. We have Union Cabinet Ministers who have had to vacate their positions, allegedly on complaints of ill doing. We have Members of Parliament who are being indicted by the judiciary for various acts, including accepting cash for exercising their vote in Parliament and also seeking cash to ask questions in the House. In the civil service we have many examples. They are too many to merit counting now!

Today, we are facing a testing time in the history of our nation. The quality of governance is below par. There has been an erosion of people's faith in government. Their confidence in public institutions has declined. National trust in the bureaucracy, including the police force has collapsed. The integrity and professionalism of civil servants are being questioned. This has brought the credibility of the government to the lowest since Independence.

Can you and I stand up in the society and claim we belong to a service which administers this country with probity and efficiency? Most of us would not be able to convince ourselves that we are capable of being part of a legacy which provided this nation the foundations on which the edifice of good governance stood. And that is where the greatest challenge to the police force lies today, when the moral fabric of the nation seems to be tearing apart in the absence of an optimal governance system, characterised by a near total absence of accountability; where loyalty takes precedence over the sense of one's duty, and where national interests are often, and with impunity, subjugated to individual gains.

Today in some quarters there is sharp criticism of the police force for being perceived as principal violators of the law, exhibiting rude behaviour, abusive language, lack of professionalism and insensitivity towards victims of violent crimes. This perception has to be reversed. Public confidence in the police has to be restored. As leaders, you must change the mindset of the police force if you want to be seen as friendly, compassionate and sensitive to the genuine concerns of the people. This can happen only if we can substitute the ‘force' psychology that permeates significant sections of the police organisation with a ‘service' psychology.

Including the citizen

Now I come to my second proposition: Why do I say that too much is at stake for too many people? As all of you are aware, we are among the fastest growing economies of the world. This is indeed commendable. But, there is no room for complacency. We have to ensure smooth development and ‘inclusive growth'. Our actions will provide stability in the nation, thereby ensuring rapid economic growth. It is a poor commentary on our attempts to foster growth if 64 years after Independence we still believe Rs.32 defines a poverty line!

We are living in an era in which good governance has assumed primacy in public discourse as it is expected to lead to improvement in the quality of life of citizens. Ironically, the demand for good governance is entwined with the demand for less governance as well. However, it is universally agreed by all those propagating a minimal state approach that ensuring the security of the citizens is a primary duty of the state which cannot be diluted in any manner. The responsibility assigned to the members of the Indian Police Service is to make this a reality.

All of us in government must recognise that the citizen in our democracy has come centre-stage. He has become very discerning, demanding. Governance by use of force is no longer of any consequence.

No instrument or institution of the State can remain immune to the evolutionary process taking place in our society. The public demand for shift of power from bureaucrats to citizens has led to change of governance structures. In fact, there are even demands for sharing of the legislative functions by moving from a representative raj to direct people's raj . All these demands stem from an increased awareness of the citizen to participate in decisions relating to governance, development and welfare entitlements through decentralised governance structures.

In the audit arena, this is recognised through social audits, in which citizens are actively involved in planning and executing the audit and by disseminating the reports to the affected community. In the police force, this finds expression through the concept of community policing. I do not see this merely as a strategy to overcome the human resource shortage in our police forces or as a cost cutting measure. Rather, it is an act of faith in the capabilities of our fellow citizens to govern themselves. Each terrorist attack in our country is yet another grim reminder to us that extremist acts can be tamed only through active involvement of the public in management of security. You cannot find a better force multiplier than the one billion Indians ever willing to render a helping hand. However, this can succeed only if police officers are willing to shed traditional notions of policing and begin to consider the citizen as partners in law enforcement.

Not adversaries

My third proposition: The earlier we accept the need to promote change and innovation, the earlier we would have established the efficacy of the police service and, thereby, the credibility of government. This would restore public confidence in the state. And that is why I stand before you to request that you become the change agent.

All attempts to improve governance will come to naught if the agencies responsible for governance do not consider probity in public life and ethical behaviour as cardinal principles in their official dealings. In this, the police force and audit have a twin role to play. While we must ourselves maintain the highest standards of probity, both these agencies are also mandated to enforce such standards on those involved in public administration. Prevention, they say, is better than cure. Watchful, efficient and effective vigilance and auditing structures similarly minimise, if not prevent, threats to accountable administration of public funds. Internal decay is sometimes more dangerous to the prosperity of the nation than external aggression. The decay can emanate from the cancer of corruption, criminalisation of society or neglect of responsibilities. The police forces have a critical role in creating a national ethos that promotes public order and zero tolerance for corruption and criminal activities through discharge of their duties without fear or favour.

One of the oft-repeated criticisms against enforcement and accountability institutions is that they paralyse administration, kill initiative and reward votaries of the status quo. Such debates are common in our country today more than ever with a number of recently released reports by the Indian Audit and Accounts Department pointing out irregularities and the follow up action taken thereon by other law enforcement agencies.

These criticisms emanate from a mind-set that views accountability agencies as an adversary than as an aid to good governance and better management. While the primary responsibility of the audit institution is to report to Parliament about the proper utilisation of public funds, it is also conscious of the need for adding value to the audited organisation through its reports. Similarly, the restraining influence of the police forces on those elements of the society indulging in unethical and unlawful behaviour is also a critical factor for good governance.

There is, therefore, an urgent need to change the outlook on accountability initiatives, be it audit or law enforcement agencies, and respond to them as partners in ensuring orderly and efficient use of public funds, development of sound financial management and orderly execution of administrative and developmental activities.

Rather than paralysing the administration, as some critics say, good policing and auditing are an essential aid to good governance.

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