How the Civil Servant Can Really Guard Taxpayers’ Money

PM Modi recently asked civil servants to consider before a decision as to whether the ruling party is using the taxpayer’s money in the nation’s interest or for its own interest. This advice is, indeed, critical to our development process.

The Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, raised some very important issues while addressing civil servants recently.

Addressing them on the occasion of Civil Services Day, he advised them to consider – before taking any decision – whether the ruling party is using the taxpayer’s money in the nation’s interest or for its own interest. To check, specifically, whether the ruling party is using taxpayer money to advertise itself or to spread public awareness, and whether it is appointing its own workers to institutions or adopting transparency in appointments. He also advised them to evaluate whether political parties are changing policies to create new avenues for black money.

He asked young bureaucrats to get things done rather than letting things happen.

The prime minister’s address raises some very important issues of governance. The civil service is governed by important norms of conduct. Its members are expected to be fair, just and empathetic to people’s issues. They must be upright and honest, and have excellent knowledge of the issues of governance. When interacting with people, they should especially look at the underprivileged and deprived sections of the population and suggest or implement policies which look after their needs .

The need for young civil servants to get things done rather than letting them linger is very important. It is critical to our entire development process. Similarly, the need for transparency in appointments is important in our democracy. This idea must pervade all appointments whether by the Centre or by states. We need to work on this. However, for correcting certain aberrations in our system of governance, institutional reforms are required.

Consider the question of freebies. In the parliamentary system of governance, prior to elections, political parties issue their manifestos. These often contain a lot of freebies, with each party trying to outdo the other. While these are sought to be justified on grounds of empowering the people, there is a strong feeling that they are aimed at garnering maximum votes disregarding the financial health of the state. Free financial benefits to individuals from taxpayers’ money, must have very objective criteria. In the absence of such criteria, there is profligacy, financial mismanagement – and the economic ruin of the state.

The truth is that in recent years, all political parties have favoured giving financial benefits to individuals on a large scale. In successive elections, political parties have become more profligate at the expense of the taxpayer. Considering that this malady is widespread, an institutional solution is required. The Finance Commission could be charged with this responsibility. It could provide a ceiling on such transfers to individuals. Any state exceeding it should lose its share from the financial devolution from the Union government. Some similar disincentive needs to be devised for Union government-sponsored freebies. Also, it is only appropriate that when individual benefits are to be given, civil servants put forth their views clearly and suggest an alternative policy approach. This may result in some changes and saving of taxpayers’ money in some cases.

An important development in recent times is the huge amount of money spent on advertising. Such advertisements invariably have photos of political dignitaries and praise for work done by their government. The Union government and most states do this. While there is no data which can be cited, my experience is that the money spent on such advertisements has multiplied manifold. A substantial sum of money goes into telling the people how well the leader and his government is doing instead of informing them about new schemes and how they can avail themselves of the benefits of these schemes. This is an enormous waste of taxpayers’ money.

To be sure, this is a very sensitive issue and I doubt that either the Union government or any state will agree to curtail this expenditure as they are all getting a lot of free publicity at the taxpayer’s expense. However, the central government must take the lead in this. There is a clear need to separate politics from administrative schemes. The CAG can be requested to issue clear financial norms for this.

An important question raised during the prime minister’s address was the generation of black money. This is linked closely to corruption and to policies which may incentivise a black money economy. Often, vested interests with political connections are involved in the award of large contracts. Civil servants have a tough job. In large infrastructure contracts or award of concessions for coal blocks or oil fields or other major infrastructure projects or in several areas relating to states, there is need for complete transparency so that corruption is minimised and black money generation curbed.

In some areas of international trade and investment which have problems of over-invoicing or under-invoicing, or foreign investments from non-transparent jurisdictions, there is need for greater vigilance. Civil servants can work on policies to minimise corrupt practices by constant systemic reforms. This is a very difficult area as powerful interests may be involved. It will be appropriate to set up a group of officers to constantly work on it and suggest changes and employ technology that will minimise corruption. Civil servants have a crucial role in this entire field.

B.K. Chaturvedi is a former Cabinet Secretary and member, Planning Commission of India.

This piece was first published on The India Cable – a premium newsletter from The Wire & Galileo Ideas – and has been republished here. To subscribe to The India Cable, click here.