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Glass houses are fragile

</TD></TR><TR><TD class=news></TD></TR><TR><TD class=news>RTI has emerged as an effective tool to make governance transparent but it is misused by contractors and bidders. There should be a limit to complaints or else it will affect bureaucratic decision-making

In a recent interview Union Minister for Civil Aviation Praful Patel lamented: "I haven't been able to buy an aerobridge the past year due to processes... forget making a building." While deploring how any aggrieved person could lodge complaints with the CBI, he stressed the need to set parameters for entertaining complaints. That officers shied away from taking bold decisions for fear of unfavourable reports from the CAG also found mention.

</TD></TR><TR><TD class=news></TD></TR><TR><TD class=news>Outsiders to Government systems do not know the extent to which officers face risks when they put pen to paper. Enthusiasm is often misconstrued as a sign of over-zealousness. Developing progressive ideas is assumed to be evidence of servility to political masters or, worse still, entering into quid-pro-quo for personal benefit. When promotional avenues are too few and the takers too many, most officers prefer to play safe than be sorry. Discretion dictates that aerobridges, new technology and reforms can stay on the shelf and gather dust.

</TD></TR><TR><TD class=news></TD></TR><TR><TD class=news>On the Right to Information, Mr Patel asked whether instead of promoting transparency, RTI might not hold officers back from writing fearlessly. I agree. It is easy to take public positions and demand transparency, accountability and for everything to be placed in the public domain. The question is who decides what the 'public' is? Does the public comprise of disgruntled contractors and tenderers who have lost a contract? Or those, who have been milking the system and have an interest in perpetuating it forever? A nuanced understanding of how Government functions is necessary. Public administration is not run in black and white compartments as some activists naively imagine.

</TD></TR><TR><TD class=news></TD></TR><TR><TD class=news>There is virtually no decision, where money is involved, where one can't have a different point of view. Officers can be blamed for not taking decisions; for taking decisions too late, for rushing into things; for rushing out of things; for not consulting higher-ups; for unnecessarily consulting too many; for not scrutinising specifications more deeply; for going into 'technicalities' presumably to delay things. Fault-finding does not take much ingenuity. Districts Collectors have faced vigilance inquiries for building concrete roads with private participation, when kaccha roads had been prescribed under the rural development scheme.

</TD></TR><TR><TD class=news></TD></TR><TR><TD class=news>Twenty years ago a leading international manufacturer of energy efficient bulbs came to the Ministry of Power. The then Minister Vasant Sathe was enthusiastic about using the new bulbs being offered free of cost, in a few hospitals. I wrote a strong note supporting the proposal. Unfortunately, for me the Secretary of the Ministry regarded it as a preposterous idea (Indian players having filled his ears). He rebuked me for not understanding how much commission would have been paid to gain legitimacy for energy saving lamps and for the company. Had my notes been called for under RTI, particularly by someone with the same mindset, I would have been in a soup. On the other hand, had we introduced CFL lamps as a measure of energy conservation 20 years ago, most certainly we would have saved billions of units of power.

</TD></TR><TR><TD class=news></TD></TR><TR><TD class=news>Consider another story. Independent technical opinion favoured resurfacing roads using the latest technology in keeping with international best practices. Engineers and contractors within the system had everything to lose, if that happened. They quoted the usual work manuals and financial rules proclaiming that they were cast in stone, despite the advice of the highest technical agency. An upright and diligent officer did his homework. He wrote strongly in favour of using the new technology citing global data on its cost-effectiveness and maintenance-free advantages. The proposal got approved. Complaints against the officer came thick and fast and his noting was used to castigate him for promoting 'worthless' technology and playing into the hands of business interests.

</TD></TR><TR><TD class=news></TD></TR><TR><TD class=news>Years later, after hundreds of pages had filled any number of inquiry files, the technology was found to be cost-effective. At that stage no one resurrected the disgraced officer or patted him on the back. No RTI activists gave him a place in the sun. For the bureaucracy it remained one more lesson on how to steer clear of enthusiasm to change systems.</TD></TR><TR><TD class=news></TD></TR><TR><TD class=news>I am in agreement with Mr Praful Patel when he says there have to be limits to the kind of complaints that are entertained. Every complainant should be asked to send a bank guarantee along with the complaint representing one per cent of the value of the alleged fishy transaction. The amount can be paid back with interest, if found correct. But the bank guarantee should be encashed forthwith if the complaint is found to be false or distorted.

</TD></TR><TR><TD class=news></TD></TR><TR><TD class=news>I also subscribe to the minority view that divulging notings would deter officers from expressing themselves. The three main areas where officers will be scared to write strong notes are: Adoption of new technology, changing systems and wherever the financial stakes are high. It is easy to say that in the fullness of time good will triumph over evil. Unfortunately, promotion policies do not wait for this adage to be proved true. Also, the media wants a story, now - final outcomes do not matter to those who make news.