The recent news reports on the Preliminary Enquiry initiated by CBI against the previous Chairman and Member of SEBI, on the issue of grant of permission in 2008 to the currency exchange, MCX-SX, provoked me into thinking about the environment of ethics in our governance structures. The news report (http://www.business-standard.com/article/pti-stories/ex-bureaucrats-criticises-cbi-s-action-support-abraham-bhave-114031400567_1.html) mentions the view of the former Coal secretary, Shri EAS Sarma, that there is need for a grading system to capture the reputation of public servants on their integrity and take the same into account before enquiries are started against them. The entire concern is on the harm that is caused to reputations built carefully over a lifetime, even in the initiation of enquiries by investigating agencies.
Clearly, investigative agencies have tremendous ethical responsibilities. Though there is general public perception of a serious lack of high moral standards in most public service delivery systems of government, it has been my experience that every government office and institution has some people who are motivated only by ethics and the spirit of public service. Investigative processes which do not take into account these nuances ab initio, lower the credibility and trust that the investigative agencies should experience on their work.
I have been writing on this blog, on the need for autonomy for investigative agencies, since clearly, investigation should be an unbiased and fair process. The need for trust of the people in the fairness and ethical conduct of business by investigative agencies, is critical to having a sense of justice in society. If fairness and ethics are so critical for investigative agencies, then what systems should be in place to institutionalize these attributes?
The prompt response from policy makers is to create another organization (like say the Lokpal) to intrusively supervise the work of investigative agencies. But will this additional layer guarantee fairness and ethics? Or does it have the potential to become another arm of government to control investigative agencies? Another response is to tighten administrative checks by alienating powers of transfers of personnel from the police hierarchy, to outside the police. This solution cuts two ways: 1) It can weaken good intentioned police leadership and consequently weakens the performance of the organization, and 2) It keeps the investigative agencies beholden to the political and bureaucratic layer at the expense of fairness and impartiality in conduct of its business. These solutions are therefore person-dependent solutions (I don’t like such solutions!) and will give variable results. If the political-bureaucratic layer is well intentioned, things will run well, but the system will crack in the event of an alternative scenario.
So the question to answer is: can institutions of public service delivery be made accountable enough to reform from within? Can police as an organization reform from within and offer itself to public, third party checks on the use of its investigative powers?
For different police organizations, this check will have to be structured in different ways, taking into account the core concerns on ethical working in each such organization. Say for organizations like the CBI, which deal with anti-corruption and vigilance, the internal reform could lie in addressing the concern mentioned above about protecting the integrity reputations of government officials, as a first principle. The mechanism of taking into account the integrity scoring or grading before initiating enquiries, as suggested by Shri EAS Sarma, could be one such way. And the third party check could be devised through a periodic reporting mechanism addressing this very concern, to the Central Vigilance Commission, which could obtain public views on the same before submitting the same for scrutiny to the Supreme Court.
For ethical conduct in police stations, bringing in public accountability mechanisms like crime victimization surveys, could be a way forward.
More thought obviously needs to go into designing the mechanisms for checks and balances for investigative agencies. These should go hand in hand with extensive capacity building through wide exposure to the police to a variety of training. It would be unsatisfactory to only add layers of intrusive supervision, since these can be ineffective for the end result sought. There is also an urgency to finding solutions on this issue, since it deals with scenarios that can destroy reputations of the few good people.