Saturday, April 07, 2007

Gaping holes on water tank; who pays for the damage ?

It is all very well for Karnataka Chief Minister H D Krishnaswamy to talk tough to non-performing officers, warning them of stern action. Our media works into the story well-worn clich├ęs - 'taking officials to task', not tolerating 'lackadaisical attitude', and action against officials who don't 'pull up their socks'- to make CM appear a no-nonsense guy.

The media knows, as well as anyone else, that politicians play to the gallery. And Mr Krishnaswamy, or anyone else in his position, ought to know that government officials are relatively immune to such threats. Their service rules and self-serving official procedure ensure government employees are insulated from ruling party threats that are, at times, held out by political leaders for public consumption.

If anything, the political executive has limited powers in comparison to the bureaucracy and the police. As they say, a chief minister does not even enjoy the powers that a police inspector does. A chief minister can't order anyone's arrest; something a police officer does in as a routine.

The snag is, in any government, there are a few officials willing to do the biddings of political bosses. A minister, ruling party district secretary or MLA often gets done things that are not within their ambit of power, with the help of obliging officials. Immediate provocation for Indira Gandhi to declare Emergency in 1975 was Jai Prakash Narayan's call to the police force not to obey illegal orders of those in power; and to insist on getting all their orders in writing from their higher-ups.

On the flipside is the apparent inability of CM and other ministers to hold officials accountable for their lapses. Take the case of contaminated central water storage tank that supplies drinking water to Mysore city. The storage tank has been in a state of neglect for the last six years, according to media reports. The water storage tank would have continued to remain uncared for, if it were not for a civic initiative that exposed this monumental neglect by officials.

According to Mr A Ramdas, a former MLA who led the civic initiative, concrete roofing of this massive underground tank has gaping holes, exposing the stored water to contamination through fallen debris, floating remains of dead birds and an outgrowth of weeds.

The city corporation commissioner, who has moved in the wake of media exposure, to do damage control and clean up the tank, ought to explain how such blatant lapse by the maintenance staff had gone unnoticed for so many years. Would the tough-talking CM or the minister concerned take steps to identify officials responsible for having neglected the upkeep of the water storage tank for so long?

Departmental action apart, a CM concerned about streamlining the administration ought to address the issue of material damge. Is there a provision (or shouldn't there be?) in the service rules of government officials for fixing individual liability for the material damage caused to the water storage tank? Shouldn't such damage be quantified and the computed amount collected from non-performing officials concerned ?

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