The government in West Bengal wants to be the keeper of its own conscience. Public servants should be less corrupt, and the administration more transparent. So the state is considering a bill that will authorize senior government officials to form some sort of a subordinate court empowered to make investigations into and recommend punishments for corrupt officials without having to go to the criminal courts, where the backlog of cases slows down the entire process quite impossibly. The particular target of this proposed innovation is the accumulation of illegal assets. This new internal court will be able to confiscate the illegal wealth and property of a public servant, and not just censure or dismiss him or block his advancement, which is what the current rules allow the government to do before going to court.
However well-intentioned it may sound initially, this scheme could actually make the administration more unwieldy, fractious and corrupt. First, there is a fundamental absurdity in a court made up of government officials employed by the government to try other government officials. Such an incestuous set-up could only lead to sycophancy, inbred intrigues and hostilities and the abuse of power. Investing a coterie of officials, not below the rank of secretary, with “higher authority” will inevitably lead to unfair concentrations of power within the administrative machinery. Second, a bureaucracy can be made more transparent only by streamlining its operation, and not by complicating its structure. By superimposing a set of judicial prerogatives on a public servant’s normal responsibilities, and by creating yet another adjunct to the administrative machinery, the state apparatus could only become that much more complicated. The state should try to activate and clean up its existing structure of internal vigilance, and not invest some of its officials with more power and duties than they can handle without seriously compromising their efficiency and scruples. It is also possible to mobilize more effectively the entire investigative and punitive machinery involving the courts. Trying to internalize this system will look more like closing its own ranks than keeping its own conscience.