Honesty and uprightness are the hallmarks of civil servants. Civil servants possessing these qualities are considered as a backbone of any strong organizations. In the line of duty, they take various decisions, at the time some become bonafide mistakes. As long as such decisions, are not taken intentionally and do not benefit personally, the officer cannot be said to be guilty. Though such decisions may, at times, lead to unforeseen adverse consequences in the long term. In the recent past, a few instances have surfaced wherein civil servants have been implicated for bonafide mistakes. They have often been prosecuted and even imprisoned. These instances have greatly rattled the moral fibre of the civil servants. How does this trend affect the functioning of civil services? What measures can be taken to ensure that honest civil servants are not implicated for bonafide mistakes on their part? Justify your answer. (20 marks)

Mentor’s comment

  •  This case study deals with the day to day functioning of the civil servant that involves decision making on several issues. This case study highlights the risks involved in such decision making.
  •  Values and dilemmas include-honesty, integrity, accountability and decision making.
  •  In the answer explain how the trend of holding civil servants accountable for the unintended and unforeseen consequences arising out of the decision was taken by the results in policy paralysis in which no decision is taken for the fear of its consequences.
  •  Explain how such a situation defeats the purpose of having civil servants. Such a situation will also harm the public at large.
  •  Mention the measures that can be taken like decision making based on the merit of the case and taking into account expert and professional opinion, provide information and advice including the advice to ministers on the basis of evidence and accurately present opinions and facts.
  •  Conclude by highlighting the fact that decision making becomes difficult in situation motives are questioned every time and leads to a situation in which everyone tries to play safe.


In Indian bureaucracy, major administrative decisions are taken by civil servants, who like normal humans are susceptible to make mistakes. But there is a thin line between intentional and bonafide mistakes, which needs identification for making administration easy as well as transparent.

However, instances of wrongful prosecution of honest officers deeply impact the morale of honest officers. It has multiple effects on the functioning of civil services in India:

  • Losing confidence in the organisation: Moral boosting plays an important role in shaping up the work profile of a civil servant. For that to happen, he/she must believe that the organization will stand with him/her during bad times. Possible punishment from the same organization will demotivate him/her from dedicating his/her efforts to the upliftment of the organization. 
    • Ex: A police officer part of an encounter is charged for murder by the same seniors who backed the operation. In such cases, the officer will lose his belief in the system after getting free from the charges.
  • Impact on the decision-making of officers: Officers will be averse to expressing their views. This may further aggravate red-tapism due to fear of departmental action for their incorrect decisions.
  • A tool to harass honest officers: Corrupt political leaders and bureaucrats may harass honest officers through baseless complaints and investigations.
  • Impact on the reputation of honest officers: Prosecution of honest officers leads to mental agony and heavy financial loss besides being defamed in the society.
  • Policy paralysis: Policy paralysis is one of the most dangerous events that can seriously impact government working. The officers working in the government hesitate to take decisions fearing prosecution. If decisions are not taken fast the country’s growth will become stagnant.
    • Ex: After a series of scams during UPA II, there was a belief that a policy paralysis was happening for the fear of prosecution.

Measures to ensure that honest civil servants are not implicated for bonafide mistakes

  • Legal immunity: The civil servants are given legal immunity, meaning that they cannot be held accountable for their official acts if they are undertaken after following due procedure. This will be a great confidence booster for honest civil servants.
  • Ensuring maximum transparency in administration: The key policy-making decisions should be made ensuring maximum clarity and openness about how decisions are taken. This will prevent blaming select individuals for incorrect decisions.
  • Reducing politicization of bureaucracy: The fear of transfers, denial of promotions, or being punished post-retirement may impact the decision making of officers. Ensuring fixed tenure to civil servants is a much-needed step for systemic reforms in civil services.
  • IAS Association of India and other civil society groups should support and stand by honest officers undergoing wrongful prosecution.
  • Creating internal oversight mechanisms: Internal inquiries in each department should consider integrity and past career record of officers before recommending for a criminal investigation of bonafide decisions.

Thus, if we can observe that the civil services indeed are prone to mistakes which may not be always intentional. There is a need to segregate mistakes from conspiracy in order to protect the honest and punish the guilty.

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Vishal Agrawal
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