India's Uncivil Servant

Arun Bhatia defies corrupt government--from within

Pune, a small town near Bombay, is best known for its pleasant weather, cookies, and budding software industry. So when thousands of residents took to the streets and the courts to defend a local official, they astonished India. From businessmen to housewives, they've been protesting since Mar. 14 against the state government's sudden transfer of Arun Bhatia, 56, the town's new Commissioner, from his job handling civic affairs to the town archives.

The dapper and aristocratic-looking civil servant had endeared himself to the townsfolk. Just three days into his job, he opened the municipal corporation's files to public scrutiny for the first time. Next, he began vigorously to collect overdue property taxes. Then he took on the local nabobs by whistling up bulldozers to demolish allegedly unauthorized buildings such as the Totempole disco at the local Holiday Inn. The hotel's owner, Laxmikant Bhojwani, says it wasn't illegal and calls Bhatia "vindictive." But even students who frequented the disco rallied round Bhatia.

GROWING CRUSADE. Bhatia's actions have caught the mood of Indians at a time when they are feeling powerless amid the chaos of frequently changing regimes and venal politics. India's civil servants mostly just execute government policy and are supposedly apolitical, but they have become increasingly subject to the whims of politicians with reelection rather than governance on their minds. Officials who won't play ball by favoring local bigwigs are punished with frequent job transfers. Many succumb to the pressures--and even the accompanying corruption. The result: a disillusioned citizenry and loss of investor confidence.

Embarked as it is on economic reform, India can't afford any backsliding. Ashok Patel, a private manufacturer of construction equipment in Bombay, for one, believes that the government could gain by becoming more accountable. "If the government cleans up its act, India will get more investment both domestic and foreign," he says.

But now, the increasingly vocal crusade for clean and open government by honest officials like Bhatia has begun to make Indians feel that they have champions--and a cause to fight for. Such officials are growing in number, though few muster Bhatia's battle honors. In his 25-year career, Bhatia has been transferred 24 times. All the same, this son of a decorated naval officer remains an unrepentant rebel. "Despite India's democracy, the system works in secrecy," he says. "There can be no real reform unless citizens have free access to information about the activity of their elected representatives."

Right from the start, Bhatia, a Cambridge University history graduate, has been stirring up the dust--unearthing scandals, exposing politicians, battling the powerful, and standing by the citizen. He first hit the headlines in 1984 in Bombay when he unearthed huge property frauds that led, as in Pune, to the demolition of prestigious downtown properties. That time he was banished to the city's Weights & Measures Dept.

Eventually, he was rusticated to the villages around Pune as administrator in 1997. There he discovered that poor farmers were being cheated on their land holdings by unscrupulous land-registry officials. When he tried to dismiss the officials, it was his head that rolled--and he was moved to the civic job in Pune on Mar. 6.

For righteous people like Bhatia, the battle to make India more open will be lengthy. India's rulers are protected by anachronistic confidentiality rules, left over from the days of the British Raj, that keep information about government activity and decisions secret. "That was fine when India was under colonial rule, but it is pernicious in a democracy," says Nita Mukherjee, a scholar of India's public administrative system. For years, activists and former civil servants such as Avinash Dharamadhikari have lobbied for India's parliament to enact a Freedom of Information Act.

Whether it does or not, Bhatia plans to remain on the barricades. Despite his tribulations, he has no plans to leave government service. The system is weak, he says, but while he's inside he has at least some power to make changes.

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