Tuesday, December 1, 2015
Transfer-Posting Raj ends
PM Narendra Modi and Finance Minister Arun Jaitley
with secretaries to the Central government in New Delhi.
A little over a year ago, the marbled lobbies of five-star hotels and colonial clubs in the heart of Lutyens' Delhi buzzed with businessmen eyeing government contracts, liaison men dangling favours, and government servants seeking lucrative postings. A cozy nexus of cash, influence and favours that greased the wheels which ran India's capital. Today, these antechambers to the erstwhile Delhi Durbar have fallen silent, the result of a clean-up by the Narendra Modi government and the setting up of a new mechanism in the top bureaucracy to eliminate nepotism and bring in honest bureaucrats. This new system, insiders say, has posted nearly 450 joint secretaries, additional secretaries, secretaries to ministries and government departments, and around 300 officers in banks and public sector undertakings (PSUs) in the past 18 months. The only two criteria for selecting officials, according to PMO officials, are honesty and efficiency.
"When people talk about the PM not delivering on his promises they forget that he has delivered on his assurance of clean governance," says a senior government official.
Modi runs the most powerful, centralised PMO in decades. His government has reshuffled the bureaucracy three times in the past 18 months, fired the foreign and home secretaries, and shifted out a second home secretary. Ministers can no longer pick and choose their bureaucrats. That task is done by the PMO.
This is why Vinod Rai, former Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India, calls the new system "exemplary". "The earlier practice of allowing ministers to choose their key officials, in fact, destroyed the civil services because it led to massive lobbying at the ministerial level for extraneous considerations," he says.
A reshuffle in the finance and home departments this August demonstrated the government was judicious to retain officers irrespective of their affiliations with the previous government. But the process of screening saw five officers in the finance ministry posted out for various undisclosed reasons. Finance Secretary Ratan Watal, though, was retained, and a new revenue secretary, Hasmukh Adhia, a Gujarat cadre IAS officer who was earlier the finance secretary in Gujarat, was appointed. The process also pushed a relative outsider, Shaktikanta Das, an IAS officer of the Tamil Nadu cadre, into the department of economic affairs to help expedite the government's agenda of bringing back black money.
In the home department, the old structure underwent lesser but significant changes. In August this year, the then finance secretary, Rajiv Mehrishi, replaced L.C. Goyal, who was appointed as the chairman of the India Trade Promotion Organisation. Goyal was brought in February this year after his predecessor, Anil Goswami, was shown the door for allegedly trying to protect politician Matang Sinh from arrest. IPS officer Satyendra Garg, who worked on streamlining the traffic in Delhi, was posted as joint secretary, home.
Men in the middle
Many believe that the downfall of the Indian bureaucracy started in 1980 with the dramatic return to power of Indira Gandhi as prime minister. "She made personal loyalty the sole criterion of her selection in politics as well as bureaucracy. This decision instituted a 'patronage raj' in the ruling party which in turn led to the birth and then the rise of a transfer-posting industry," says Ahmedabad-based political analyst Vidyut Thakar.
In August last year, PM Modi took on a raft of powers relating to cadre management. Among the most significant ones were that the PM would clear posting and transfers of officers of the rank of joint secretary (what an IAS officer with 16 years of service is promoted to) and above.
The plan to clean up the bureaucracy began with the induction of P.K. Mishra into the PMO as additional principal secretary in June 2014. Mishra, a retired Gujarat cadre IAS officer, had served between 2001 and 2004 as principal secretary to Modi when he was Gujarat chief minister. Modi and Mishra shared an excellent chemistry. It was Mishra who literally initiated Modi into the complex world of bureaucracy and public administration.
Mishra got two helping hands-West Bengal cadre IAS officer Bhaskar Khulbe was appointed additional secretary, while Jharkhand cadre IAS officer Rajiv Kumar was named establishment officer (EO). Mishra's selection troubles were compounded by a 2007 Supreme Court judgment, which made it mandatory for a senior officer writing his junior's confidential report (CR) to show him the comments. Few senior officials were willing to invite the wrath of their juniors. The result: an explosion in "outstanding CRs" from 30 per cent to almost 70 per cent.
Mishra, Kulbe and Kumar came up with an old-fashioned method to rate officers-they would personally carry out background checks on each officer. They were joined by P.K. Sinha, who was appointed cabinet secretary in June 2015.
The system the PMO officers evolved meant making about 12 to 15 phone calls to assess an officer's reputation. The calls would go to the officer's batchmates, seniors and juniors. Besides, a 360-degree scrutiny would start soon after an officer applied for a posting in Delhi. The Cadre Controlling Authority (CCA) now sends the proposal to the establishment officer (see graphic) who reports to the cabinet secretary but is also the secretary to the Appointment Committee of the Cabinet (ACC) headed by the PM.
"I was surprised when some of my colleagues told me that they were contacted by the PMO and the cabinet secretariat officers to find about my service record," says A.K. Mittal, who was appointed Indian Railway Board chairman in December 2014.
Once an officer's name is cleared, it enters a retention pool for a suitable posting. Names are readied in advance and adjusted against the vacancies. Next, the name is sent to the Central Services Board (CSB) to match the candidate's profile with job opening. At this stage, the secretaries of the departments are also involved along with the EO and cabinet secretary.
Once the name has been finalised, the CSB sends it to the ACC, which clears it within 24 hours. The process, government officials say, earlier used to take almost three months, giving lobbyists, ministers and middlemen plenty of time to manipulate selections.
PMO officials say the new system has brought deserving officers in plum positions in Delhi. Ashok Dongre, a Tamil Nadu cadre IAS officer, for instance, had never worked in Delhi but was appointed joint secretary (establishment) in the defence ministry.
TSR Subramanian who was cabinet secretary between 1996 and 1998 says what is now being done is the restoration of an earlier system of checks and balances where the PMO and cabinet secretary worked hard to ensure bureaucrats and ministers did not become "too familiar with each other". "This system went away in the past few years when ministers freely chose their secretaries and joint secretaries," he says.
The rise of non-IAS officers
One of the unintended consequences of this new policy has been the end of the primacy of the IAS officers in all posts in Delhi. For the first time in recent years, officers from across central government services are being inducted to posts that were earlier "exclusively reserved" for IAS officers. The 89 non-IAS officers out of the 269 joint secretary-level posts at the Centre are believed to be the highest ever. Indian Revenue Service officer Aniruddha Kumar was appointed joint secretary, power; Indian Forest Service officer Amitabh Gautam was named joint secretary, agriculture; Darshana Momaya Dabral, officer of Indian Posts & Telecommunication Accounts and Finance Service, is now joint secretary and finance adviser to Ministry of Human Resource Development.
Interestingly, two significant examples of such innovations in postings were brought into the Air India and the department of commerce. Indian Railway Service officer of 1980 batch, Ashwani Lohani was made Air India chief and was tasked with turning around the loss-making venture. When Indian Railway Service officer Sanjay Chadha gave a good example of his understanding of commerce as a member of the committee on railway restructuring under Bibek Debroy, he was posted as joint secretary, commerce.
"Our single-minded pursuit is to get the best possible officers in terms of integrity and delivery wherever we can find them," says cabinet secretary Sinha.
Bank and PSU appointments have also seen major changes with the newly floated Bank Board Bureau (BBB) appointing bank officers. The six-member BBB conducts three interviews of an applicant before taking the final call.
Critics within the bureaucracy warn that this new centralised PMO is creating instability in departments through frequent changes and warn of power being concentrated in the hands of a few officials. Others say that the centralised PMO has led to an exodus of bureaucrats from Delhi. PMO officials counter this by saying that there are 150 applicants jostling for 26 joint secretary-level vacancies at present. Only 45 officers have chosen to revert to their parent cadre in the past 18 months. Twenty-six of them are those who returned for better postings-either as chief secretary or for a stint in the chief minister's secretariat. As a deterrent against corruption, the government has either dismissed or compulsorily retired as many as 45 officers of the rank of principal secretary and above.
The end of the transfer raj has caused considerable consternation within the BJP as well. Political recommendations for transfers and postings were powerful tools for ruling political parties to dispense patronage. With Modi keeping his partymen at arm's length from the government, miffed BJP workers say the 'transfer raj' has been replaced by 'babu raj'. "Many of our leaders think genuine workers cannot influence the government because the bureaucrats owe their posts to no one," says a party insider. On the flip side, the government says, it's for the good of the people.
The information provided and the views expressed are authors own.
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