New Delhi: The crash and sinking of an ONGC barge off Mumbai during Cyclone Tauktae, which led to the death of at least 49 people on board, has once again triggered the generalist-vs-specialist debate that stalks the Indian civil services.
The post of Director General of Shipping (DGS) is held by a generalist civil servant even though it is responsible for the technically sensitive task of ensuring “safety of life and ships at sea”.
While the state-owned Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) is largely at the receiving end of criticism for allegedly not acting on warnings from the India Meteorological Department in time, questions are also being raised about the role of the DG Shipping.
Good.,..The Culprits must be booked…..IAS BABUS should be taken to Task…. Nowhere in the World a Barge with people on Board would be left to face a Cyclone….Barge surviving a Cyclone is an IMPOSSIBILITY…JAI HO@DoPTGoI @rajeev_mp @arunp2810 @PMOIndia https://t.co/tAnsmaLQYt
— Milind Prabhu (@mickeymilind) May 20, 2021
The fatal flaw lies in the assumption that critical posts requiring deep domain knowledge, are tenable by any generalist bureaucrat needing a parking slot. Two examples: Director-General Shipping, DG Civil Aviation… https://t.co/JuZY98G59R
— Arun Prakash (@arunp2810) May 20, 2021
Established in September 1949, the Directorate General of Shipping has its headquarters in Mumbai, and deals with all matters concerning maritime administration, maritime education and training, and development of the shipping industry, etc.
Among other things, the “directorate deals with implementation of shipping policy and legislation so as to ensure the safety of life and ships at sea”. This includes ensuring the requisite safety equipment on ships, and proper functioning of vessels to avoid accidents.
The post of DGS has always been held by career civil servants. At present, 1987-batch IRS officer Amitabh Kumar holds this position. Of his four predecessors, three were IAS officers — Malini Shankar, Gautam Chatterjee and Satish Agnihotri — and one an IRS officer, Deepak Shetty.
Some field experts say posts such as director general of shipping as well as civil aviation require long-term experience in the sectors, a purpose not served by civil servants appointed for short stints. Those on the other side of the debate, however, point out that these posts are administrative in nature, and that the incumbents are aided and advised by specialists.
ThePrint reached the DG shipping through email and phone for a comment on the allegations of negligence levelled at his office, but there was no response till the time of publishing this report.
‘These are professional assignments’
Speaking to ThePrint, Admiral Arun Prakash (Retd) rued the fact that the “post of DG shipping is always held by a career bureaucrat even though shipping is an extremely complex issue, which requires in-depth knowledge about things like what happens to a boat when there is bad weather etc”.
“Areas like shipping and aviation require long-term experience, and not these two-year stints by career bureaucrats, who take 7-8 months just understanding the area…These are professional assignments.”
It is particularly alarming that in case of accidents, inquiries are conducted by persons or organisations that are responsible for averting them, he added.
A committee consisting of DGS Kumar, Director General of Hydrocarbons S.C.L. Das, and Nazil Jafri Shayin, Joint Secretary in the Union Ministry of Defence, has been constituted to look into the lapses that led to the ONGC barge incident.
“It is telling that that the DG Shipping or, in case of aviation, the DG Civil Aviation, is in charge of the safety in the first place, and then in case of any mishaps, inquiry reports come back to them,” he added.
Former Maharashtra Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan, who claims the incident involves criminal negligence and has called for responsibility to be fixed, told ThePrint that an inquiry by the DG shipping in this matter amounts to “conflict of interest”.
However, Gautam Chatterjee, a former IAS officer and DG Shipping, said incumbents are assisted by a large team of specialists, including a Naval architect, nautical advisers and chief engineers.
“The job of the DG Shipping is administrative in nature, such that on the basis of the variety of inputs they get from their technical and other wings, they can take decisions that are in the best interest of the nation,” Chatterjee, a Maharashtra-cadre officer, said.
“I did not feel any handicap in executing my duties because I did not come from this field… And an IAS officer is expected to perform whatever role they get in whichever sector,” he added.
Earlier this year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had also weighed in on the generalist-versus-specialist debate on the floor of Parliament.
“Sab kuch babu hi karenge. IAS ban gaye matlab woh fertiliser ka kaarkhana bhi chalayega, chemical ka kaarkhana bhi chalayega, IAS ho gaya toh woh hawai jahaz bhi chalayega. Yeh kaunsi badi taakat bana kar rakh di hai humne? Babuon ke haath mein desh de karke hum kya karne waale hain? Humare babu bhi toh desh ke hain, toh desh ka naujawan bhi toh desh ka hai
(Babus will do everything. By dint of becoming IAS officers, they’ll operate fertiliser warehouses and also chemical warehouses, even fly aeroplanes. What is this big power we have created? What are we going to achieve by handing the reins of the nation to babus. Our babus are also citizens, and so are the youth of India).”
(Edited by Sunanda Ranjan)