New Delhi: The appointment of Vini Mahajan, a 1987-batch IAS officer, as the chief secretary of Punjab has made the headlines for several reasons. Mahajan is not only the first woman to hold the post in Punjab, but this is also, perhaps, the first instance that the spouse of the top civil servant in a state is the same state’s director general of police — Dinkar Gupta.
However, there are also murmurs about Mahajan’s appointment because of the fact that she superseded five IAS officers to become the chief secretary. Mahajan, who will remain in the post until October 2024, was picked over Punjab’s senior-most IAS officer, K.B.S. Sidhu of the 1984 batch, as well as Satish Chandra, Arun Goel, Kalpana Mittal Baruah and C. Roul of the 1985 batch.
According to administrative rules, any officer who has served for 30 years can be given the chief secretary scale, and any one of these officers can then be picked as the chief secretary of a state.
Chief Minister Amarinder Singh even seemed to acknowledge the murmurs in the state administration about Mahajan’s appointment, saying Monday that continuity and competence were the guiding factors.
“K.B.S. Sidhu is the senior-most in the state, but will retire in June 2021. Arun Goel and C. Roul are on central deputation. Kalpana Mittal Barua and Satish Chandra are also retiring in a few months. I had nobody other than Mahajan who could carry on till 2022. It was continuity,” said Amarinder, whose term lasts until the assembly elections that year.
The superseded IAS officers have remained tight-lipped about the appointment, but last week, Punjab’s Leader of the Opposition, Sukhpal Singh Khaira, had called the move “unconstitutional”, and one that would “demoralise” and “humiliate” senior officers.
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Hardly an aberration
Mahajan’s case is hardly an aberration. While seniority is expected to be a guiding principle in administrative appointments, in the absence of any statutory backing, it is easily and routinely bypassed in the case of chief secretaries, who serve as the apex coordinators of all departments.
“It is extremely embarrassing and humiliating for any officer to work under their juniors,” said a senior IAS officer. “But it is not a one-off thing… It is something that is done across governments and across states.”
The officer added: “While the principle of merit-cum-seniority is said to be followed, there exist no rules or guidelines whatsoever to actually ensure that the ‘merit’ clause is not made a fig leaf for arbitrariness.”
There are enough recent examples to illustrate the commonness of supersession.
In Telangana, Somesh Kumar of the 1989 batch was appointed as chief secretary in December 2019, superseding as many as 12 officers — including an officer five years his senior. This led the opposition Congress to accuse the ruling Telangana Rashtra Samithi of quid pro quo.
Just days before that, in Meghalaya, M.S. Rao of the 1987 batch superseded Hector Marwein, two years his senior, to become the chief secretary.
Marwein, who was then serving as additional chief secretary, wrote a letter to the government, stating: “It is distressing that I have been superseded without any valid reason to the post of the chief secretary after serving state for so many years with integrity and honesty.
“This supersession has therefore set an unhealthy precedent in this state as it will allow for unhealthy competition officers for securing this highest post in the government administrative future.”
In Maharashtra in 2018, two IAS officers, Medha Gadgil and Sudhir Shrivastava, proceeded on protest leave after they were superseded by their 1983 batch-mate D.K. Jain, who was junior to both of them in intra-batch seniority.
However, these protests are the rarity, not supersession itself.
Rakesh Srivastava, former president of the IAS Association who served as secretary to the Government of India, said supersession happens in all states. “It is entirely up to the chief ministers to pick who they want…There is no rule whatsoever,” he said.
“Typically, when a junior is appointed the chief secretary, seniors are posted out of the secretariat to trusts, corporations, etc. till their retirement. But it is the chief secretary who writes their Annual Confidential Report, and it is deeply embarrassing for any senior officer,” Srivastava said.
And yet, the issue is hardly ever taken up, he added.
“Mostly, people ignore it, and do whatever task they are assigned. If you go to the CAT (Central Administrative Tribunal), it will take a long time for the judgment to come, then it will go to the DoPT (Department of Personnel and Training)… By then, the officer concerned would probably have retired,” Srivastava said.
A senior IAS officer, who had been at the receiving end of a supersession, said the absence of rules or guidelines for appointments to such a sensitive position is “glaring”.
“Thirty years (for getting the chief secretary scale) is meant to be a qualifying criteria, but that is used as a way to pick your favourite officer among all who have completed 30 years. The principle of seniority is completely overlooked,” this officer said on the condition of anonymity.
“There are no rules to protect officers from this arbitrariness, and that makes this an inherently unequal battle…Officers are so vulnerable — if anyone speaks up, a barrage of FIRs, inquiries, corruption cases can follow,” the officer continued.
Rules for IPS, ‘arbitrariness’ for IAS
This IAS officer added that if there are exhaustive guidelines for the post of director general of police, why not for chief secretary?
“The time has come for the Government of India to come up with some methodology to have statutory rules or guidelines for appointments and fixation of tenure of the chief secretary. If anything, the CS post is equal to or more sensitive than the post of DGP,” he said.
According to Supreme Court guidelines, for the appointment of DGPs, state governments are required to send names of the contenders to the Union Public Service Commission three months before the incumbent DGP is set to retire, following which the UPSC empanels three people on the basis of merit and seniority, who have got a clear two years of service left. The state governments then pick an officer from this panel.
However, despite these clear-cut Supreme Court instructions, even DGP appointments remain mired in controversy, though IAS officers argue that at least such instructions “exist” for their IPS counterparts.
A case in point is that of Mahajan’s husband, Dinkar Gupta. In being appointed Punjab DGP in February 2019, Gupta had superseded five IPS officers. His appointment was quashed by the Central Administrative Tribunal for violating the Supreme Court instructions in January this year.
However, he remains in the DGP’s chair as litigation continues.
Politicians agree there should be objectivity
Politicians also say there should be more objectivity in such appointments.
“Supersession should ideally not be done,” said Prithviraj Chavan, former chief minister of Maharashtra, who was also in-charge of the DoPT at the Centre.
“During our time, for example, we said that there would be a fixed tenure for some senior posts in the Centre, like cabinet secretary, defence secretary, home secretary etc. We just fell short of making it for chief secretaries,” the Congress leader said.
“It is not desirable to make the criteria absolutely mechanical, but there should be some rules that the government should come up with.”
Former Union minister K.J. Alphons of the BJP, a former IAS officer, also agreed.
“Efficient officials are routinely superseded for those with political connections,” he said. “The fact that merit, not loyalty, is the foundation of the civil services is completely overlooked.”
Alphons added that while there is political interference, there can be no fool-proof objective criteria.
“Typically, an ACR would be considered objective criteria. But in this country, every IAS officer is capable of managing the ACR… They are all political creatures,” he said. “What do we do then? What we need actually are better politicians who recognise merit.”
For some politicians, however, the buck stops at IAS officers.
“The Indian bureaucracy is one of the best in the world, but they have to decide who they want to serve — their political masters or the public,” said Dinesh Trivedi, former railway minister and Rajya Sabha member.
“If someone gets superseded and appointed, an officer at the bureaucratic level is clearing the file ultimately, isn’t it? So the buck stops at the bureaucracy itself.”
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