New Delhi: In its major civil service reshuffle Sunday, the Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led government filled up vacancies set to arise, with several secretaries due to retire, but also used the opportunity to send out a larger message that performers will be rewarded while expressing displeasure at officers it believes did not deliver.
The reshuffle, coming amid the government’s efforts to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic, has brought some of Modi’s trusted lieutenants to helm crucial ministries such as finance, health and micro small and medium enterprises (MSMEs).
The changes include the appointment of two officers who are presently posted in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). While Tarun Bajaj, a 1988-batch Haryana cadre IAS officer will take over as the economic affairs secretary when the incumbent Atanu Chakraborty retires on 30 April, A.K. Sharma, a 1988-batch Gujarat cadre officer will take charge as the MSME secretary when the incumbent Arun Kumar Panda retires at the end of the month.
Senior government officials say that both Bajaj and Sharma, who are presently additional secretaries in the PMO, are efficient and extremely competent.
Sharma, a senior officer added, is very close to PM Modi. “His association with the Prime Minister goes back to the time when Modi was Gujarat CM. He has the PM’s ears,” said the government officer. :Sending him as MSME secretary at this point of time is important because the Centre is readying a financial package to bail out small and medium industries that have been hit hard by the countrywide lockdown.”
“Sharma as the MSME secretary will ensure that there is no room for any confusion between the PMO and the ministry on what needs to be done,” the officer added.
Bajaj’s appointment is also being seen in the same way, a second officer said, while also pointing out that Bajaj is the second PMO official to be appointed as a secretary in the finance ministry.
“In December 2019, when a similar large scale reshuffle happened, T.V. Somanathan who had served in the PMO between 2015 and 2017 was appointed the expenditure secretary,” the officer said. “Besides being good at their work, all these officials — Somanathan, Bajaj and Sharma — have a certain comfort level of working with the PM.”
Another important appointment made on Sunday was that of Rajesh Bhushan. A 1987-batch Bihar cadre officer, Bhushan was appointed as officer on special duty in the health ministry, which is at the forefront of making important interventions to tackle the Covid-19 outbreak. He will take over as health secretary when the incumbent Preeti Sudan retires in July.
Bhushan has been serving as the rural development secretary since January this year. “He is very competent and hardworking and was seen as someone who could fill Preeti Sudan’s shoes effortlessly once her three-month extension ends,” said one of the officers quoted earlier.
Nagendra Nath Sinha, a 1987-batch Jharkhand cadre officer has been appointed as the new rural development secretary in place of Bhushan.
Food, consumer affairs and I&B secretaries moved out
Sunday’s reshuffle also raised eyebrows because of transfers of three secretaries to ‘low-profile’ portfolios.
Two of the secretaries were incharge of departments responsible for making crucial interventions during the current crisis. Both the departments are part of the Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution headed by Minister Ram Vilas Paswan.
While consumer affairs secretary Pawan Kumar Agarwal, a 1985-batch West Bengal cadre officer, was transferred as special secretary (logistics) in the commerce ministry, food secretary Ravi Kant, a 1984-batch Bihar cadre officer, was moved out as secretary, ex-servicemen welfare, which is under the defence ministry.
Kant has been replaced by Sudhanshu Pandey, a 1987-batch Jharkhand cadre officer who is presently an additional secretary in the commerce ministry while Agarwal has been replaced by Leena Nandan, a 1987-batch UP cadre officer who is currently a special secretary in road ministry.
The consumer affairs department is responsible for ensuring availability of essential commodities and the food distribution department is responsible for ensuring supply of food grains at reasonable prices through the public distribution system (PDS). Both the departments have come under attack for poor handling of the crisis arising out of the countrywide lockdown.
Disruption in supply of essential commodities had massively inconvenienced the public in the first few weeks of the lockdown that began on 25 March, until the government constituted empowered group of secretaries intervened.
Similarly, the government had faced strident criticism for the way it handled the issue of migrant labourers, who were left to fend for themselves after the lockdown left them without jobs or alternate sources of livelihood. It was only after a lot of hue and cry that the government stepped in and set up relief camps to provide shelter and food to the lakhs of labourers who were stranded in cities across India.
Officials said that the transfer of consumer affairs secretary Agarwal is a kind of demotion. “Though the salary of a special secretary is the same as the secretary but in terms of hierarchy it is below secretary,” a third officer told ThePrint. “It’s a message that the government was not happy with the way the consumer affairs ministry responded to the crisis.:
Information and broadcasting secretary Ravi Mittal’s transfer as sports secretary is also being seen as a kind of downgrade.
Mittal as I&B secretary was the government’s chief communication strategist during the Covid-19 pandemic. But many officials ThePrint spoke to said he could not deliver.
A joint secretary-level officer said that Mittal was not proactive. “He did not launch any creative proactive campaign to convey what all the government is doing to tackle the virus outbreak,” the officer said. “There has hardly been any good countrywide campaign on TV, radio or print.”
Another government official said that Mittal lacked the depth to understand the strengths of different media units of the government, and how they can be creatively and productively used for such a massive health emergency.
Mittal has been replaced by 1985-batch Jharkhand cadre officer Amit Khare, who had headed the I&B ministry before Mittal. Khare is currently the higher education secretary and will continue to retain the portfolio along with that of I&B.