Finance, HRD, I&B, WCD ministries have their fifth secretaries in Modi govt’s 4 years, home and health on fourth.
New Delhi: The Narendra Modi government presents itself as one stronger and more stable than its predecessors. But there is no stability when it comes to its top bureaucracy — top secretaries are shunted from one ministry to another, often within months.
“Since 2014, officers are being transferred almost continuously… There is no sense of certainty in the government, as a result of which, nobody is thinking long-term,” said Arvind Mayaram, a former finance secretary.
The Human Resource Development ministry, for example, saw its fifth secretarial change in four years when the retiring Anil Swarup was replaced by Rina Ray as the person in charge of secondary education.
This is far from an exception. Frequent changes, abrupt end to tenures, and the appointment of officials whose retirement is just round the corner continues to be the norm under the NDA government, just as it was under UPA-II.
It all begs the question: How can non-specialist bureaucrats be expected to develop any expertise in the domains they head if they are moved every few months?
Even the most important ministries are not exempt from this trend — the finance ministry has had five secretaries under the Modi administration, while the home ministry has had four secretaries in four years, despite a fixed term of two years. The information and broadcasting ministry has had five secretaries in four years; the health ministry has had four; the women and child development ministry has had five, as has the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT).
ThePrint reached out to the DoPT and PIB for comment, but neither responded.
Where’s the logic?
Sujatha Singh, appointed foreign secretary by the Manmohan Singh government in August 2013, was shunted out just over a year into her tenure, despite the fixed two-year tenure of the external affairs secretary.
Two of the four home secretaries in the last four years — Anil Goswami and L.C. Goyal — were also removed before retirement.
Mayaram, who was transferred to the less-prestigious minority affairs ministry after just six months in the hot seat, questioned the Modi administration’s logic.
“I understand if the government changes officials appointed by earlier dispensations — that is their prerogative — but there is no logic to changing one’s own appointments so frequently,” Mayaram said.
UPA-II only marginally better
While several top civil servants say transfers are more arbitrary under the present regime, data shows that UPA-II had fared only marginally better.
In Manmohan Singh’s second term as Prime Minister, there were six different finance secretaries in five years. Sumit Bose – Mayaram’s predecessor in the finance ministry – served as secretary for only four months, as did Sushama Nath in 2011.
While some say that the high number was only due to frequent retirements of secretaries and not lateral transfers, the argument does not find favour with those who say that it is fundamentally problematic to have secretaries for such short tenures.
Social sector ministries worst-hit
The problem is particularly worse in social sector ministries, which require long-term vision and investment to see projects through.
Under UPA-II, there was one health minister for the entire term, but as many as six secretaries. In February 2014, Keshav Desiraju was famously shunted out from the ministry amid speculation that the tobacco lobby and a multinational stent manufacturer wanted him out.
The change in government did not quite change the fate of top bureaucrats in these ministries. The health ministry has had four secretaries in the last four years, of whom two — Lov Varma and B.P. Sharma — did not even complete a year in the job before they were sent off to the ministry of social justice and the DoPT respectively.
In the women and child development ministry, one of the Modi government’s core electoral focus areas, only Rakesh Srivastava (the fifth secretary in four years) has served for more than 12 months. Leena Nair, his predecessor, who served as WCD secretary from June 2016 to May 2017, was known to share an extremely acrimonious relationship with Maneka Gandhi.
“It is particularly important in social sector ministries where results don’t come immediately that the secretary gets a considerably long tenure,” said a former secretary under the HRD ministry, who did not wish to be named.
“In social ministries, you need a long-term approach, for which you need stability for 2-3 years at least. Yet, the general feeling has been of frequent changes, uncertainty and no continuity. Sometimes one doesn’t even know why they are transferred from one ministry to another.”
The bigger reason for fuming bureaucrats under the NDA is actually lateral transfers.
“The general norm in the past was that lateral changes from one ministry to another would be rare… The logic was that there needs to be some continuity and also, some degree of specialisation in areas in order to make sense of complexities in the government of India, without which one cannot deliver good results,” said Mayaram. “Since 2014, that norm has been given up.”
Rajiv Mehrishi, for example, was moved to the home ministry just 10 months into his role as finance secretary.
In an even more surprising case, Vrinda Swarup, an Uttar Pradesh cadre IAS officer with nearly 20 years of experience in the HRD ministry, was transferred after just five months as the secretary of the department of secondary education. She was sent off to the ministry of consumer affairs, in which she had no prior experience.
Similarly, less than a year into his role as WCD secretary, V.S. Oberoi was moved to the HRD ministry. C.K. Mishra, who is now the environment secretary, was moved out of the health ministry before he could even complete a year.
“How do you hold someone responsible if they are not even allowed to complete a year in a ministry? How do they take ownership of anything?” the former HRD secretary wondered.