New Delhi: From shifting of key secretary-level officers involved in Covid-related work at the Centre to sudden transfers of health secretaries in the states, several top IAS officers have been shunted out by both the central and the state governments in the middle of an unprecedented health and socio-economic crisis in India.
In the last few weeks, food and consumer affairs secretaries at the Centre, and health secretaries in West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Odisha and Uttarakhand, and commissioners of the Brihanmumbai and Ahmedabad Municipal Corporations in Maharashtra and Gujarat respectively, have been transferred.
The mammoth administrative challenges thrown up by Covid-19 have not deterred governments from removing senior officials, even if they are key to the crisis management.
Civil servants list several reasons behind the spree of transfers: scapegoating officers for inefficient management of the crisis; punishing those who failed to deliver; the optics of being seen as tough by the larger bureaucratic cadres; and reclaiming of space by politicians which was yielded to administrators at the beginning of the pandemic.
Politicians, though, are of the view that they are accountable to the public, so if IAS officers are under-performing during a crisis, they have to be removed. They added a caveat — such transfers need to be done on a case-to-case basis.
As of Wednesday morning, India recorded 1,51,767 Covid-19 cases and 4,337 deaths.
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A spree of transfers
At the beginning of the Covid crisis, when the lockdown was imposed on 25 March, the unsaid hierarchy of governance between politicians and IAS officers was temporarily shattered as the latter became the centre of all decision-making in the fight against the infection.
Since then, a spree of transfers has followed at both the state and the central level.
In late April, when the migrant crisis worsened, the Narendra Modi government shunted out the food and consumer affairs secretaries — both of whom were in-charge of departments responsible for making crucial interventions during the crisis. The move came as part of a large-scale bureaucratic reshuffle.
According to sources, the government was unhappy with the poor handling of crisis by both the departments as it received brickbats for not ensuring the supply of essential commodities, and of food grains at reasonable prices through the public distribution system during the lockdown.
In the same reshuffle, the Modi government also shunted out the information and broadcasting secretary even though he was appointed just months ago in December 2019. This move also came as the regime was learnt to be consistently unhappy with government communication during the lockdown.
Scapegoating is ‘nature of the game’
Speaking about these transfers, a senior IAS officer at the Centre said, “Anyone who was not expecting this does not understand this, or for that matter, any government well.”
He said, “Every time there is a PR failure of the magnitude of the migrant crisis, it is the officers who are made to take the onus as though they had a completely free hand to begin with … It is the nature of the game.”
All the states with a high case load — Gujarat, Maharashtra, West Bengal, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha and Uttarakhand — followed suit and removed key officers, including health secretaries.
In some cases, it is obvious that the officers have been scapegoated, said the senior IAS officer quoted above.
“Like in Gujarat, the Ahmadabad Municipal Commissioner who was removed was giving interviews to the media saying the state could have 8 lakh cases … He was also being blamed for testing too much. It was obvious that the government didn’t want to look bad, so they shot the messenger in a sense,” said the officer who didn’t wish to be named.
Ahmedabad commissioner Vijay Nehra, an IAS officer of the 2001 batch, was transferred to the position of Commissioner, Rural Development, on 18 May.
Similarly, with the Covid-19 crisis deepening in Bihar, especially in the aftermath of the massive influx of migrants, the state government abruptly transferred health secretary Sanjay Kumar on 20 May for no stated reason.
Early into the crisis in April, the Madhya Pradesh government transferred Prateek Hajela, the then commissioner, health services, with a tweet from the state government stating, “Chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan instructed immediate removal of Prateek Hajela from the post of commissioner, health services on his extreme carelessness towards his duties amid the Covid-19 pandemic.”
Since then, Chouhan’s government, which faced criticism for initially prioritising politics over the crisis, has transferred several other officers in the health department as well, including the principal secretary of the health department, the National Health Mission’s integrated disease surveillance programme director, chief medical and health officers of Bhopal, Ujjain and Khandwa, and district magistrate of hotspot districts among several others.
‘Accountability ultimately lies with the politician’
A secretary-rank IAS officer said the scapegoating logic does not apply in every case. “In Maharashtra, for example, the BMC Commissioner was transferred after two months, and was given a plum posting thereafter,” he said.
“What happened in Maharashtra cannot be construed as getting rid of war horses in the middle of a war because at the end of it all, even in a crisis, the accountability rests with the government, and not the bureaucracy,” added the officer on condition of anonymity.
On 8 May, Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation Commissioner Praveen Pardeshi was transferred as Additional Chief Secretary to the Urban Development department.
T.R. Raghunandan, a retired IAS officer, agreed with the officer quoted above. “Scapegoating can be very difficult to prove … In some cases, it is obvious, but one has to realise that ultimately, the accountability rests with the politicians. So, they are well within their rights to remove someone they don’t think is performing,” he said.
“Wherever you see, it is the politicians and the CMs who are in the line of fire,” he added. “They get the blame even when they are not responsible for something, so they cannot be accused of scapegoating unless there is gross evidence of someone’s victimisation.”
K.J. Alphons, who was a Union minister in the last Modi government and a former IAS officer himself, had a more nuanced view on the issue. “Transfers have to be evaluated on a case to case basis. As a principle, if an officer is doing a good job, and is competent, you should not touch them in the middle of this crisis since they have a crucial role in containing it,” he said.
“But by the same token, since it is a crisis situation, and the DM, health secretary or home secretary is not performing, they have to be removed,” he added. “Ultimately, it is the political executive which is answerable and accountable to the public.”
BJP MP Bhupendra Yadav was more unequivocal. “Crisis or no crisis, it is the political executive’s prerogative to transfer IAS officers … That’s the nature of things,” he said.
According to Congress leader and former Union minister Veerappa Moily, however, hasty transfers are evidence of an unnerved government. “The BJP government is left red-faced, and therefore, in every state, they are shunting out officers. It is nothing but evidence of their incompetence,” he said.
The IAS officers are not feeling shortchanged because of these developments, said the secretary-rank officer quoted above.
“Wherever you see an IAS officer being removed, it is another IAS being appointed … So it is not a question of the IAS as a group being targeted,” the officer said.
However, what is playing out is classic “calamity relief politics”, he added. “In every crisis, in the first stage of rescue, the administration and the police are at the forefront because they have the edge in governance,” he said.
“But when the stages of relief and rehabilitation kick in, the politicians come out and want to be seen … That is what is happening now – the political jamaat which had retreated earlier is now out,” the officer said.
“They are looking at life beyond Covid, so they will increasingly reclaim the space that was given to the bureaucrat, and scapegoating is a part of that process,” he added.
But there are some exceptions, said the officer. “Like in Punjab, the chief secretary has had trouble with the whole cabinet of ministers apart from the CM … But the CM has taken a stand that the Chief Secretary will not be removed in the middle of this crisis because he cannot afford to lower the morale of the whole administration at this stage,” said the officer.
“But that is an exception, and not the norm … Going ahead, IAS officers should be prepared for taking more and more blame for things that go wrong,” the officer said.
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