New Delhi: The Narendra Modi government has taken stern action against three senior Indian Revenue Service (IRS) officers for putting into public domain a contentious report advocating tax hike to give a boost to the Covid-stricken economy. However, most officers in the IRS see the move as a gross overreaction, and the latest in the government’s attempts to penalise a relatively vocal service association.
The three officers, who have been discharged of their duties for violation of conduct rules by the government Monday, are Prashant Bhushan (1988 batch), principal commissioner of income tax, Delhi; Shri Prakash Dubey (2001 batch), director, Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT); and Sanjay Bahadur (1989 batch), principal director of investigations in the north-east region for the Central Board of Direct Taxes (CBDT).
ThePrint had first reported last week that a policy paper titled ‘Fiscal Options & Response to Covid-19 Epidemic’ had made several recommendations to the Modi government on measures that can be taken to boost the economy after the lockdown.
Once it came into the public domain, the Modi government unequivocally distanced itself from the report, whose recommendations included a super-rich tax, a Covid-19 cess, and the reintroduction of wealth tax and inheritance tax. The government called the report “irresponsible”, and charge-sheeted the three officers it alleged were behind the report.
While Bhushan has been accused by the government of sharing the report publicly through the official handle of the IRS Association, Dubey and Bahadur have been accused of authorising the report authored by around 50 young officers.
However, IRS officers, several of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the “disproportionate reaction” was only the latest in the government’s “clampdown” on the service.
The fact that all three IRS officers punished by the government are said to have absolutely unblemished records is a source of further demotivation for young officers of the cadre.
“These are all officers who have been like mentors to young IRS officers from the beginning… They have all been at the academy at some point or the other, and been great teachers for young officers,” said a young IRS officer.
Another IRS officer said the biggest evidence of how clean these officers are is the fact that even the government orders against them mention no other allegations.
“It is very easy for the government to find a case against any officer who has spent 20 or 30 years in service… But for these three, it has only said that their actions created panic,” this officer said.
In addition to being a senior IRS officer, Bahadur is also a respected novelist, whose debut novel The Sound of Water was shortlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2007.
Modi govt action against IRS officers
In 2019, after coming back to power, the Modi government repeatedly said it would compulsorily retire corrupt and underperforming civil servants. However, the only officers to face mass retirements were from the IRS — the government forcibly sent over 50 of them into retirement on charges of corruption, underperformance and fraud, etc.
Among the first group of 15 IRS officers to be retired, in June 2018, was Anup Srivastava, who was also the president of the IRS Customs Association. On his forced retirement, Srivastava had called the actions of the government “clear malafide personal vendetta”.
Under Srivastava, the IRS Customs Association had said in 2017 that certain decisions taken by the GST Council were against national interest and could have “serious implications” for the government’s revenue and smooth implementation of the new tax regime.
It must be noted that the three officials now facing action for the contentious recommendation belong to a different association for a separate set of IRS officers, the IRS Income Tax Association.
‘No one will dare to speak up’
The IRS Associations, both Customs and IT, are among the rare civil servant bodies to have spoken up on some contentious issues under the Modi government.
In 2018, for example, the IRS IT Association spoke on the issue of lateral entry in civil services. In a detailed representation to the government, the association said the government should also take measures to make better use of talent within the civil services by promoting non-IAS officers and breaking the ‘generalist’ stranglehold in governance.
The IRS, over the years, has sought parity with IAS officers, speaking both publicly and privately against the alleged preference given to the other service in picking officers for top positions in the government.
“Why is it that the government always uses IRS officers to make a point? It is something that is demotivating for our entire cadre,” a senior IRS officer said.
“The only thing these officers should have not done is gone public with the report… But such an extreme step for that is completely unwarranted,” the officer said.
ThePrint tried to contact IRS IT Association president Binay Jha several times for a comment, but there was no response.
After this episode, IRS officers believe that not just their associations, but no other civil servant association would dare to speak up or put forth its views on any matter.
The young officer quoted above said: “For the government to take such drastic action against a recommendation it could have simply distanced itself from is very scary for everyone, but for us, it worse to see this happen to our senior mentors. It sends a very chilling message down to the bottom — don’t speak up or express your thoughts, ever.”
Arvind Mayaram, a retired 1978 batch IAS officer and former finance secretary, called the government’s action against the three IRS officers an “overreaction”.
“It is a bit of an overreaction in my opinion,” Mayaram said. “The government is getting thousands of recommendations at this point; all it needed to do was to say that the IRS Association is not a representative of the government…The spokesperson could have simply said that the government does not advocate it.”
Moreover, it seems unlikely that the case would stand in the court of law, Mayaram added.
“Conduct rules do not state that an officer, even in their personal capacity, cannot make a recommendation to the government…That is no act of indiscipline,” he said.