Mumbai: The transfer of Praveen Pardeshi, who, until Friday, was serving as the commissioner of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), has caused a flutter in the power corridors of Maharashtra.
Considered by many in the bureaucratic circle as the best man for the job, especially given Mumbai’s large Covid-19 problem, his transfer has raised many an eyebrow.
Among other issues, his decision to override a notification on opening liquor shops, issued by state chief secretary Ajoy Mehta, is being considered one of the reasons for the move. The 58-year-old is known to have an ongoing cold war with Mehta, whom he replaced as BMC commissioner in May 2019.
With two of the top bureaucrats at loggerheads with each other, the chief minister was advised to change the BMC chief, sources in the state government said.
A 1985 batch IAS officer, Pardeshi will now head the Urban Development Department as the additional chief secretary.
Speaking to ThePrint, Pardeshi said he didn’t wish to comment on the transfer. “No comments. Would not be appropriate to talk about it,” he said.
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‘Officer who spoke his mind’
Several serving administrative officials said Pardeshi was an efficient officer.
“This is not the time for transferring a bureaucrat when the situation is so critical. When Mumbai is looking at such a huge number of positive cases, why should liquor shops be opened? Praveen Pardeshi was right in reversing the order,” said a senior bureaucrat who wished to remain anonymous.
Others ThePrint spoke to felt that Pardeshi was transferred because he spoke his mind. “It is the bureaucracy that delivers, not the political wing of the government. Praveen Pardeshi is an efficient officer who seems to be aggressive. What is wrong with that?” said a principal secretary, also on the condition of anonymity.
Maharashtra has the most number of active cases of coronavirus in the country. As of Saturday morning, its count stood at 19,063 of the nearly 40,000 cases in the country, according to the Union health ministry. Mumbai has reported 14,000 cases in total, including recoveries and deaths.
The rising numbers did not sit well with Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray, who Friday warned citizens to strictly follow lockdown restrictions to break the cycle of transmission.
The new BMC commissioner, Igbal Chahal, who is presently the principal secretary of the Urban Development Department, is known to be former Union Minister Sushilkumar Shinde’s man.
He was made an Officer on Special Duty to the Ministry of Home Affairs during Shinde’s tenure in the UPA 2. When the NDA came to power, Chahal was transferred to the Women and Child Ministry.
Following his own strategy
The transfer is being seen as a result of Pardeshi’s aggressive pursuit of his own strategy to deal with the pandemic. Sources said that there was also increasing public disgruntlement against him as the areas under containment zones increased.
Pardeshi was set to announce a task force to handle Covid-19 activities, from which even Mumbai Mayor Kishori Pednekar was excluded, said government sources. However, this would have caused confusion since there already is a Covid-19 task force that has been overseeing efforts in Mumbai.
The IAS officer had also disregarded the Centre’s advisory on plasma testing, which had withdrawn permission for it. However, Pardeshi had stated that they should be continued.
Cold war with chief secretary
On 3 May, state chief secretary Ashok Mehta issued a notification that Maharashtra had decided to open standalone shops and liquor shops in all zones, except containment areas. When they opened, these shops saw long, serpentine queues and many instances of people breaking social distancing protocol. Two days later, Pardeshi reversed this order in Mumbai and shut down all shops.
Given the pandemic, the Epidemic Act has been in force, which empowers nodal officers, such as district collectors and civic commissioners. However, advisories issued by the chief secretary are essentially state government orders, which cannot be disregarded by any official.
This is one instance of the ensuing cold war between Mehta and Pardeshi, said sources. The general disagreement between the two meant that there was no communication between the chief secretary and the former BMC commissioner, which was hampering the Covid efforts in Mumbai, sources said.
Pardeshi, who was appointed during Devendra Fadnavis’ tenure as chief minister, is known in political circles as the “de-facto CM” of Mumbai.
So far, Pardeshi has worked with three chief secretaries — Swadheen Kshatriya, Sumit Mullick and D.K. Jain — when he was the head of the Chief Minister’s Office under Devendra Fadnavis. He reportedly had problems with all three.
Although Pardeshi is considered to be close to Fadnavis, Thackeray was said to be impressed with his attention to detail and working style. However, Pardeshi’s intensifying feud with Mehta, his continued closeness to Fadnavis, and his tendency to work solo and not as a team, made him an “inconvenient” bureaucrat to the constituents of the Maha Vikas Aghadi, the Shiv Sena-NCP-Congress coalition led by CM Thackeray, according to an additional chief secretary who didn’t want to be named.
Politics add to controversy
Accusations have been flying fast from the BJP camp over the transfer.
“The state government has to hide its inability to reduce the numbers in the Covid fight, so they transferred Praveen Pardeshi,” said Pravin Darekar, BJP leader of the Opposition in the Legislative Council.
Former BJP MP Kirit Somaiya, who has been regularly posting about lapses in the treatment of the coronavirus patients on social media, said the government was making Pardeshi the “fall guy”.
“Due to Thackeray sarkar, Mumbai has become the Corona capital of India. Now they have made Praveen Pardeshi the fall guy. The Health Minister should take responsibility,” said Somaiya in a video message to media.
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