A couple belonging to the Indian Administrative Service—Sanjeev Khirwar and Rinku Dugga—accused of getting a Delhi stadium vacated to walk their dog, were transferred to Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh respectively. While the transfer order, issued by the Union Ministry of Home Affairs, is being widely perceived as ‘punishment’ for the IAS couple, there are also voices raised as to why a posting to these border areas is called a ‘punishment posting’ at all.
One of the first to react on Twitter was former Jammu and Kashmir chief minister, Omar Abdullah questioning why Ladakh was deemed a punishment posting for Khirwar.
“Why are people calling Ladakh a ‘punishment posting’? For one it’s a beautiful place with very hospitable people & some stunning places to visit and second, it’s demoralising for the people there to be given the impression that officers only get sent there as a punishment,” he said.
Not to be left behind was West Bengal’s stormy petrel Mahua Moitra who pitched in for Arunachal Pradesh. According to her, the transfer of an ‘errant Delhi bureaucrat’ is a shame for the Northeastern state and urged Union law minister Kiren Rijiju and Arunachal Pradesh CM Pema Khandu to protest the same. She also slammed the Ministry for Home Affairs (MHA) for only ‘paying lip service’ to the northeast region and then ‘treating the area like a dump.’
Even before the ink dried on the order issued by the MHA, this transfer has been cited in an Indian Express article by Manas Srivastava as a potential case study for UPSC exams with the caption: “VIP culture in bureaucracy.” Among the problems for the caste study, the article lists how “the history of VIP culture in India goes back to the British era when civil servants were a master class enjoying power and privileges over common citizens or the ‘natives’”. Such power and privileges were the cause of “inequality and unfair use of limited resources in the country”, thereby depriving common citizens. Misuse of these privileges “creates a trust deficit between common citizens and the administration, giving a bad name to the whole system”. There are also “attitudinal problems in some civil servants linking their service to status”, which militates against public interest.
Simultaneously, The Indian Express article suggests remedial measures and solutions. Civil servants should lead by example. Many a time they are seen as role models for society. Their public and private life have a very thin boundary. So, they should behave responsibly in both. Since there cannot be rules and regulations to guide every action, conscience should guide them in public and private life.
Be that as it may, why such furore and brouhaha over the transfer of a well-heeled civil service couple? Is it because the couple belonged to the coveted-but-envied IAS fraternity or was it really a ‘punishment’ transfer, or both? By all accounts, at their new places of posting, though separated, the husband and wife can escape Delhi’s poisonous pollution and enjoy the splendour of nature, breathing fresh air from the snows of Ladakh and jungles of Arunachal Pradesh with their pay, perks and privileges actually enhancing. They can also have a vast expanse to walk their dog. Why then it is called ‘punishment’ posting. Is it just because they are being ‘exiled’ from the Imperial Capital of Delhi?
Here’s a short recap to understand this ‘punishment’ posting mindset. Both Sanjeev Khirwar and Rinku Dugga belong to the AGMUT (Arunachal Pradesh, Goa, Mizoram and Union Territories) cadre of the IAS. When Lok Sabha passed the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation (Amendment) Bill, 2021 after scrapping Article 370, the J&K cadre of All India Service Officers comprising IAS and IPS was merged with that of the AGMUT cadre. Areas administered by officers of this cadre are divided into two categories—Category A or ‘regular areas’ (Delhi, Chandigarh, Goa, Puducherry, Dadra and Nagar Haveli, and Daman and Diu), and Category B or ‘hard areas’ (Arunachal Pradesh and Mizoram, J&K and Ladakh).
Officers posted in the ‘hard areas’ are given some additional incentives, as per the 2016 guidelines for transfer/posting of IAS/IPS officers of the joint AGMUT cadre. These include special provisions of training abroad, elevation to the level of deputy secretary after completion of tenure in the area, and gradation incentives. Nevertheless, these areas are far-flung, geographically dispersed and differ widely from each other climatically, linguistically, culturally and even administratively. Because in this case both the transfers are to the ‘hard areas’, these are being perceived as ‘punishment’ postings.
But then in the IAS, ‘punishment’ postings are not at all new. If you want to punish an IAS officer through transfer, which has been the routine practice in several states and has now crept into the Centre also, there is no need to search for ‘hard areas.’ Wayward political masters and ‘obediently yours’ Chief Secretaries/Cabinet Secretaries have found ways and means to punish IAS officers through serial transfers within capital cities and within the government secretariat/offices itself. Normally, such ‘punishment’ is reserved for the rare breed of capable, sincere, honest and upright civil servants, which is fast dying out!
Ping pong with IAS officers
Let’s look at the modus operandi. Say in the states, a particular Additional Chief Secretary, Principal Secretary, Secretary to Government or Head of the Department does not dance to the tunes of the chief minister, or a politically powerful minister or their favourite crony capitalists. One fine night an order is issued transferring that official to an innocuous or virtually non-existent post where there would be no worthwhile work. Mischievously, the order will have two caveats—one that the transfer is made in public interest and the other is that the new assignment with no work will be equivalent to the same job the officer was holding with the pay and perks intact.
These kinds of devious transfers of IAS officers, which are very frequent in some states, are humiliating for the officer, and a fraud on the people and public exchequer. My own cadre state of Haryana has two typical cases. One is Ashok Khemka with 54 transfers in his 30 years of service. The other is the record-breaking case of Pradeep Kasni, who faced more than 70 transfers in his 33-year-long career and retired a couple of years ago. Several of their postings were below their rank and pay scale. I myself went through similar humiliation during my time. There is also another curious category of ‘officers-on-waiting-list’ where competent and good officers remain for long periods without any posting and job, yet drawing full salary!
Despite being so humiliating and bizarre, these transfers and non-postings are not ‘punishment’ and courts have pronounced so. Why then should Sanjeev Khirwar and Rinku Dugga’s transfer be considered so just because they are moving far away from the ‘Imperial Capital’?
M.G. Devasahayam is a retired IAS officer and chairman of People-First. He also served in the Indian Army. Views are personal.
This article has been updated to credit an Indian Express article on the IAS couple case study.
(Edited by Neera Majumdar)