The Indian bureaucracy once again finds itself in political crosshairs. An unseemly controversy has erupted over the unexpected transfer order issued by the central government on the chief secretary of West Bengal, Alapan Bandyopadhyay. The officer was to retire on 31 May, but the Union government had approved a three-month extension in service four days before Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the state for a survey of the Cyclone Yaas-related damage last week. The Department of Personnel and Training, which handles all matters relating to the All India Services, gave no reason for its peremptory order asking Bandyopadhyay to report to it on 31 May in Delhi. The Modi government, invoking the Disaster Management Act, has now served a show cause notice on Bandyopadhyay, who opted to retire on Monday and took charge as West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s new principal advisor.
The DoPT did not go through the laid down procedure for the deputation of civil servants belonging to a state cadre to the Centre. There should have been a formal request to the West Bengal government for Bandyopadhyay’s deputation and the rules provide for the state government to refuse the request. Then and only then may the central government exercise its authority to insist on the implementation of its request. Despite his seniority, the Bengal chief secretary has been treated as a mere pawn in the political and personal tussle between PM Modi and CM Banerjee.
Politicising the bureaucracy
Over the past several years, a sizeable number of civil servants in state cadres have refrained from seeking appointments in the central government, preferring to stay in service at the state level. This is in sharp contrast to earlier years when postings at the Centre were much sought after. This may be due to a growing perception that the role and status of a professional civil servant has diminished under the Modi government.
The role of the civil services has been a controversial issue from the early years of our republic. In 1969, Indira Gandhi had called for a “committed” civil service. But the Indian Constitution and service rules conceived a merit-based civil service, recruited through national competitive examinations and required to undergo professional training and advance through an evaluation process conducted within the respective service, that is, through the judgement of the senior echelons, as reflected in the Annual Confidential Reports (ACR). The political masters play no role in this evaluation process. Even the 360-degree appraisal system adopted for the All India Services in 2015, does not provide for a politician’s role, say, as minister, in assessing the quality of an officer. The All India Services and other central services are constitutionally protected as they are committed to uphold the Constitution. This has not prevented political interference in the functioning of the bureaucracy and the latter too has been complicit in this, but there have been and continue to be honourable exceptions.
Political masters hold the power of appointment and transfer and this has been used to bend the bureaucracy to political will. This is both at the central and state levels. The growing politicisation of the bureaucracy is likely to continue under a political dispensation that appears to value loyalty and ideological affinity in its bureaucrats more than professional skills and experience. I have pointed out earlier that the role of the professional in government today is to validate a political preference rather than tender the best possible advice based on knowledge and experience. The governance gaps that have become so obvious in the mis-handling of the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic can be traced to this unfortunate predilection.
Reforms to nurture civil service
Despite dissatisfaction with the performance of the bureaucracy, whether among politicians or the general public, one has to accept that it is indispensable to the governance of a modern state. What are some of the modest ways in which an efficient and responsive, merit-based civil service may be nurtured?
One, recruitment rules must go back to limiting entry to the age group 21-24 and allowing repeated attempts only within this age limit. Currently, 32 years is the upper age limit in the general category and 35-37 years in the reserved category. The proper training of a civil servant and moulding his/her attitudes and skills to the requirements of present-day governance makes it important to “catch them young”. Recruiting persons much beyond this age limit brings in people who are already set in their ideas and temperament and find it hard to change their attitudes.
Two, post-retirement assignments should not be through political patronage and discretionary decisions of the government. Let these positions — for example, appointments to statutory commissions, regulatory authorities and similar bodies, both at the central and state levels — be an open recruitment process, inviting applications from all potentially qualified persons in accordance with well laid down criteria and selection through a body that has eminent non-government domain experts. Retired civil servants need not be excluded from applying but must compete with the rest. This removes the pressure on top civil servants to align themselves to political preferences of the government in office in anticipation of a well-paid post-retirement assignment and thus be inhibited in upholding public interest.
Three, change the system of rewards and penalties related to performance. The current system imposes penalties for acts of commission no matter how minor. Acts of omission, which may lead to significant losses to the public exchequer or undermining of people’s welfare, mostly go unpunished. Rather than take decisions that may entail some risks, a civil servant may consider it more prudent to keep a file in orbit or to deflect decision-making to the senior or even political level. Even current rules will not punish a civil servant for taking a decision in good faith which turned out to be a mistake. No one can avoid making any mistakes and this must be acknowledged and accepted as part of a learning process.
These are modest reforms but will help in re-orienting our civil service in serving the country better. It is an unmatched pool of talent and experience that ought to be better used.
Shyam Saran is a former Foreign Secretary and a Senior Fellow at Centre for Policy Research (CPR). Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant Dixit)