New Delhi: A fresh tussle has broken out between the Centre and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) government in Punjab after Union Home Minister Amit Shah announced Sunday that employees of the Chandigarh administration will now function under the Central Civil Services Rules.
While Shah has said that the move has been effected to benefit employees in a “big way”, off the record, some BJP leaders have acknowledged that making employees of Chandigarh work under the Central Civil Services Rules is part of a larger strategy to rein in the AAP, which is being seen as a viable alternative in national politics after its big victory in Punjab.
AAP leaders have reacted forcefully to the announcement, with Punjab Chief Minister Bhagwant Mann saying that he is prepared to “fight” for the state’s “rightful claim” over the Union territory (UT) of Chandigarh — which has been a political issue in the region for a while.
Central Govt has been stepwise imposing officers and personnel from other states and services in Chandigarh administration. This goes against the letter and spirit of Punjab Reorganisation Act 1966. Punjab will fight strongly for its rightful claim over Chandigarh…
— Bhagwant Mann (@BhagwantMann) March 28, 2022
A more practical concern for the Mann government is also that employees of the Punjab administration might demand a revision of their salary to match with their Chandigarh counterparts.
A senior AAP leader told ThePrint that such a demand could place additional stress on the state government, which currently has a debt burden of Rs 2.82 lakh crore.
Chandigarh’s unusual status, and what the new rules mean
Chandigarh is the state capital of both Punjab and Haryana, but it is technically a Union territory. It has an administration of its own that is headed by an administrator. This position currently belongs to Banwarilal Purohit, who is also Governor of Punjab.
At the top of the administration’s hierarchy are civil servants belonging to the AGMUT (Arunachal Pradesh-Goa-Mizoram and Union Territory) cadre and officers on deputation from the civil service cadres from Punjab and Haryana.
Below them are around 23,000 employees working in the UT administration — in departments such as health, education, police, etc, and a municipal corporation.
The change will affect these 23,000 employees and not the civil servants, a senior officer in Chandigarh said.
So far, these 23,000-odd employees, the officer added, were covered under the Punjab Service Rules. This means that the terms of employment of Chandigarh’s administrative employees were decided by a set of rules drafted by the Punjab government for Punjab employees. “That is going to change,” the officer said.
Shah announced Sunday that the change of the applicable service rules would mean increase of retirement age to 60 (and 65 years for college professors) from 58 years, increased childcare leave for women employees, and additional allowances.
A ‘combative attitude’ against AAP
Echoing Amit Shah’s assertion that employees stood to benefit from the change of service rules, Chandigarh BJP general secretary Ravindra Bhatti told ThePrint that the workers’ “long-standing demand” has been met.
“It will benefit not only municipal employees but all Union territory employees,” he said.
However, Bhatti also took the chance to take a dig at AAP chief Arvind Kejriwal.
“We have seen Kejriwal’s track record on how he made life miserable for MCD (Municipal Corporation of Delhi) employees… So the Centre had to act,” Bhatti claimed.
A second BJP leader said: “Amarinder Singh (former Punjab CM) ensured a friendly government in Punjab that knew about Centre-state relations, but Kejriwal is confrontational, with desires of national expansion… We want to empower the Chandigarh municipal corporation.”
The BJP leader added that it will help the party to develop a “combative attitude” against the AAP.
On 8 January, the BJP won all three top posts — mayor, senior deputy mayor and deputy mayor — in the Chandigarh Municipal Corporation, despite getting fewer seats than the AAP, its closest competitor, in the civic body’s polls.
The results of the Chandigarh Municipal Corporation polls threw up a hung House on 27 December, with the AAP winning 14 of the 35 wards in the city and the BJP 12 — down from 20 in the previous election in 2016. The Congress won eight seats, but one of its councillors, Harpreet Kaur Babla, later joined the BJP. The Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) won one ward.
As mentioned earlier, Punjab CM Bhagwant Mann Monday slammed Union Home Minister Amit Shah’s announcement, claiming that it went against the Punjab Reorganisation Act, 1966.
The central government, he said, had been “stepwise imposing officers and personnel from other states and services in the Chandigarh administration”.
Later, in a press conference, Punjab Finance Minister Harpal Cheema said that the AAP would oppose the Centre’s decision and fight the issue from the “streets to Parliament”.
“The central government is deliberately taking steps to take away Punjab’s claims over Chandigarh,” he said and repeated what Mann had said about the move going against the “letter and spirit” of the Punjab Reorganisation Act.
The matter concerning what service rules would apply on the employees of the Chandigarh administration is based on the Punjab Reorganisation Act 1966, the AAP said.
The Act corresponds to the redrawing of territorial and administrative lines of Punjab when Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, and Chandigarh were carved out of the state.
Sections 81 to 85 of the Act, which is in the public domain, do chalk out provisions for all-India services, other services, continuation of officers in the same post, provisions about the state public service commissions, and so on. However, the legislation does not specifically throw light on what service rules should apply on whom.
Two senior government officers in Punjab said that the service rules matter has always been a grey area as far as specific legal sanction is concerned.
“The central government could have tweaked the rules in the past. It is only that they have chosen to do it now. Maybe it helps them politically,” a senior officer said under the condition of anonymity.
Some BJP leaders are indeed anticipating that the move will cause the Punjab government some trouble, and may also yield other benefits.
“After this decision, Punjab state employees, too, will start an agitation demanding pay parity with Chandigarh employees, which will burden Punjab,” another BJP leader said.
The possibility of this happening has triggered some anxiety in the AAP, but senior leaders at this point are tight-lipped about it.
The second BJP leader added that there were also possible electoral benefits to the change.
“Chandigarh has a substantial strength of government employees. There are only two years now for the Lok Sabha polls. Kirron Kher (BJP MP from Chandigarh) might not win due to anti-incumbency but this decision will add many votes for the BJP,” he said.
‘Part of a pattern’
A second Punjab government official pointed out that the service rule issue should not be seen in isolation.
“Recently, the Union government passed a notification regarding the BBMB (Bhakra-Beas Management Board) issue. That too was seen as an attempt to intervene in Punjab’s affairs. The recent development comes soon after that. So, the politics around it is not unexpected,” the official said.
Last month, political parties in Punjab — except the BJP — were up in arms against the Centre over a decision to amend the rules regarding appointments to two key positions on the BBMB, which is a statutory body (under the Punjab Reorganisation Act, 1966) that manages the water resources of the Sutlej and Beas rivers.
In his press conference Monday, Cheema, too, mentioned the example of the BBMB. Referring to the BBMB fracas, he alleged that the BJP-led Centre had been taking “anti-Punjab decisions” and the latest manoeuvre was an attempt to usurp Punjab’s “rights” over Chandigarh.
(Edited by Asavari Singh)