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Why Puja bonus for cops seen as another Mamata move to gain ‘absolute control’ ahead of polls

CM Mamata Banerjee has announced a festival bonus of Rs 2,000 for all police personnel in West Bengal, besides other benefits for the force.

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Kolkata: With West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee taking one decision after the other concerning the state administrative and police functioning, opposition parties in the state have said she is looking to gain “absolute control” ahead of the 2021 assembly elections.

On Tuesday, the chief minister observed ‘Police Day’ to honour the state police, with a special focus on providing extra benefits to members of the force. “Amar police amar garbo (my police my pride),” she said. “The force, which serves people round the lock, is being criticised by the Opposition wrongly and insensitively.”

Mamata then addressed a special programme at Nabanna where her debt-stressed government announced a “Durga Puja festival bonus” of Rs 2,000 for all police personnel and terminal benefits (post retirement) of Rs 3 lakh for civic volunteers and junior police constables recruited for villages. The earlier terminal benefit was Rs 50,000.

The move is the latest in a series of decisions that the chief minister has taken with regard to the civil services and the state police. Banerjee earlier revised the appraisal system, known as annual confidential report (ACR), for block development officers (BDO) and sub-divisional officers (SDO), bringing the entire process under her office.

She also recently appointed an inspector as the nodal officer for police welfare and grievances. The inspector, who is the officer-in-charge of Kalighat police station that has the locality of chief minister’s residence under its jurisdiction, is known to be close to the ruling party. 

While the opposition claims that the decisions are an attempt to gain control, political analysts say it is “over-centralisation” that dilutes local governance.

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The measures

On June 26, the chief minister revised the appraisal system for officers with respect to their ACRs. The ACRs are confidential reports that are meant to determine the work done and efficiency of the officers.

Under the new system, the chief minister is now the ‘accepting authority’ for district magistrates, additional district magistrates, sub-divisional officers and block development officers. In effect, she will review and appraise the work done by these officers.

This is a massive change from the earlier system, when the BDOs and SDOs used to report to the district magistrates. The accepting authority was the divisional commissioner.

“For the DMs and the ADMs, the accepting authority was the chief secretary or departmental secretary,” said a senior serving civil servant. “SPs were brought under the CM, making her the final authority on their ACRs, before the 2016 elections and now this provision has been extended to DMs, ADMs, SDOs and BDOs.”

A retired civil servant said it would be bad for governance when a chief minister writes the ACR for block-level officers. “This system dilutes the intermediate levels of administration and makes the hierarchy irrelevant,” he added.

The state civil service has been dogged by allegations of being “motivated”. Such allegations by the Opposition had led the Election Commission to transfer over a dozen top IPS and IAS officers during the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

Prof Partha Pratim Biswas, a Kolkata-based political analyst, said the recent moves will affect the “neutrality of the administration”.

“Banerjee’s government wants to silence dissenting voices. She wants an Opposition-free state, a bureaucracy that never questions her decisions and a police that remains subservient to her,” he said. “All officers cannot be bad. So these decisions impact their service. People lose trust in the administration. This is why we see corruption at the ground level like at the panchayats and blocks. Nabanna (state secretariat) cannot handle three layers of administration and that is why decentralisation is needed. But she wants absolute control.”

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Opposition united, says CM wants absolute control

Opposition leaders, cutting across party lines, allege that Banerjee’s decisions are an attempt to strengthen her position ahead of the 2021 state assembly elections.

“Her party men are busy extorting money. They clash over profit sharing. She now knows that she won’t be able to win elections depending on her support base. So she is mobilising her ground-level administration and police officials,” said BJP’s national general secretary Kailash Vijaywargiya. “And it is understandable that BDOs and DCs, who are state officers, would follow the directions of the person who writes their ACRs.”

Congress MP and the party’s leader in the Lok Sabha, Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, said Bengal has lost ‘hierarchy-based administration’ and called it as an example of ‘autocracy’.

“After the 2019 elections, we saw how she blamed police publicly for taking sides of the opposition parties. We know that the Trinamool leaders used to complain to her saying police officers were not paying attention to their orders,” he said. “This happened because they were then working under the Election Commission. So, one can imagine how democracy was throttled. The chief minister does not abide by any rule, any administrative decency and any democratic functions.”

Chowdhury added, “She has converted the bureaucracy and the administration to her party cadre system. It is blatant politicisation, rather Mamatisation of police and administration. Police and district officers report to the local party offices.”

Sujan Chakraborty, the CPI(M)’s leader in the state assembly, claimed that the Trinamool Congress was now banking on Prashant Kishor’s I-PAC and police administration. “If the chief minister is so popular, why did she need a poll strategist? Where in the country, a chief minister writes ACRs for BDOs? Isn’t it a reflection on her leadership? Is her administration so crippled?”

Chakraborty added, “The government announces schemes, promotions, bonuses and a special day for police just before the election. How can one expect neutrality from such an administration?”

Trinamool Congress leaders, however, insist that the government has done things permitted under the law. “It is the government’s discretion. The party has no role in this,” said a senior TMC MP. “But the opposition, specifically the BJP, should not place any argument on this. The prime minister also calls DMs in districts, hold conferences with officers. Is it not dilution of hierarchy?”

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