There are perhaps good reasons for the flak that civil service gets.
“If we choose to have pliable and servile, the ‘steel-frame’, or whatever is left of it, will also become ‘steel-less’ and not ‘stain-less’. And then, we can publicly criticize what is left of the civil service”. This was tweeted by me as a response to a couple of statements, one by Nitin Gadkari, Minister for Surface Transport, and the other by Subhash Garg, former Finance Secretary.
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Nitin Gadkari had pulled up the officers of the National Highway Authority of India (NHAI) for the delay of 8 years in the completion of their Head Office while inaugurating the Head Office building on its completion. Quite interestingly though, Gadkari had himself presided over the ministry that oversees the work of NHAI for the past six years.
Subhash Garg revealed what was perhaps already known. On the day that he would have normally superannuated, he “revealed” how the finance minister, Nirmala Sitharaman pushed him out of the finance ministry forcing him to take a call on pre-mature retirement.
Both these gentlemen are perhaps right because both have stated facts. However, these statements outline the malaise that afflicts the management of civil service in India. In understanding the malaise, perhaps a solution could emerge.
The present government is credited with taking steps like amending the Prevention of Corruption Act that now ensures that civil servants will not be penalized for bonafide mistakes. It is also credited with selecting some outstanding officers to the post of secretary. The likes of Ajay Bhalla, Sanjay Agrawal, T V Somanathan, Tarun Bajaj, Anita Karwal and many others are the finest in the service. However, so were the likes of J S Deepak, R Subramanian, Subhash Garg, Vrinda Sarup, Alok Verma.
J S Deepak was known for his integrity and efficiency. That was perhaps the reason why he was picked up for a sensitive ministry like telecommunication. He was doing pretty well in pushing the agenda of the government that included taking the internet connectivity to interior areas. However, while he was attending an international conference, he was shifted as OSD in the commerce ministry. If he was inefficient, why was he posted to a sensitive ministry and if he was efficient as everyone felt he was, why was he shifted and shifted so suddenly?
R Subramanian was performing wonderfully and making the best use of his experience in the higher education department. In fact, he was promoted ahead of another officer in HRD ministry perhaps because of his experience and competence. He too was unceremoniously (though not as unceremoniously as his colleague, Rina Ray in the school education department) shifted to the Ministry of Social Justice. If Subramanian was not good enough why was posted in the department in the first place and if he was “bad” enough why was he posted as secretary in another ministry? Or, perhaps he was not as “bad” as Rina Ray who was reverted back to the home cadre.
Subhash Garg’s is an even more interesting case. He was indeed a blue-eyed boy of the government. He was sent to the World Bank as Executive Director when he was only Additional Secretary, Government of India. This position had been earlier occupied by senior officers, most of whom had held the post of secretary. He had an experience in finance in the state as well as at the centre. He was the obvious choice for one of the secretaries in the finance ministry. Even he was pushed out.
Vrinda Sarup was perhaps the most experienced civil servant in school education. She was appropriately tasked to handle this sector and things were going smooth till she too was shifted for an unknown reason. If she was good enough an officer, she should have been allowed to use her experience to set right a sector that was beset with so many problems. However, if she was not considered good enough, she shouldn’t have been posted to another ministry. Ironically, she did well in that ministry as well.
Then there is the most intriguing case of Alok Verma who was posted as Director, CBI after due diligence and all the clearances. However, the same CVC who had given him clearance, “discovered” that all was not well with him. Alok Verma was shifted and posted to a position where he couldn’t have been posted as he was past 60 years of age.
There are perhaps good reasons for the flak that civil service gets. Nitin Gadkari is right. However, like any other organization, civil service has its share of the good the bad and the ugly. Yes, there is indeed a need for civil service reforms but till then we will have to make to do with what we have. The art of management is to make the best use of the resources, including human resources that are available. Hence, the key is to give the right signal to the bureaucracy so that fence-sitters (a majority of them are indeed fence-sitters) can decide. This choice rests with the political master. If allegiance, servility and pliability are the prime considerations instead of honesty and efficiency, then governance will suffer. The key is to get the right person for the right job. There is evidence to that effect. Look at the transformation that Parmeshwaran Iyer brought in Swachhta Abhiyan. Look at the effective manner in which PMJAY is being rolled out, despite numerous problems, under the inspired leadership of Dr Indu Bhushan. There are many such examples. We need to learn from such examples. Officers were selected diligently and then given a long tenure.
There is a need to have a re-look at the opaque “360 degree” mechanism for empanelment. The concept, borrowed from the private sector, is an excellent one but the way it is operated leaves a lot to be desired. How can you leave out an officer who has been empaneled as Additional Secretary without having an interaction with him personally? In the private sector, there is an interaction with the officer who is also told why he is not being considered.
And, finally, the government has also to look at who it is rewarding. Whether efficiency and honesty are the prime determinants of rewards or is it allegiance and/or pliability? If a Supreme Court Judge who contemptuously held a press conference against the Chief Justice and against whom there was a sexual harassment case, is seen as being rewarded, what are the signals being sent to those that don’t complete the project on time?
Anil Swarup is former coal secretary, the government of India, and author of the book 'Not Just A Civil Servant'. The views expressed are personal.