At a time when the senior bureaucracy in the country is perceived to be increasingly compromised, Ashok Khemka is the last man standing.
In November 2019, this feisty Haryana cadre IAS officer, an IIT-Kharagpur alumnus, was transferred to the state archives department. He was, until then, Principal Secretary of Haryana’s Science and Technology department.
Transfers should normally be considered routine in a civil servant’s life, but for the fact that this happened to be Khemka’s 53rd in the last 28 years of service! It is a record most officers would like to stay clear of.
“I am aggrieved, but which court shall I go to,”
Khemka told this reporter. “Can any court provide effective remedy”, he queried, careful not to comment on what he describes as the prerogative of the government.
To elaborate the point, the civil servant said that in 2002 he filed a complaint related to seniority with the Central Administrative Tribunal (CAT), but "sadly it is still pending with the Supreme Court. It is now a dead letter.” CAT is the standard route taken by discontented government officials before they can move to higher appellate courts. Khemka believes in the old adage "justice delayed is justice denied" and in his case, it is entirely that. "There is not much sense in getting justice after I retire," he rues.
As of November 2019, Khemka has been transferred 53 times in 28 years by state governments as he has continued to pursue his favourite hobbyhorse—exposing corruption in government offices. And to be sure, there is a lot of it.
The Kolkata-born bureaucrat's life has been dedicated to highlighting corruption in Haryana, where illegal allotment of land and change of land use for the influential, is a billion-rupee industry in itself. While Khemka has done extensive whistle blowing throughout his career that began in 1991, he struck it big in 2014 as he exposed several scams under Bhupinder Singh Hooda’s regime in Haryana, notably the Sonepat-Khargoda IMT land scam case and the Garhi Sampla Uddar Gagan land scam. But what caught the imagination of the public was his decision to cancel the mutation of the Robert Vadra’s–DLF land deal. For sheer audacity and guts, the order was without a parallel, seen to be taking on the Congress during it’s heyday.
As Haryana's director-general of land consolidation and land records-cum-inspector-general of registration for 80 days, he had detected serious irregularities in land transactions involving transfer of panchayat land worth several hundred crores of rupees to newly-created real estate companies.
As managing director of Haryana Seeds Development Corporation Limited in 2013, Khemka exposed its irregularities in just five months, before he was moved out, all quite hastily.
Naturally, such officials are not too popular with ruling class politicians. In Khemka’s case, he has been pushed around by both the Congress and the BJP dispensations. Under current Haryana chief minister
Manohar Lal Khattar’s regime, he has been shifted out five times after antagonising powerful lobbies in the state.
Khemka believes that each case he has exposed at various departments is different. "It is difficult to generalize. Each situation is different,” he states.
It needs no rocket science to realise that a rotting, compromised system needs such street fighters. Khemka drives home the point: "I am not a quitter. I am part of this system and will stay in it. I am proud of it. I have only been doing my duty as an officer.” Well, ask the political heavyweights who have been red flagged by him.
Ranjit Bhushan is an independent journalist and former Nehru Fellow at Jamia Millia University. In a career spanning more than three decades, he has worked with Outlook, The Times of India, The Indian Express, the Press Trust of India, Associated Press, Financial Chronicle, and DNA.