The order was cryptic but clear. It came from the Minister. This was 2003. I had just taken over as Secretary, Department of Horticulture in the state of Uttar Pradesh (UP) after having completed my deputation with the Central Government.
The State had undergone a massive transformation during the last few years when I was away in Delhi. It was hurtling down a precipice, economically and socially, on account of political and bureaucratic instability.
UP had always enjoyed the dubious distinction of being a corrupt state, but now it had become much worse. Now the corrupt were ruling the roost and they were brandishing their corrupt practices as a badge of honour. My Minister, unfortunately, carried this pedigree that was growing by the day.
No reason was assigned or indicated in the order that directed for the suspension of an officer. I had known the officer and he enjoyed the reputation of being an honest and efficient one, a breed that was fast disappearing. I rang up the Minister to ascertain the details, “Sir, you have desired suspension of a Deputy Director but you haven’t indicated any reason. Has he done anything wrong?”
His response was immediate and cryptic, “He hasn’t come to meet me.” I was flummoxed. How could an officer be suspended for not meeting the Minister and why would he not meet him? I assured the Minister that I would speak to the concerned officer.
I called up the officer and inquired, “Why haven’t you called on the Minister? He is very annoyed with you and he wants me to issue your suspension order.”
There was a pause from the other end and then he responded, “Sir, I have met him on a number of occasions but the manner in which he wants me to ‘meet’ him, I haven’t been able to do because I don’t have the resources to meet his demands.”
I immediately got the point. The Minister was expecting a ‘nazrana’ (an offering) from the officer.
I was facing a huge dilemma. Here was an officer who was not at fault. However, the Minister had the power to suspend him under the rules. How could this officer be protected?
I was fortunately aware of a provision in the State that if the Secretary of a Department disagreed with the views of the Minister, he could route the file through the Chief Secretary.
If the Minister over-ruled the Chief Secretary as well, the orders were to be carried out. I wanted to take this chance. Hence, I spoke to the Chief Secretary, VK Mittal, an extremely competent and honest officer, and narrated the background.
I had the advantage of having worked with the Chief Secretary earlier when he was posted as Agriculture Production Commissioner. He understood the case and agreed with my proposal of routing the file through him. The file was duly sent to him with my comments. The Chief Secretary sat on the file.
For a change, bureaucratic red tape was being used to prevent a corrupt Minister from penalising an honest officer.
The Minster did inquire about the status of the suspension order and I informed him that the file had been sent to the Chief Secretary. He could either not muster up sufficient courage to speak to the Chief Secretary or chose not to speak to him.
He went to the next higher level. He met the Chief Minister. It never came to be known what transpired between the two of them but I was transferred out of the Department.
The Chief Secretary was quite upset at my transfer. So, I went to call on him after having taken charge of my new assignment. His remark didn’t surprise me, “See what has happened. You wanted to protect this officer. Consequently, you have been transferred. You could have continued had you carried out the orders issued by the Minister.”
I thought for a moment and then responded, “Sir, transfer for a civil servant is like death. It is inevitable. Hence, why bother about it. And, as I believe in Hindu Philosophy. I will be born again. In fact, I have been born again. The Government has already posted me somewhere. I will do the job to the best of my ability in my new ‘incarnation’”.
I concluded, “Sir, there was no way that I could have let the officer down. He had not committed any mistake. And I was simply doing my duty."
The Chief Secretary smiled and wished me well. I had neither any guilt nor compunction. In fact, I felt proud of heeding the call of my conscience. I was doing my karma and I wasn’t bothered about the consequences. I benefitting enormously by protecting those officers that worked with me
Not very long ago I had tweeted, “If we don’t protect the honest, we will be left with dishonest officers.” This was in the context of the case against Harish Chandra Gupta who had been left in the lurch by the former Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh who washed his hands of the decisions taken by him in the allocation of coal mines in his capacity as Coal Minister.
Here was a clear example of someone who enjoyed the reputation of being honest not standing by an officer who too was honest. Harish Chandra Gupta suffered and continues to suffer.
Everyone feels that the number of honest officers is dwindling. Perhaps, rightly so. One of the many reasons is that many honest officers are left to fight their battles all alone. This also breeds cynicism.
Yes, civil servants do help each other, especially when it comes to personal matters but, as most of them are risk-averse, very few would stick their necks out to protect their colleagues despite being aware that the concerned person is not at fault and is being harassed unnecessarily.
Many of them would have sympathies for the harassed officer though. Some others would love to believe the officer deserved to be harassed.
The ethos of protecting the honest just does not exist amongst the civil servants. This ethos of protecting the honest will need to be built. It can be built. It will perhaps be built.
— Anil Swarup is former Secretary, Government of India and author of the book 'Not Just A Civil Servant'. The views expressed are personal
(Edited by : Yashi Gupta)