Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal has questioned why the Centre has delayed the clearance of his trip to Singapore, where he has been invited to attend a World Cities Summit scheduled during July 31- August 3. “I don’t understand why I am being stopped from attending the World Cities Summit,” Kejriwal said on Monday.
In October 2019, the Centre had not given him approval to attend another conference abroad, which he eventually addressed through videoconferencing.
They have to inform the Cabinet Secretariat, which stated in a circular on May 6, 2015: “The Cabinet Secretariat and the Ministry of External Affairs should be kept informed of the proposed foreign visit, either official or private, of Chief Ministers and Ministers of State Governments/Union Territories. However, prior political clearance and FCRA (Foreign Contribution Regulation Act) clearance are mandatory.” In case of Chief Ministers and Ministers of state governments, a copy of the application must also be sent to the Secretary, Department of Economic Affairs (DEA).
This comes from the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA). This is required not only for public servants but any government servant for a foreign trip. The MEA gets hundreds of requests for political clearance every month from ministries, secretaries, bureaucrats and other officials.
The decision is taken based on multiple factors such as the nature of the event, the level of participation from other countries, the kind of invitation that has been extended, and also India’s relations with the host country.
Since 2016, applications can be made for e-political clearance, on the portal epolclearance.gov.in. These are processed and clearance is issued after coordination among various Ministry divisions, which is done through a dedicated ‘Coordination Division’. Sources say the concerned ministry and the Department of Economic Affairs (DEA) entertain an application only if political clearance from the MEA is attached with the request. Without this clearance, no public servant can go abroad.
On October 11, 2019, Kejriwal had to address a conference in Denmark through videoconferencing, with the Centre having denied clearance to a trip there. During the previous UPA regime, the MEA had denied political clearance to trips by then Chief Ministers Tarun Gogoi (Assam, Congress) to the US and Israel, and Arjun Munda (Jharkhand, BJP) to Thailand. Gogoi had wanted to visit New York for a “high level meeting” on April 2, 2012; a note from the Ministry said “… direct correspondence by a diplomatic Mission with a State Government being inappropriate”. About his proposed trip to Israel for an event on water and environment technology, the Ministry had said, “Concerned agencies would be hard put to provide special consideration for CM, Assam, both from the substantive and protocol angles.”
When Narendra Modi took oath as Prime Minister, he held meetings with the secretaries of several Union departments and sought their suggestions. On June 14, 2014, then Civil Aviation Secretary Ashok Lavasa (who later resigned as Election Commissioner) wrote to then Cabinet Secretary Ajit Seth that the “dilatory system” of the MEA clearing all proposals for travel abroad by officials should be changed. Seth forwarded the letter to the MEA; then Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh wrote back to him on August 13, 2014, stressing that it was the MEA’s prerogative to decide on the suitability, desirability and level of participation of Indian officials in engagements abroad. This practice continues.
Different officers need different additional clearances. As mentioned earlier, Chief Ministers, ministers of state governments and other state officials also need clearance from the Department of Economic Affairs. For Union ministers, after getting political clearance from the MEA, additional clearance is needed from the Prime Minister, whether the trip is official or personal. Lok Sabha MPs need clearance from the Speaker, and Rajya Sabha members from the Chairperson (Vice President of India). For officers of various ministries up to Joint Secretary level, clearance is given by the minister concerned, after political clearance. For those above that rank, the proposal needs approval of a screening committee of secretaries.
Rules vary according to the duration of the visit, the country to be visited, and the number of members in a delegation. If the foreign trip involves the hospitality of organisations other than those of the UN, FCRA clearance is needed from the Home Ministry. Ministries often issue circulars that foreign travel requests must be submitted much early and ministries do not entertain such requests if political clearance is not attached to that.
For MPs, it is not obligatory to inform the Lok Sabha/Rajya Sabha secretariat if the trip is private. However, several MPs do inform the office of the Speaker (Lok Sabha) or Chairman (Rajya Sabha). For government employees, all foreign trips, official or personal, need approval.
On May 9, 2019 the Union Department of Expenditure issued a circular directing Ministries/Departments to: “ensure that the timeline stipulated for submitting the proposal for foreign visits requiring ScoS (Screening Committee of Secretaries) and Prime Minister’s approval are received 15 days prior to departure date of the delegation but not later than before 5 days before date of departure”.
For official foreign travel, the proposal by a Supreme Court or High Court judge is sent to the Department of Justice (DoJ) after taking clearance from the Chief Justice of India. The DoJ, after taking political clearance from the MEA and in some cases from the Home Ministry (when FCRA is involved), issues approval. Political clearance from the MEA was needed even for personal trips until February 11, 2010, when the DoJ decided to dispense with this necessity in case of private visits.
On February 15, 2011, the DoJ issued new guidelines, with restrictions particularly on the personal travel of judges of the higher judiciary. These guidelines were challenged in the Delhi High Court, which struck them down on May 25, 2012. So, now judges do not need clearance for personal foreign trips.
On July 13 last year, the Centre issued an Office Memorandum stating that “in such cases, where Visa Support Notes Verbale are sought from the CPV Division, MEA by the Hon’ble Judges of Supreme Court and the Hon’ble Judges of High Courts of India, prior Political Clearance of the MEA is to be submitted for the intended private or official visits abroad”. But on April 1 this year, the Delhi High Court, struck down the memorandum saying “it is uncalled for, given the high offices they (judges) are holding”.