The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) has turned down a top bureaucrat’s request that the system of mandatory political clearance for overseas trips by senior officials be scrapped.
The ministry has explained why the current system must continue, and stressed that it is the MEA’s prerogative to decide on the suitability, desirability and level of participation of Indian officials in engagements abroad.
Civil Aviation Secretary Ashok Lavasa had written to Cabinet Secretary Ajit Seth on June 16, asking that the “dilatory system” of the MEA clearing all proposals for travel abroad by officials be changed. Lavasa was learnt to have also mentioned this at a meeting PM Narendra Modi had with Secretaries on June 4.
The cabinet secretariat had sent the letter to the MEA with a request to examine it before August 14. Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh wrote back on August 13, giving detailed reasons for why Lavasa’s request could not be accepted, sources said.
The Indian Express had reported the contents of Lavasa’s letter in its edition of August 12. According to senior government sources, at least two other Secretaries — one each from the ministries of Finance and Commerce, both of whom are frequent fliers abroad — had written similar letters to the MEA earlier.
However, according to information obtained by The Indian Express under the Right to Information Act (RTI), the MEA had, until July 15, cleared as many as 276 proposals for travel abroad by officials of the rank of Secretary, and “denied” clearance in only one case.
In her reply to Seth, the foreign secretary has argued that the context of India’s larger bilateral and multilateral relationships is constantly evolving and dynamic, and it is necessary for the MEA to assess proposals of foreign travel by public servants.
Lavasa was learnt to have suggested that the process of obtaining clearance be retained only for countries with which India’s relations were sensitive. The MEA has, however, said that no such list of countries could be drawn up in a fluid and changing world.
In response to the suggestion that the process of political clearance be bypassed where officers were travelling to participate in bilateral talks or for training abroad, or to countries with which India has joint working groups, the MEA has pointed out that senior Indian officers were sometimes offered training courses with officers of much lower rank in other countries.
The MEA has said that political clearance was given after considering multiple aspects of bilateral and multilateral relations in each case. Sources said Sujatha Singh’s letter mentions that some senior officers of the Civil Aviation Ministry had a few months ago accepted invitations from New Zealand and Turkey without political clearance from the MEA.