With the removal of the foreign and home secretaries, much before their two-year tenures had expired, the civil services have come into sharp focus. Yet this government had made some significant changes earlier too. The finance and revenue secretaries as well as the secretary of the financial services department were shifted out, according to some, quite suddenly. This perception of sudden movement in the higher levels of the civil service has brought with it the suspicion that there must be a sinister reason for the changes. But, while we may legitimately feel concerned by such removals, we rarely scrutinise the process of appointments for these important posts and seldom analyse the rationale for a particular person being selected for a specific job.
When the former foreign and home secretaries were appointed, nobody had questioned whether they were the best available officers. It is common sense to assume that the Union home secretary would be an officer who had been home secretary in a large state or had served for a long time at the ministry of home affairs. Similarly, the foreign secretary should have held a variety of diplomatic posts and worked in key policymaking desks at the ministry of external affairs. We take it for granted that every appointed officer deserves the post. We have, as a society, paid little attention to our civil service except to revile or criticise it. But we need to look at the ways in which civil servants are recruited, trained, deployed and disciplined if we want good service from them.
The appointment, transfer and removal of civil servants is the prerogative of the government. There are elaborate procedures, constitutionally mandated, for dismissal or termination from service. The former foreign and home secretaries were not dismissed; their terms of appointment were merely curtailed. Incidentally, both were past the retirement age of 60 and earned their maximum retirement benefits. If the government felt the performance of the incumbents fell short of expectations, it had the right to change the officers. After all, the same government had retained them for all these months, even though they had been appointed earlier. While we have a right to know why they were removed, it may not be in the interests of the individual officers and their right to privacy, or even in the larger public interest, to reveal these reasons. This moment, however, gives us an opportunity to examine the mechanisms for managing the higher civil services and making appointments to senior posts in the Central government.
The Centre has a mechanism called the Central staffing scheme, which lays down the broad guidelines for appointing officers to senior civil posts. Through a rather long-drawn but mostly mechanical exercise, IAS and other officers are shortlisted every year. The Centre chooses from this pool when appointing officers to vacant posts. Under the above scheme, only officers at the joint secretary level and below get a fixed tenure of service, ranging from three to seven years. There is no fixed tenure for additional secretaries and most of the secretaries. Most often, the secretaries get a tenure of two to three years, since most reach 60 by then and are due to retire. With more and more officers joining the service late, the average term of secretaries in the Central government is not more than two years these days. However, irrespective of the date of retirement, a term of two years is fixed for the cabinet secretary, the secretaries of home, defence and foreign affairs, as well as some secretary-level heads of security and intelligence for bodies like the R&AW, IB and CBI. The UPA government amended the relevant rules and extended the cabinet secretary’s term to go up to four years. It has always been a mystery why these posts have been singled out for a fixed term, that too irrespective of the date of retirement. Why should the home secretary get a fixed term and not the finance or health secretary, or the secretary of environment and forests? Why is the cabinet secretary to work for four years? And why is the director of the CBI or IB considered more deserving of a fixed two-year term than the DG of the BSF or CRPF? The fact of the matter is that the current system is very arbitrary, its rules and procedures framed to benefit individual officers rather than to serve any real public interest.
The entire process of shortlisting eligible officers, popularly known as empanelment, is seriously flawed, based as it is only on annual performance appraisal reports and no other qualitative criteria. With nearly every officer credited with outstanding ratings, almost all are found fit to be secretary, at least among the IAS officers. If not, they have only to go back to their respective states to pick up promotions. It is not very different with IPS officers or those from the foreign services. Thus, senior civil servants are not only guaranteed permanence in their jobs, but also assured promotion to the highest possible level in their respective services. Where else in the world is it expected that every recruit to a public office will continue to display uniform excellence across a career spanning nearly 35 years and be eligible to rise to the top? We are now so used to this trend that a sudden removal of a secretary, even without affecting his or her post-retirement benefits, leaves us surprised. It is as if the officers have a right to remain at their posts forever.
In normal times, civil servants are dismissed as inconsequential “babus” and forgotten, or at best taken for granted. So it is not inappropriate to reiterate the civil service’s place in the body politic. It forms the bulk of what is known as the executive, one arm of the constitutional triad. The Constitution of India creates it and legitimises it with a degree of permanence only equalled by the judiciary. The judiciary, in its autonomy and standing, is part of the basic structure of the Constitution. The civil services, as an integral part of the executive, may also be considered a component of the same basic structure. Rightly so, since it is the civil service that has always run the government, whatever its form. Having given so much permanence and power to civil servants, especially the senior ones, the country must expect much more from them. It must also invest much more in preparing them to deliver the best. Several Administrative Reforms Commissions later, nothing has changed in the way we manage higher appointments. It is time the government took up this limited administrative reform, framed clear rules and procedures to streamline these appointments, for the good of the civil servants but also to get the best out of them for the greater public good.
The writer is former secretary, DoPT, and a former CIC.