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When a transfer is a weapon

Secure tenure,free from political control,is essential for civil servants to do justice to their job

Written by Srivatsa Krishna | Published: October 22, 2012 3:07:39 am

The Indian democratic system is built upon the clear separation of powers between the legislature,executive and judiciary envisaged under the Constitution. However,there has been a slow but sure “scope-creep” and blurring of boundaries. The original configuration envisaged the political executive legislating policy and the permanent executive implementing it. This Westminster model has been turned on its head,and now the political executive is rapidly encroaching into execution and implementation where they believe the megabucks are there to be made. The permanent executive has,with some very honourable exceptions,quietly surrendered. The judiciary remains a strong bulwark of democracy,apart from a few regrettable exceptions where it appears to have encroached upon the executive function.

Against this backdrop,the Indian Administrative Service (IAS),India’s top management civil service cadre,is being hobbled by the political executive with alarming regularity,the recent news about Ashok Khemka being one of the starkest reminders of this phenomenon. Khemka comes with a formidable reputation for honesty and fearlessness,though with a penchant for often “not getting along with his bosses”. He has been transferred over 40 times in a 20-year career,irrespective of political dispensation.

So is the transfer of an inconvenient IAS officer a punishment? After all,every IAS officer signs up for the job knowing fully well that transfer is an occupational hazard and he can be moved without having had a “meaningful” tenure in any one position. While this general principle is accepted by the IAS,yet there is no gainsaying the fact that unless an officer is allowed a tenure of at least two years (preferably three),there is no way that he can deliver results. As it is,the ecosystem in which an IAS officer operates is one of the toughest in the world: recalcitrant,unionised subordinates,political bosses with very different value systems,an overeager media and an overall environment not conducive to productive,speedy decision-making. With all this,if you add extremely unpredictable and variable tenures,it is virtually impossible to deliver results.

The complexity of administration and public policy-making in a country like India is subject to so many pulls and pressures that it often takes an IAS officer three to six months to grapple and get on top of not merely the various issues at stake,but more importantly the various individuals — legal,quasi-legal,quasi-illegal and completely illegal — who can destroy the effective implementation of any policy on the ground. Not only do the actors described above keep changing their garb,they also use institutions like the media and judiciary to achieve their own vested interests or of those of whom they serve.

States like Maharashtra have for long had protection of tenure enshrined legally. More recently,the Government of India,in consultation with various state governments,enacted the IAS (Fixation of Cadre Strength) Eleventh Amendment Regulations 2010,which guarantees a minimum tenure of two years to various IAS officers. They can be removed only with the concurrence of a board headed by the chief secretary. It can be argued that this is simply not effective protection because the board,under a weak chief secretary,would willingly bend to the political executive’s whim.

K.P.Krishnan and T.V.Somanathan have provided a thought-provoking and far more practical formulation in their paper titled “Civil Service: An Institutional Perspective”,which reads as follows:

a) Declare a “normal” tenure for each post; provide that at least 90 per cent of officers in that post should complete the normal tenure (except where they voluntarily agree to,or request,a transfer);

b) Require the UPSC to monitor postings and place before Parliament a periodic evaluation of average tenures for each post,for each state and for the Centre (what the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration calls the “stability index”);

c) Provide that premature transfers in excess of the 10 per cent limit will require clearance from a body independent of the cabinet,say,the UPSC.

Of these recommendations,the last will involve reducing the powers of the political executive and therefore,is more difficult to implement. Short of this change,the other recommendations may still have some effect as “moral suasion” by casting an adverse spotlight on recalcitrant governments. The third recommendation is critical,for without it,it would be impossible to remove a “bad” officer who will benefit from the stability rule.

Justice Santosh Hegde,in his letter to the Administrative Reforms Commission,has gone a step further and suggested separation of the control of the permanent executive by the political executive,which might be a desirable objective,but it is highly unlikely that the political executive would acquiesce to such an idea.

In sum,transfer has ceased to be a simple administrative tool and is now a vicious weapon in the hands of the political executive. Unless you find the right man for the right job at the right time,it would be impossible to deliver results and impact on the ground in India’s complex state-society setup. As such,the time is perhaps right for government to give a serious rethink to assured tenure for IAS officers along the lines suggested here and at some stage even debate the broader question of political control over the permanent executive — its extent,dynamics,and consequences.

The writer is an IAS officer. Views are personal

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