Does Madhya Pradesh Have a Problem With Its Bureaucrats?

The rise in the number of IAS officers either opting for voluntary retirement, or being slapped with action, has raised questions on the 'functional autonomy' of civil servants in the state.

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Bhopal: In the last five years, six government officials – including five Indian Administrative Service officers – in Madhya Pradesh have opted for voluntary retirement, which has raised questions on the functional autonomy of civil servants in the state.

The latest name in the list is Varad Murti Mishra (52), who was promoted from the state administrative services in January. He opted for voluntary retirement on June 2, despite seven years being left in his service.

Speaking to The Wire, Mishra said that there was a time when aspirants joined the civil services to work for the people. “Now it’s all about appeasing politicians for the luxury of power and money. The thrust on citizen-centric issues is the least of their concerns,” he said.

Not everyone is M.K. Gandhi or Abraham Lincoln, everyone has their own ambitions and desires, he said. “And to fulfil those ambitions, they toe the government line on its agenda keeping the laid down laws and the constitution at bay. The rise of communalism in bureaucracy is the perfect example of it, they are doing everything to please their masters.”

“Out of 350 IAS officers in Madhya Pradesh, a handful of 40-45 IAS officers have a say in the government and bureaucracy. The remaining are just acting as clerks,” he claimed.

Two other officers of the deputy secretary rank – Jagdish Jatiya and Madhu Nahar – also opted for VRS this year. Nahar was posted in the general administrative department as deputy secretary.

Jatiya, a promoted IAS officer who was posted as deputy secretary at the state’s labour department, applied for the VRS months before his retirement in October. He belongs to a Scheduled Caste community. He was made the District Collector of tribal-dominated Mandla district, after the Congress returned to power in December 2018.

As Mandla collector, he had opposed the Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizenship (NRC), and posted against them on social media.

A representative photo of anti-CAA protests. Credit: PTI

Shivraj Singh Chouhan, who was then in the opposition, had raised this matter with the then governor, Lalji Tandon, demanding stern action against him. Months later, Jatiya received a ‘show cause’ notice from the Union Ministry of Personnel and Training for his alleged comments on the CAA and NRC on social media. He submitted his response in the matter in September 2020.

After Chouhan became the chief minister in March 2020 for the fourth time after toppling the 15-month-old Congress government, Jatiya was removed from the District Collector’s post.

A source in know of the matter alleged, “Even though he had submitted his reply in September 2020, the matter has been kept pending for two years. Since he does not toe the agenda of the ruling party, he is the target. He was not only sidelined and denied promotion, but his post-retirement pension may also be affected.”

In December 2019, when the Congress party was in power, IAS Gauri Singh had opted for VRS, despite close to four years being left in her service.

The BJP, who was then in the opposition, had created an uproar in the assembly alleging harassment of honest officials. Gauri, who had received an offer from an international agency, quit her job and moved abroad. Sources, however, had claimed that the then Kamal Nath-led government shunted her out to the panchayat and rural development department after an alleged rift with her.

During the BJP’s regime, in 2016 and 2017, Rashmi Shukla Sharma, former additional chief secretary, and Pravesh Sharma, agriculture secretary, also quit their jobs, taking VRS.

According to the Madhya Pradesh general administrative department’s latest yearly report, the state has a total of 347 IAS officers. Of them, 250 are direct IAS, and 97 are promoted.

Also read: Your Silence in the Face of Enormous Societal Threat Is Deafening: Former Civil Servants to Modi

New opportunities

Almost two months after quitting his job, Mishra held a press conference in Bhopal on August 4 and made a scathing attack on the ruling party. “Even after two decades of rule, the BJP government has failed to build basic infrastructure in the education, health, job, transportation and other sectors. Madhya Pradesh tops the list in crimes against women, child death rate, malnourishment, and over 30 lakh registered aspirants are unemployed.”

“The state also levied the highest tax on petroleum products and liquor in the country. Yet, the financial condition of the state is deteriorating. Despite political stability, the debt on the state has surged to Rs 3.50 lakh crore. Is this called governance and financial management?” he said.

Mishra, who has decided to contest the 2023 assembly elections, said, “When it comes to governance, Congress is no different from the BJP. I have closely seen their ‘art of working’ in the short-lived Congress government. Therefore, instead of bowing down before politicians, I would bow before the public.”

When asked about his political goals ahead of the assembly polls next year, he said, “I will travel across the state in the next couple of months to understand the nerves of the people, then I will reveal my plans.”

Divided views

Some former civil servants are of the view that quitting midway is not a solution.

Retired IAS officer K.S. Sharma pointed out, “It is a fact that officers are opting for VRS, but one can’t say that everyone is quitting their job because of the ‘shrinking autonomy’ prevalent in current circumstances. Some are quitting because they have got better opportunities to work in the private sector.”

He added that the political class is dominating bureaucracy. “One should listen to public representatives but blindly following or surrendering before them is not what the officers’ class should do. An IAS officer should fight and not surrender to any forces. They abide by the law of the land, not by the political class. And one should always be ready to face repercussions to defend the constitution and what is right,” he said.

Defending the government, BJP state secretary, Rajneesh Agrawal, said, “In a democracy, public representatives wield more power than bureaucrats. Their works and powers are explained in the constitution. If anyone is failing to deliver the flagship schemes of the government, action is necessary.”

Brushing aside the allegations of a few officials running the government, he said, “Upright and dedicated officials always remain in the good books of the government. What is the harm in it?”

A senior officer of MP cadre said that there is a jostle to attract the government’s attention among IAS officers. “Those officials who came with an ambition to work for the people are now feeling alienated and without purpose,” he said, requesting anonymity.

He further explained, “Even though discontent is rampant among the bureaucrats, no one has the audacity to quit as they do not possess any set of skills to find such luxurious jobs in private companies after crossing 50 years of age. Therefore, many are just drawing salaries, looking after the family and to divert attention, they are exploring offbeat work like wildlife photography, higher education, literature, writing and others.”

Also read: How Bureaucracy Has Left the Indian Civil Services Adrift

Allegations against bureaucracy

The Madhya Pradesh high court had on August 3 criticised the Panna district collector Sanjay Kumar Mishra for declaring a losing candidate in panchayat elections as the winner.

Madhya Pradesh chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan. Credit: PTI

While hearing this case, the judge said, “He’s acting as a political agent, he’s not fit to be a collector.”

“It is submitted that principles of natural justice were not followed. Collector Sanjay Kumar Mishra acted as a political agent of the ruling party. He did not act independently and the Election Commission should have removed him from the post of district returning officer,” the high court had said in its order.

Another controversy over bureaucrats in Madhya Pradesh erupted last year after an IAS officer, Lokesh Jangid (28), accused his senior officer of getting him removed from the post of additional district magistrate (ADM) of Barwani for allegedly exposing anomalies in oxygen concentrators’ supply.

Later, he was issued a notice by the state government over allegations that he posted in a private group of IAS officers on the app Signal. His posts were leaked from the group.

Jangid has faced eight transfers in four years and his recent appointment at Barwani as ADM lasted for 42 days before he was sent back to Rajya Shiksha Kendra.

Two days later, he said he received a threat call on Signal from an unknown person asking him to stop talking to the media. The person asked him to go on a six-month leave if he cared for his and his son’s life.

Jandig had written to the director general of police seeking protection.

In December last year, the BJP-led government removed a senior IAS officer, Kalpana Srivastava, from the post of principal secretary of the horticulture department, after she took cognisance of a complaint alleging massive corruption in onion procurement within the department. The onion procurement, estimated to be worth Rs 2 crore, was made under the national horticulture mission.

Her removal came as a surprise for many since the government had issued the order on a non-working day. The move came despite the fact that the state economic offences wing had registered a preliminary inquiry into the alleged onion procurement scam probed by her. She has received several awards for employee excellence.

In another case, IAS Nidhi Nivedita was removed from her post of Rajgarh collector, a day after the BJP government took over on March 24, 2020. She was shifted to the MP secretariat as deputy secretary.

As a collector, Nivedita had purportedly hit a leader of the saffron party during a rally carried out in favour of the CAA on January 20, 2020. Sub-divisional magistrate Priya Verma, who also had scuffle with the protesters, was transferred from her post.

After the controversy, Chouhan had condemned her behaviour and demanded action against her.

Kashif Kakvi is a journalist with NewsClick.