Four Problems Modi Must Fix to Win Back the Confidence of the Civil Service

With the security of tenure becoming more uncertain, it is worrisome that 60 officers have sought voluntary repatriation to their state cadres.

Narendra Modi's meeting with secretaries in the Central government in June 2014. Credit: narendramodi.n

Narendra Modi’s meeting with secretaries in the Central government in June 2014. Credit: narendramodi.in

The recent ouster of Union home secretary L C Goyal raises troubling questions about governance at the Centre and the states. At the time of independence – when the fate of the bureaucracy was under discussion in the Constituent Assembly – Sardar Patel made a powerful argument in favour of an independent civil service. He wanted secretaries to have the independence to express their views on any issue. Speaking in the Assembly, he said

Today my secretary can write a note opposed to my views. I have given that freedom to all my secretaries. I have told them: “if you do not give your honest opinion for the fear  that it will displease your minister, please then you had better go. I will bring another secretary.” I will never be displeased over a frank expression of opinion.

Patel believed in the importance of the professional and independent expression of views by secretaries. While this had been the approach in the initial years of post-independent India, it has been diluted over the decades.  Today, the Iron Man’s dictum on the independence of the once-legendary Steel Frame has made way for the opposite: civil servants are more likely to be sacked for giving opinions that displease their ministers.

Goyal was given a two-year tenure when he was appointed home secretary earlier this year and the reasons he was encouraged to seek ‘voluntary retirement’ are not clear. According to some reports, he was shifted as he had opposed government policy on the Naga Accord. According to another version, he was opposed to giving security clearance for Sun TV and raised his objection in writing. Another version says that his working relations with his additional secretary, who was very close to Home Minister Rajnath Singh, were not good and in several matters Goyal had allegedly not kept the minister briefed.

Rajiv Mehrishi, the new Union home secretary. Credit: PTI

Rajiv Mehrishi, the new Union home secretary. Credit: PTI

It is interesting to note that Goyal was transferred the day his successor, Rajiv Mehrishi was due to retire. If the government wanted to appoint Mehrishi as home secretary, this was the last day as officers are not appointed to such key posts after superannuation. While the full facts are not known, one can very well understand Goyal’s insistence on putting his views in writing. In the absence of any provision protecting upright civil servants, the fact that a certain policy or decision is adopted despite the secretary recording his opposition in writing could remain the only safeguard against his prosecution if and when enquiries are instituted on that issue in the future.

The present NDA government at the Centre had expressed a strong commitment to good governance when it took office in May 2014. Generally when a party comes to power for the first time, a new set of officers is posted in all key positions. This unhealthy practice has been in vogue in the states as well as at the Centre for the past four decades. When Prime Minister Modi generally left the Central bureaucracy intact – apart from his own officers in the PMO, of course – this gave a lot of confidence to the service. The PM held a meeting with secretaries at the Centre and assured them of all protection. He advised them to work without fear of any persecution. He said that necessary steps will be taken so that officers can work with confidence and that the government would protect every bona fide action.

Apart from the blow to morale that the sacking of the home secretary has caused across the civil services, efficient governance is being compromised by four specific problems – three of the present government’s own making, and one a holdover from the past that the PM promised to address but had failed to do so far.

Stability of tenure

First, a stable and long tenure for secretaries – which is such a critical component of good governance – does not appear to be important any longer. The secretaries of finance, defence, foreign affairs and home are considered especially crucial for all governments, apart from the cabinet secretary himself. Unfortunately, all of them have been changed in less than a year. In the ministry of finance, the secretary of the department of economic affairs was removed and a new officer posted less than a year back. He has now been appointed as the new home secretary and another officer has replaced him. Earlier, the government had posted a new foreign secretary, cutting short the prescribed two-year tenure of the incumbent, Sujata Singh. In the HRD ministry, a new secretary was appointed in the department of elementary education less than a year back. She has been shifted to another ministry because of differences with the minister, newspaper reports indicate.

Second, joint secretaries are also realising that the Modi government is not willing to fulfil their expectations of a stable tenure. When officers come on deputation to the Central government at the JS level, they are assigned to a ministry and work in it for a period of five years or till the end of their tenure, which is extended on promotion. A change from one ministry to another is met with strong resistance and accepted only in a few cases. Most civil servants, in fact, look for career growth in Delhi and making their mark as a joint secretary in a Central ministry is a crucial stepping stone. It is worrisome that according to a recent news report, 60 officers have sought voluntary repatriation to their state cadres. Earlier – in September 2014 – a large number of officers of this level had been transferred from one ministry to the other within a few months of the government taking over.

Third, the Central government runs major public sector undertakings (PSUs) in which – as part of good governance as well as the guidelines of SEBI – 50% of board directors have to be independent. With the change in government last year, the earlier appointees have not continued, which is understandable. But new directors have not been appointed in a large number of important PSUs. This has left a void and removed an independent oversight over the functioning of PSUs.

Protection for bona fide actions

Finally, against the backdrop of the recent prosecution of bureaucrats, the civil service has been extremely concerned about protection against malicious allegations, enquiries and subsequent harassment. The concept of mala fide and bona fide decisions under our current Prevention of Corruption Act is blurred. Secretaries to government have been prosecuted on account of an alleged loss to government even though the decision did not result in any benefit of any sort to the officer. Many of these enquiries start years after retirement. Such officers have no protection and spend their savings in paying lawyers. The government had decided to make changes in the law to protect honest civil servants who had taken bona fide decisions. However, these have not been passed so far. This may result in officers taking enormous precautions by referring all matters for advice to the law and finance ministries and taking cabinet approval – to protect themselves as much as they can. The outcome will be either no decision or a highly delayed decision.

The author is a former cabinet secretary and a former member of the erstwhile Planning Commission