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Be Big Brother, Not Big Boss

The “steel frame” is under strain. The centre’s move to change IAS officers’ deputation rules has touched the fragile faultline of centre-state relations. The amendments have the potential to negatively impact the federal structure of the nation. The India Legal TV show, hosted by Rajshri Rai, Editor-in-Chief of APN channel, tries to get to the root of the problem.

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By Sanjay Raman Sinha 

The proposal to change central deputation rules of Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officers has escalated into a major conflict between the centre and states. On January 12, the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT) had written to states on the Union government’s proposal to amend Rule 6 (deputation of cadre officers) of the Indian Administrative Service (Cadre) Rules 1954.

The proposed rules enable the centre to acquire overriding powers in matters of transfer of IAS officers through central deputation. In the process, approval of the concerned state government has been done away with. This has become a new flashpoint in centre-state relations, especially with Opposition-ruled states. In the larger context, the concept of federalism is under test and the Constitution is also facing a challenge.

Justice MN Venkatachaliah, former chief justice of India and Chief Patron of India Legal, said: “The Indian Constitution is strong enough to take care of it. It is federal when it is desirable to promote federalism; it can be unitary in times of crisis. Therefore, the framework of the Indian Constitution is resilient. It been tried out for 70 years. I think the next generation of Indians with the experience they have had will manage it much better.”

DoPT had sent a list of proposed amendments to the chief secretaries of all states. If the proposed rule gets into the rulebook, then the centre’s demand for deputation will have to be complied with, irrespective of the consent of the state government concerned. This will also seriously erode the All India Service character of the IAS. The proposal shows little regard to the administrative needs and requirements of the states.

Wajahat Habibullah, a former IAS officer and India’s first Chief Informa­tion Commissioner, objected to the move. He said: “There has been controversy over the proposed change in the IAS deputation rules. We, the retired IAS officers, belong to the Constitutional Conduct Group which takes it upon itself to point out to the government and the public if some law or rules is against the Constitution. All India Services, which includes the IAS, the Indian Foreign Service and the Indian Forest Service hold the nation together. The IAS is often termed as the steel frame of India. At the time of making of the Constitution, Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Patel understood the importance of the IAS and accorded it due importance. The All India Services are such that when the officer works for the centre, he has full loyalty for the centre and when he works for the state, he works dedicatedly for it. The proposed rules will weaken this commitment and enervate the federal structure.

Rule 6 of IAS (Cadre) Rules, 1954, says that any IAS officer could be posted on ‘central deputation’ with the concurrence of the state government concerned. The amendments could seriously affect the federal structure of the country. Several Opposition-ruled states including West Bengal, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Kerala and Tamil Nadu have raised concerns over the centre’s proposal.

GK Pillai, former home secretary, said: “The justification that the centre is giving is that officers are not sent to the centre even though there is a deputation reserve in states allocation. But a more fundamental reason is that there is a total breakdown of trust between the centre and Opposition-ruled states. We have the example of the chief secretary of West Bengal who was posted to the centre on the last day of his service. This is the type of vindictive action which the states are fearing.”

Inderjit Badhwar, editor of India Legal magazine, placed the conflict in perspective, and underlined the importance of the “steel frame”. He said: “During the Constituent Assembly debate on the Constitution, Sardar Patel was in favour of setting up the IAS on the lines of the ICS. C Rajgopalachari opposed the IAS on the ground that it promoted permit raj. Even Krishna Menon, a leftist by ideology, despite being close to Nehru, used to mock bureaucrats as “Brown Sahibs”, remnant of the British ICS. So this debate on the IAS has a historical background. It was no surprise that the ICS was termed as the steel frame because it was formed after the mutiny of 1857 to strengthen the administration of districts of India and they worked with dedication to hold the Colony together. The appellation of the steel frame was relevant as it prevented the State from declining to a banana republic in times of crisis or breakdown of the constitutional machinery. Hitherto, India has seen many short term national governments and constitutional crisis, but in the midst of change, the All India Services had always provided continuity and prevented India from becoming a banana republic.”

The origins of the Indian Civil Service (forerunner of the IAS) has its roots in the need of the British government to control the Indian Colony. Post Independence, it changed its character, but the focus on effective administration is still very much there.

Madhukar Gupta, a former IAS officer, has known the ground realities. He said: “I read a phrase long time back which has a sting of truth: ‘After Independence, bureaucrats became gods and politicians became masters of bureaucrats.’ Look what happens in the judiciary. Appointments are made without political interference, but in the bureaucracy, transfers depend on the whims and fancies of the political class. Bureaucrats have become like batsmen who come in to play but do not know how many overs they have. During the British Raj, only two officials were incharge of a town—the district collector and the police chief, and both were invariably Englishmen. That’s how 33 crore Indians were controlled by about a lakh of Britishers. After Independence, decentralisation and democratisation happened. The IAS cadre has managerial skills and thus they manage district and the public sector companies with equal ease. But the trust level may have decreased since then. Today, observers are appointed to oversee the work of returning officers during elections, which wasn’t the case in the 50s.”

The centre has alleged that states are not sparing an adequate number of IAS officers for central deputation and this is affecting the functioning of the government. The centre has said that the number of IAS officers on central deputation has dropped from 309 to 223.The states have to ensure that a fixed deputation quota is maintained for central pool requirements. The centre has alleged that states are not conforming to this rule, and there is an officer-crunch at the centre.

The issue of shortage of officers on central deputation is real. Recruitment was slashed in the ’90s. In the ’80s, the number used to be between 120 and 160, which was pruned to 40 to 50 a year. This has brought down the number of officers in the IAS. The cadre has shrunk to around 4,000 officers.

Pillai explained the basis of deputation. “States have the choice of making recommendations for posting to the centre. The officers are asked if they would like to go for central deputation. Thereafter, their names are sent to the centre subject to intelligence clearance. The centre then circulates the names amongst various ministries. Then some get picked up and some don’t. The empanelment of the officers is done by the Government of India. If an officer is empanelled as a joint secretary, it is assumed that his track record and performance is up to the mark.”

Service rules disputes are normally heard at the Central Administrative Tribunal (CAT), which was established for adjudication of disputes in recruitment and service conditions. 

Shanker Raju, a former judicial member of CAT, clarified the deputation rules. “The IAS is a dedicated cadre. Its cadre control is always with the central government. It is a joint cadre, hence it is the option of the employee to choose deputation. The Department of Personnel and Training had created rules in 2006. An elaborate and meticulous process is adopted for deputation. Since it is an All India Service, an officer has to work wherever he is deputed. Politics shouldn’t enter here. The proposed rules are put forward to manage the deputation process. My contention is that there should have been a referendum before the rules were proposed. States’ assent should have been built-in the proposed law, but commitment to adhere to deputation cadre reserve should be there too.”

There is a fear amongst Opposition-ruled states over the centre’s move. West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has written to the prime minister expressing her strong reservations on the proposal, which she described as “draconian”. Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MK Stalin has also written a letter to the PM saying that the proposed changes “strike at the very root” of the nation’s federal polity.

Habibullah opined: “The ruling party wants to control the states via the IAS officers. But what happens if after the proposed rules become law and there is a change in power after the elections and the Opposition comes to power at the centre? Then, the previous party will be at the receiving end, and again there will be conflict. So I hold that the proposed rules are against the spirit of federalism.”

The bureaucracy makes the wheel of the administration go around. Policies are formulated and implemented at the ground level, with the IAS officer leading. As such, faster decision-making and innovation are the key words and a firm grip on the official apparatus is what the politician seeks.

Badhwar said: “The tussle to control the bureaucracy is not a new phenomenon. In the last 4 or 5 years, it has become a fine art. In March 2021, Prime Minister Modi asserted in his Parliament speech that all things can’t be managed by the babus. But if we look back, Modi had depended heavily on bureaucrats to effectively administer Gujarat during his chief ministership there. In fact, his own partymen in secret used to complain that Modi placed greater reliance on his bureaucrats to run the state’s governance than he did on his ministers. Modi had cultivated a band of dependable bureaucrats to execute key projects. At the centre also, he has the same style of functioning and has his own team of officers.

“In fact, when he made his Parliament speech, he was preparing the nation for privatisation. Now, when the centre has proposed the new rules, it seems that the IAS is being targeted. The IAS officer bears allegiance primarily to the Indian Constitution. If his political master orders him to perform a task which is unconstitutional, it is his duty to point it out and say no. A system should be in-built to protect the IAS from being manipulated and against obeying an illegal order.

“Take the example of the US where after the Watergate, a reform happened. In the Watergate, President Richard Nixon had tried to influence the bureaucracy by bringing his own men and giving them cushy jobs. There exists a Merit System Protection Board where merits of the officers are taken into consideration and safeguarded. In the US, the burden of proof for influencing the bureaucracy is on the politician and not on the officer concerned. This protection doesn’t exist in India. The whole idea behind deputation was that the expertise of IAS officers should be used at the centre. But now deputation is being used for political ends.”

A bureaucrat is expected to be politically neutral and to take a principled stand on key issues, and guide his political masters. Habibullah, an old hand, had showed the way during his tenure. He said: “IAS officers should take a stand on issues. When I was in office, I had taken a stand on RTI and the panchayati raj institution and had argued for their strengthening so that transparency and accountability of the government and the IAS increases.”

Recently, the face-off between the West Bengal government and the centre over the former’s chief secretary Alapan Bandyopadhyay is a case in point of centre-states tussle. Delhi had its own share of troubles with the centre over bureaucrats’ transfers.

Pillai said: “These are issues that need to be discussed and settled. When we talk of the federal structure, then the views of both the parties should be accommodated. A give and take policy should be adopted. The states have their own point of view and that should be taken into consideration.’’

In the legal conflict over transfer of bureaucrats, the Supreme Court had ruled that there was “no room for absolutism and anarchy in the Constitution and a balance must be struck to achieve the goals of cooperative federalism by working harmoniously.’’

Justice Venkatachaliah had the last word on the issue. “I agree that many institutional problems in the present scheme of things are not the way they should be in the context of the larger values of the Constitution. But there is an awareness of the lacunae and shortcomings. That awareness is itself a trigger for better management of the institutions. Constitutionalism requires respect for the symbols of the Constitution, respect for the Court, respect for the Parliament, respect for the Election Commission. If these are respected, then commitment to the Constitution and the people will increase proportionately.”

The proposed amendments have the potential to negatively impact India’s federal structure. States’ fears have to be allayed. The centre must play the role of big brother and not that of big boss.

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