IAS is Dying,What’s Next?

| | in Business

The headline, dear reader, isn’t the rant of an IAS (Indian Administrative Service) hater. Au contraire, I have dear friends in the service, and like many in this country, if I were smart enough in that format of the game, I might’ve been one myself!

With this disclaimer, my proposition is that the hallowed steel frame of India, the IAS at its helm, stands beaten into utter submission, and corroded beyond repair.

The ignominy facing PC Parakh, the well-regarded Union coal secretary between March 2004 and December 2005, is just a case in point.

For all ephemeral social media support that came their way, IAS officers like Ashok Khemka in Haryana and Durga Shakti Nagpal in U.P., have had it just as bad.

One wonders what wrong Parakh did to deserve a Central Bureau of Investigation FIR?

A man like him found himself on the hot seat thanks only to Mamta Banerjee, who was Coal Minister. Parakh learnt that when the file came to Didi for consent she was so busy with electioneering that she didn’t bother who the next Coal Secretary will be.

Surprised with his selection, the new Coal Secretary even went to then Cabinet Secretary Kamal Pande wondering he could have made it to such a lucrative position! Pande, the titular head of the service, confined himself to an enigmatic smile.

By May 2005, Parakh found United Progressive Alliance (UPA) as the political master and the paragon of virtue Shibu Soren as his minister. But in a few weeks the hon’ble koela mantri was in jail, and Parakh was sending all files directly to Manomohan Singh ,who had retained the coal portfolio.

A crucial proposal sent for (prime) ministerial consent was a draft ordinance entailing mandatory competitive bidding for all mines.

Nothing came of it. Part of this is explained by Soren’s return as Coal Minister; but no one, least of all Manmohan Singh, asserted even when Soren left New Delhi to run Jharkhand and the PM re-assumed the charge of coal minister.

Instead, the screening committee, which Parakh chaired, was told to continue taking decisions on who got the booty.

Clearly, sifarish letters gave the dubious guys a better chance of wangling a mine compared to what a transparent price discovery process would have entailed. Public-sector undertakings, it should go without saying, found the fewest backers.

Today, Parakh is facing question marks for overturning a screening committee’s recommendation in favour of Hindalco, an Aditya Vikram Birla Group company. But he did what he did on the basis of a Prime Ministerial reference, which in turn was based on written pleas by AV Birla Group chairman Kumaramangalam Birla. Also, hadn’t the PM’s references been backed by written endorsements from Naveen Patnaik, the Chief Minister of Odisha, the host State? Plus, wasn’t Parakh’s overturning of the “safety-via-PSU” policy, argued on the basis of a note that PM (as coal minister incharge), finally okayed?

A minute’s reflection would show that out of four consenting parties: the corporate and the bureaucrat can’t be the only ones facing the CBI FIR: Either PM and the Odisha Chief Minister deserve to be made co-accused. Or all four should be deemed to have acted in good faith.

In the hiatus, what with CBI acting as an arbitrator -and the Comptroller and Auditor-General failing to take note of Parakh’s draft ordinance on competitive bidding that would have nipped all dubious allotments in the bud- even secretaries to the Government of India stand bitten by execution paralysis. So is the committee of secretaries, a group that invariably passes the buck to a group of ministers.

Their reasoning is simple: The less number of decisions one has taken, the longer the merry-go-round that a file takes, the better one’s chances of climbing the ladder or getting a post-retirement regulatory sinecure.

Ditto for not standing up for courageous juniors willing to interpret rules even with an iota of innovation and commitment to get projects off the ground. Now that RTI activist Devashish Bhattacharya has secured an order that all file notings need to clearly reflect the name and designation of every single officer, the fear of being caught with execution bias, like Parakh was 8 years after an event even with the PM of the land in the loop, has only increased.

So, move over steel frame. Some rightly call it bamboo frame already, crawling at the whims of the political master when mere bending would do.

This master, burdened as she is with monies sunk in winning an election, has little interest in what Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel said to the Constituent Assembly: “You will not have a united India if you do not have a good all-India Service which has the independence to speak out its mind, which has a sense of security….The Constitution is meant to be worked by a ring of Service, which will keep the country intact.”

A few outward niceties may vary between, say, a Mayawati handling an IAS officer under her, and J Jayalalithaa.  But both have been known to make officers cover. Result? Ministers, MLAs, and increasingly ordinary political workers treat IAS officers more like servants than public servants they are meant to be. Supernumerary positions in State cadres – and the Centre too, though in relatively lesser measure – has been one more termite attacking the frame. Time the subterfuge ended, the IAS disbanded and the job given to professional political appointees?

(The columnist is CEO & Co-Founder, India Strategy Group, Hammurabi & Solomon Consulting LLP. Tweets @therohitbansal)

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