The DoPT letter comes in the wake of a perceived shortage of AIS officers in Union ministries. It says the states “are not sponsoring an adequate number of officers for central deputation”, leading to a shortage in meeting Union government needs. Its earlier letters (on December 20 and 27 and January 7) soliciti comments from the states elicited limited response, prompting it to revise the proposal in the January 12 letter. Earlier last year, the DoPT had cautioned the states that not sending enough officers may affect future cadre review proposals. The Centre is apparently unable to fill vacancies at director and joint secretary levels in various Union ministries. Among the Central Secretariat Service (CSS) posts lying vacant, 390 are at joint secretary level (experience of 19-plus years) and 540 are for deputy secretary (nine years) or director ranks (14 years of service).
At stake now is the move to amend Rule 6 of the IAS (Cadre) Rules, 1954, which governs central deputation in the IAS. According to it, an AIS officer can be posted at the Centre with the concurrence (no objection certificate) of the concerned state government. The DoPT asks states to send an annual list of names of AIS officers willing to go on central deputation, from which it then selects officers. The new proposal is prompted by a persistent shortage of officers on central deputation. As of January 1, 2021, only 458 IAS officers were on central deputation out of around 5,200 IAS officers in the country. Indeed, some states have nominated very few officers for deputation to the Centre. Madhya Pradesh (with just 24 of 370 IAS officers on central deputation), West Bengal (28 out of 298), Rajasthan (12 out of 241) and Telangana (9 out of 164) are conspicuous on this list (see Cadrewise Breakup of IAS Officers). In fact, actual deputation as a percentage of the mandated reserves fell from 69 per cent in 2014 to 30 per cent in 2021, suggesting that the DoPT has a valid concern.
The DoPT has already made two significant changes in less than a decade. In August 2017, the Union government revised the cadre allocation policy, ostensibly to ensure national integration of the bureaucracy and ensure an all-India character for the services. The existing state cadre were divided into five zones. Under the policy, a candidate has to first give their choice in descending order of preference from among the zones. Subsequently, they have to indicate a preferred cadre from each selected zone. The second cadre preference for every preferred zone is indicated subsequently. The process continues till the candidate exhausts the list. No change is permitted afterwards. Officers continue to work in the cadre they are allotted or are deputed to the Government of India. In 2020, to ensure more officers at the Centre, the DoPT made it mandatory for IAS officers from the 2007 batch on to serve at least three years on central deputation at the level of deputy secretary and above in order to be considered for empanelment and appointment in higher ranks—as a joint secretary, additional secretary or secretary.
Now, Delhi wants to acquire overriding power if the state delays sending an officer on central deputation. It has proposed that “the officer shall stand relieved from cadre from the date as may be specified by the central government”.
The problem is that the majority of bureaucrats are comfortable staying in the states. But central deputation of the AIS officers, be it IAS or IPS, ensures a two-way movement of officers which is beneficial for the states as well the Union government. It also enhances domain expertise of individual officers and widens their experience.
The states, though, view the move with suspicion. West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee was the first to assert her opposition in a letter to the prime minister on January 13. In her third letter on the issue, she called it a draconian move, emphasising that the proposed amendment is against the “spirit of cooperative federalism”, “taking the matter to non-federal extremes” besides being against the “basic structure of India’s constitutional scheme”.
Banerjee knows all too well what central interference can mean. Last year, the DoPT directed West Bengal chief secretary Alapan Bandyopadhyay to report to its office in Delhi hours after the chief minister allegedly skipped a review meeting on Cyclone Yaas with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The 1987 batch IAS officer, who had never been on central deputation, was to superannuate on May 31. He is now fighting a case against the Centre.
The Centre’s proposal has provoked other chief ministers too to join the chorus. Tamil Nadu’s M.K. Stalin points out that it empowers the Centre to enlist any officer without the concurrence of the concerned state and place them “in perpetual fear of being penalised by the Union government at any time”. Jharkhand’s Hemant Soren argues it will create a fear psychosis in an IAS officer and adversely affect his “objectivity, performance and efficiency” and prevent him from offering candid opinion in matters that can be construed as “taking sides in sensitive matters of Centre-state disputes”.
Yet others invoke the federal spirit to claim it is an attempt to undermine the states’ authority. Chhattisgarh chief minister Bhupesh Baghel warns that if implemented, it may lead to the collapse of the administrative system of states. He claims that as a result of the amendments, officers posted in various important capacities will be assailed by a sense of instability and ambiguity. “They will be in a dilemma while discharging their duties and due to political interference, it will not be possible for them to work impartially, particularly at the time of elections,” says Baghel. The protests, of course, are largely from non-BJP-ruled states.
What the states find most galling is that while New Delhi seeks to consult the states on the number of officers to be deputed to the Centre, it wants overriding powers in case of any disagreement. With similar proposals for the IPS and IFoS, the states are apprehensive that this is an attempt to subvert their authority guaranteed by the Constitution.
The bureaucrats are in a quandary and, in private, fear the proposed changes expose them to reprisal. A major concern is the Union government arrogating to itself the authority to seek the services of any IAS officer for a central assignment. In effect, a bureaucrat perceived to be close to a rival party government can be brought to Delhi as a punitive measure.
But some do endorse the proposal. “Camaraderie and cooperation among the Union and the states cannot, like federalism, be a one-sided construct. It cuts both ways,” argues Srivatsa Krishna, a 1994 batch IAS officer now on a sabbatical. “The Government of India (GoI) cannot run effectively with just 458 IAS officers serving it. The quality of governance, indeed of both policy design and execution, depends a lot on the hand at the wheel.” He says any state treating AIS officers as officers of the state are flouting existing norms. Further, he asks, should the GoI not have the option of selecting specific officers for special situations, especially now when they are even bringing in professionals from the private sector?
Many, however, remain wary of the Centre’s intentions. “India is a Union of states and that is how we have a central government. What is being attempted is to convert an All India Service as one under a centralised authority,” rues retired bureaucrat and author M.G. Devasahayam.
Others say the problem goes deeper and involves the essential subjugation of an already much co-opted civil service. “When the Centre itself is pushing for lateral entry, what is the need for calling unwilling officers on deputation?” asks Ajit Kumar Singh, a retired IAS officer of Rajasthan. “This move will demoralise IAS officers and the services will lose their sheen in course of time. Short-sighted decisions can do long-term damage to the polity.” Yet others say that the problem is that a majority of officers do not want to work outside their state. They cite two reasons for it. One, the empanelment process is itself pitted against those going to the Union government. Two, the cadre develop a comfort in the state and do not want to take on an unknown (the Centre). Consequently, the AIS has effectively devolved into the provincial services.
“There is no premium on competence in the civil service. That is the problem. It is a self-imposed characteristic or virtue rather than externally demanded. What is demanded by bosses is only subservience,” emphasises P.V. Ramesh, who retired from the Andhra Pradesh cadre. People choose to refer to the IAS as the steel frame but actually it is no frame at all, he says, likening bureaucrats to multiple amoebae put in a bowl and moving in different directions.
Ramesh suggests an overhaul of the governance structure (which has not been attempted in the past 75 years) as the IAS is too small for a complex country of 1.4 billion people. His solution: do not allot to a cadre for the first 12-14 years when you are expected to do field service and earn your spurs to go to the next level. At that stage, let an independent national civil service authority appraise performance along with the UPSC and decide the direction in which each one should go. Also make it mandatory for the officer to work with the Union government for a couple of years and only on completing it should the officer be allotted to any state. He feels the staff position should be national in an All India Service in order to have a bureaucracy that is independent and stands up for the rule of law while being part of the nation-building enterprise.
– With Amitabh Srivastava, Rohit Parihar and Romita Datta