New Delhi: From having their precious lunch hours curtailed to watching high profile exits and sackings of senior officials, the nation’s pampered civil servants have had to keep a wary eye out since the Narendra Modi-led government came to power.

Now they have had the rule book thrown at them with the threat of compulsory retirement for non-performing officials— and there’s a growing sense of unease, according to former and serving bureaucrats.

The Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT) issued an order earlier this month about performance reviews of senior officials who have either completed 30 years in service or reached 50 years of age. If found lacking in any way, especially in the matter of integrity—officialese for corruption— the DoPT, which is headed by the Prime Minister, will “compulsorily retire" the official “for the sake of public interest," says the circular.

Interestingly, the DoPT order is actually an old provision in the service rule which was meant to weed out non-performers and keep the bureaucracy at its efficient best. But it has never been used. “For better administration, it is necessary to chop off dead wood," the note adds. These are chilling words for many bureaucrats, who have watched the changes stoically over the past year.

First came the news that Lutyen’s Delhi’s tony clubs were rapidly emptying out; Modi reportedly frowned upon the idea of long liquid lunches at these power centres.

Then, in August last year, the government amended the All India Service (conduct) Rules, 1968, to unveil a 19-point guideline for bureaucrats. The need for political neutrality was one of the points listed.

Changes also took place among serving officials. Foreign secretary Sujatha Singh quit last year, while home secretary Anil Goswami was sacked in February 2015 for allegedly interfering in the Saradha scam probe.

The Appointments Committee of the Cabinet now comprises only the Prime Minister and the home minister after its reconstitution in June 2014. Also, a special link was put up on the Prime Minister’s Office website for bureaucrats to interact directly with the Prime Minister.

Now, some former senior civil servants are calling for caution.

“There is no denying that there is a lot of deadwood, especially at the state level and such officers are counter-productive to the system," said former cabinet secretary T.S.R. Subramanian. The revival of the DoPT provision, according to him, is a good step, but he admitted to being concerned about its politicization. “It should not be used as a weapon to handle good people. Don’t make it a deliberate way to stop a man’s career."

Subramanian’s fears are grounded in reality. Ashok Khemka, an Indian Administrative Service officer, has been transferred at least 45 times in his 23-year-old career. And Durga Shakti Nagpal, who tried to stop illegal sand mining during her tenure as a bureaucrat in Gautam Budh Nagar was suspended by the Uttar Pradesh government.

“Stability of tenure, insulation from interference by political masters...there is an urgent need for administrative reform," said economist and management consultant S.L. Rao. Individual accountability has to be brought in, but at the same time, bureaucrats cannot be left to the mercy of their political masters.

Indian bureaucracy is notorious for its inefficiency.

In 2012 Hong Kong-based Political & Economic Risk Consultancy Ltd described India as a “bureaucratic nightmare" among 12 Asian countries it covered. Indian bureaucracy was, in fact, ranked 9.21 on a scale of 10, with 10 being the worst. It went on to cite inertia and corruption as some of the principal factors that ail Indian bureaucracy.

Some bureaucrats admit that political patronage, and corruption have tainted their image, perhaps beyond repair.

The moves by the National Democratic Alliance government have been cited as an attempt to correct these very problems but some experts disagree. “Bureaucracy and administration are very large subjects, you can’t generalize from certain steps taken by the government," said Subramanian.

There is an element of discomfort, especially regarding the high-profile changes seen in the past 15 months. “The sacking of Goswami was an integrity issue but (L.C.) Goyal’s case should have been handled better. His removal did make a lot of people wonder what was happening," said a recently retired IAS officer.

Goyal was replaced by Rajiv Mehrishi as home secretary on 31 August, following which the former opted for voluntary retirement. Goyal was appointed as chairman and managing director of India Trade Promotion Organization (ITPO) within a few hours.

According to news reports, there were problems owing to Goyal not giving security clearance to TV and radio channels owned by a particular media group’s channel.

A reshuffle of bureaucrats holding top posts is the norm whenever a new government comes to power. When the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government took office in 2004, everyone from the cabinet secretary to the defence secretary was shunted out, the former unceremoniously. “In fact, this government has not been so quick in changing the appointees of the previous regime. They have allowed them to function, a lot of people have moved out as they retired," said Subramanian.

But even if the Modi government has held back from transferring men and women perceived to be UPA loyalists, these changes, including unceremonious exits at the top level are bound to create unease.

About the DoPT order, former home secretary G.K. Pillai said, “If you transfer officers frequently, how can their performance be assessed? The new government has to give bureaucrats time to peform. You have to document targets, draw plans on how to achieve them, etc."

Recalling his time at the centre, Pillai said former Cabinet minister P. Chidambram had drawn up an annual action plan and a progress report was to be submitted every month. “Performances have to be viewed against action. Otherwise, you only get yes-men. Termination does not inspire confidence."

However, in spite of the rumbles, officials like former comptroller and auditor general Vinod Rai do not forsee a head-on collision between the government and the bureaucracy. “The bulk of the bureaucracy is very dynamic. However, you have to entrust them, empower them to deliver for you. Hands-on administration by political executives does not work."

A former diplomat said, “Modi came to power with a promise of sprucing up things and it is no secret that during the tenure of UPA-2, things were sliding. There was in fact a lot of slackness. So, the message the government now seems to be sending out is ‘shape up or ship out’. And it is not a bad message at all. The bureaucracy in its own subtle way will perhaps try to fight back. “Already, there are murmurs that many don’t want to come to the central government and prefer state appointments as they are easier. But that comes with its own set of problems, states being heavily politicised."

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