Renaming places has been a notable passion of the National Democratic Alliance government. Roads have been renamed after national heroes and cities sought to be returned to names from the glorious past. Indeed, one of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s last executive orders of 2018 was to rename three islands of Andaman and Nicobar, one of them, Ross Island, after independence icon Subhash Chandra Bose.

The Andamans are infamous for their British Raj penal colonies, collectively dubbed Kala Pani (black waters) in Hindi to evoke a sense of a hellish place of no return—the kind of place no one would visit willingly. That word is still in use in India, 70 years after independence, but mainly among government officials, to describe job transfers to the more remote parts of India.

Job transfers are a huge matter for governments and their employees, a source of constant worry for employees and apparent satisfaction for governments.

One obvious reason is the uneven development of this massive country, which means that you can be living in a bungalow in the centre of a metropolis one day, with your children going to fine schools and find yourself in the boondocks tomorrow with crumbling accommodation, failing schools and no shopping malls.

The other, less obvious, reason is that governments tend to wield the matter of transfers cynically, as a tool for punishment, injecting an element of unpredictability into an official’s career. And this, in turn, means that a government official—duty-bound to accept a posting—can spend their entire career fretting about one question alone: where the hell next?

A bunch of sleuths belonging to India’s premier investigative agency, the Central Bureau of Investigation, posted back and forth in a farcical series of events, would be forgiven for asking themselves the same question recently. The whole episode has its roots in a system of compromised independence of the CBI, to the point where the agency is often seen as acting on behalf of the ruling political dispensation against opposition politicians.

In this case, involving a complex web of accusations and counter-accusations of bribery and graft, two of the seniormost CBI officials were pitted against each other, each having ordered a corruption probe against the other. The government swung into this fist-fight in December, sending both men on leave and divesting them of their powers. The CBI director, Alok Verma (now sacked), who had instituted a probe against special director Rakesh Asthana, would have swallowed hard as he watched his entire investigative team of 10 men transferred out of Delhi.

One man was moved to Jabalpur, another to Nagpur. And the sleuth heading the entire probe into Asthana was ordered out to—the irony is quite spectacular—Port Blair, the capital of the Andaman Islands, home to the Raj-era penal colony.

In the long list of places where ‘government officials should on no account find themselves to be posted’, Port Blair would figure near the top, along with towns in the remoter regions of the North-East. These are all areas dominated by indigenous tribes (hence, neglected for development schemes). Another place government officials try to stay away from is Jammu and Kashmir, on account of armed hostilities against New Delhi.

Nevertheless, the head of that team, A.K. Bassi, was served that dreaded order, transferring him to Port Blair “in public interest" although he has now challenged it in court. Indeed, pouncing upon the obvious historical reference, opposition Congress party spokesperson Randeep Surjewala accused the Modi government of meting out “Sazaa-e-Kala Paani", flowery Urdu for the black water treatment.

Then, in January, when the Supreme Court restored Verma to his position as CBI director, he immediately cancelled all the transfer orders. But matters were reversed once again within days.

The high-powered committee that selects the CBI director—made up of the prime minister, the leader of the opposition in Parliament and the chief justice or a nominee—sacked Verma from the job. And almost immediately, Verma’s successor, M. Nageshwar Rao, reversed Verma’s reversals of the transfer orders.

This is bizarre, and it boils down to this: should governments be allowed to shunt employees around simply because their work is inconvenient? One related serious issue is that in a setting where corruption is rife, it is not only the corrupt who can invite punishment, but also—perhaps equally—the honest.

Why can’t Indian governments do what the private sector does? Stop promoting a bad officer, demote a really bad officer, and promote and reward the good officer. And introduce a transparent, fair and accountable regime for transfer orders to remote parts. It’s that simple really.

Of course, this works as reward as well—a diplomat who has served time in Pakistan can look forward to a London or Washington posting. However, rewards are okay, punishment postings decidedly not.

An official named Vineet Chaudhari was transferred 52 times in a 31-year career, the Times of India reported in 2014. Winston Mark Simon Pariat comes in next with 50 transfers in 36 years, followed by Ashok Khemka at 46 times.

An interesting case is that of Sanjiv Chaturvedi, a forester who has served as chief vigilance officer at the prestigious All India Institute of Medical Sciences. After a string of exposes, this whistleblower was transferred as many as 12 times by the government of Haryana state, in a litany of alleged official harassment that was brought to an end by the intervention of none other than the then president of India, Pranab Mukherjee.

Chaturvedi won the Ramon Magsaysay Award for emergent leadership in 2015, which recognized him for “his exemplary integrity, courage and tenacity in uncompromisingly exposing and painstakingly investigating corruption in public office..."

If someone were to make a film on the life of Chaturvedi, Khemka, Chaudhari and Pariat, audiences would walk away shaking their heads in disbelief. Sometimes, life truly is stranger than fiction.

Dipankar’s Twitter handle is @Ddesarkar1

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