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As irrigation secretary in a southern state in the mid-90s, I had drafted a response for a meeting in Delhi between the then prime minister and state chief ministers on contentious issues like inter-basin transfer of water and river-linking, from the perspective of an Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer. The chief secretary explained why my response would not be approved by the state’s CM. If the CM agreed, he would risk losing his position, sharing of water being a sensitive political issue.

The recent tussle between the Centre and West Bengal raises important issues about the role of all-India services, especially of the IAS. The problem can be examined both from political and administrative angles, if these could be clearly separated. The political slugfest between the two parties is well known, Centre-state confrontation having been a tradition in Bengal for over four decades now. It has often yielded electoral dividends for local leaders but has hardly helped the state’s economic regeneration. Let’s place the latest controversy in an administrative context.

Services such as the IAS and Indian Police Service were set up with a distinctive purpose and because of the efforts of Vallabhbhai Patel and other stalwarts were included as a feature of our Constitution. They foresaw that in a federal polity of our diversity, conflicts would arise between states and the Centre run by different political dispensations. Since such officers were to occupy senior positions in both administrations, safeguards were provided to enable them discharge their functions fearlessly. Despite occasional tensions, resolved by enlightened leadership, the system worked well for some time.

The Emergency proclaimed in 1975 changed India. The higher bureaucracy was expected to be ‘committed’, not infrequently to the ideology (and leaders) of the party in power. Accordingly, working relationships between them began changing. Since the bureaucracy functions under the political executive, no bureaucrat can be truly ‘independent’ in the sense that constitutional functionaries or members of the judiciary can. Even so, civil servants have many areas where they can work with drive and impartiality, as recent examples of some district collectors and Mumbai’s municipal chief testify.

However, working is somewhat different in secretariats where officials express oral opinions and through file notings. Since a government means the cabinet headed by the CM/PM and the ministers, a secretary to it is bound by their decisions. In practice, not all ministers overrule departmental officers on major or sensitive issues on files, and so some officials try to assess the political mind first and prepare notes accordingly. As the reputation of officers (malleable or too independent for comfort) travels fast, key posts are generally offered to pliant officers. This promotes conformism and sycophancy. Officers with no chance or desire to serve at the Centre can end up provincialized. These militate against the idea of all-India services.

In such a scenario, what were the options left to an officer in the West Bengal situation? As chief secretary, Alapan Bandyopadhyay was officially bound by instructions of the CM, unless it was illegal. Details of his advice to the CM on attending the cyclone-review meeting by the PM are unlikely to be publicly known. However, disobeying the CM could have invited swift action, by way of transfer or even suspension. Should he have resigned from the IAS or faced a charge of insubordination? A cruel choice, keeping in mind the events on that day. The pertinent point is whether the officer intentionally did what he is blamed for. His official reply does not suggest so.

It can be argued that no business can be more important for the state administration than fully participating in that meeting. Whatever the precipitating reasons, prudence demanded that the matter be not allowed to reach a stage where the PM’s meeting went unattended by key officials. This appeared truly unusual and should never happen again.

However, singling out the chief secretary for disciplinary action also seems unprecedented. An order recalling him to Delhi on the day of his superannuation, without providing any rationale, went against conventions and looked like an attempt to humiliate him. Though untenable, it conveyed the Centre’s displeasure with him. When he retired, declining an extension, the matter should have ended. But he was issued a show-cause notice under section 51(b) of the Disaster Management Act, with severe penalties. The former chief secretary has responded. Legality apart, is this the best way to treat a state’s top officer? Does it motivate serving officials and IAS aspirants or promote the spirit of cooperative federalism? Few would think so.

Unless statesmanship prevails and the matter is settled amicably, this issue may snowball. Moreover, it might be undesirable if the courts have to intervene to settle this executive entanglement. As a federative force, these services have played a significant role in maintaining the unity and integrity of our nation. What we need now are measures to reinforce their all-India character.

Admittedly, the Centre has every power to intimidate, discipline and punish officials, the justifiability of which may have to be tested elsewhere. However, the exercise of such power should be reasoned, restrained and proportionate, with the country’s overall interests kept in mind. The public interest would perhaps be best served if the Centre takes a lead, involves states and frames unambiguous rules of conduct for IAS functionaries caught in such difficult situations.

Amitabha Bhattacharya is a former Indian Administrative Service officer who has also served in the private sector and with the United Nations Development Programme

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