Andhra Pradesh's ‘steel frame' rattles with indignation as the CBI goes after top bureaucrats in scam cases.

Where does the buck stop in government, at the desk of a minister or that of the bureaucrat who signs the files? This question has stirred a passionate debate in Andhra Pradesh, where the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) has arrested two bureaucrats and questioned many more in connection with a slew of corruption scams.

For the State's IAS officers, the question is a no-brainer: the political executive must take responsibility for all policy decisions. It already claims credit for the good decisions, so why not the bad ones, they are asking. They are peeved that the CBI does not quite see it the same way, and that rather than holding political leaders accountable for all scams, it has been hounding the bureaucrats.

The discontent in the elite service has been brewing ever since the CBI arrested and sent to jail two of their colleagues, Y. Srilakshmi and B.P. Acharya, both Principal Secretaries, and summoned several other senior bureaucrats, including an ex-Chief Secretary, for questioning.

Ms Srilakshmi was accused of granting an out-of-turn iron ore mining licence to the Obulapuram Mining Company (OMC), owned by former Karnataka Minister Gali Janardhan Reddy; Mr. Acharya stands charged with allowing the Dubai-based Emaar Properties to “cheat” its joint venture partner, the State-run A.P. Industrial Infrastructure Corporation (APIIC), of which the accused bureaucrat was then the vice-chairman and managing director.

Also under the CBI scanner is another high-profile case, against Kadapa MP Y.S. Jaganmohan Reddy for accumulating disproportionate assets when his father, Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy (YSR), was Chief Minister.

The YSR link

The common denominator in all these cases, according to the CBI, is the short-changing of the State exchequer and the pocketing of tens of crores. And while the dramatis personae are different in every case, another common thread running through them is that YSR was at the helm when each of those questionable decisions was taken. A powerful leader who had his way with Congress party leaders and bureaucrats, YSR is not in a position to reveal who influenced these decisions.

As IAS officers were virtually made to queue up outside the CBI's office to testify on this crucial question, over 70 officers went in a delegation to Chief Minister N. Kiran Kumar Reddy to protest the CBI's kid-gloved treatment of politicians connected with the OMC and Emaar cases.

A three-hour charged meeting of the IAS Officers' Association followed, where members protested the CBI's conduct.

While the association, quoting the code of conduct and business rules, holds the minister concerned ultimately responsible for everything that happens in his department, not all members of the “steel frame” approve of such “trade unionism.” They are of the view that those party to dishonest decisions, whether netas or babus, must be brought to book, especially as within the IAS fraternity, it is an open secret that there are officers whose conduct is not above board.

Contrasting stands

The association draws a parallel with the resignation of Lal Bahadur Shastri as Railway Minister owning responsibility for a train accident in Tamil Nadu (then Madras State). If this was an example of high moral rectitude, the case of Botcha Satyanarayana, now Pradesh Congress president, was the other end of the spectrum. The only punishment he suffered after the discovery that money was withdrawn from an escrow account by a bogus company called Vashishta Wahan — created as a special purpose vehicle to attract German auto major Volkswagen — was to be shunted out from the portfolio of Industries. YSR was Chief Minister then. In 2010, the CBI gave him a clean chit.

K. Madhava Rao, a former Chief Secretary, says if a minister takes the stand before the CBI that he or she did not know the contents of a file forwarded by the secretary, it amounts to failure on the part of the minister. He goes to the extent of arguing that by the principle of collective responsibility, it was a failure of the entire Cabinet — failure to abide by the oath taken at the swearing-in ceremony.

The allusion is to A.P. Home Minister P. Sabitha Indra Reddy, who was earlier Minister for Mines. She said she was given to understand by Ms Srilakshmi, then Secretary, Mines Department, that OMC had sought a licence for “captive mining” of iron ore exclusively for a proposed steel plant in Kadapa district. But, unknown to her, she claims, the words “captive mining” were removed from the Government Order.

IAS officers point out that in the telecom scam rocking the country it was former Telecom Minister A. Raja who was called to stand scrutiny. “Why is no politician in A.P. being called to account?” they ask.

Fallout

Politicians, on the other hand, argue that bureaucrats must not get blanket immunity, especially when the country is facing monumental corruption. “No country provides the kind of protection the IAS officers enjoy in India under Article 311 of the Constitution (safeguards against dismissal and reduction of rank),” says Jayaprakash Narayan, a former IAS officer who founded the Lok Satta Party.

The babu vs. neta battle has already drastically slowed down administrative decision-making in Andhra Pradesh as officers have stopped using their discretion in signing files. The ramifications of the cases against Emaar and Jagan go beyond India's shores to Dubai and Mauritius. The burden is now on the CBI to demonstrate that it is conducting a fair investigation.

nagesh@thehindu.co.in

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