Despite attempts at reform, frequent transfers of civil servants by loyalty-seeking politicians continue. Only a guarantee of tenure can end the menace.

In April this year, the Haryana government transferred senior IAS officer Ashok Khemka for the second time in six months, or for the 44th time in his 22-year career. The use of transfers and postings in States as a means of harassing officers who are inconvenient because of their professional independence or because they are perceived to be close to an outgoing chief minister is a well-known phenomenon. In his first month as the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, Akhilesh Yadav moved more than 1,000 civil servants to new positions. Such transfer processes are essentially an indication of the politicians’ will to control policy implementation and ensure loyalty.

Articles 310 and 311 of the Constitution make it impossible for civil servants to be dismissed or demoted by elected representatives. However, politicians exert control over policy outcomes by reshuffling the bureaucracy across posts of varying importance. The “politicisation” of the bureaucracy has become a major public policy issue in India.

Demotivating

If Benjamin Franklin once said nothing in this world can be said to be certain, except death and taxes, the former Central Vigilance Commissioner, N. Vittal, has very aptly proposed “Vittal’s amendment to the Franklin Principle”: For a civil servant, nothing is more certain than death, taxes, transfers and retirement.

Frequent transfers present a major problem for governance because civil servants are not allowed to stay in a position long enough to acquire adequate knowledge of and experience in their job. Such a policy also prevents civil servants from instituting or sustaining reforms. It is both demoralising and demotivating when civil servants are not able to see the fruits of their efforts. A young officer cannot retain her idealism for long if, over a period, she suffers adverse consequences because of honesty and integrity.

Further, due to politicians’ desire to control the bureaucracy, not all important posts are filled with the most skilled officers. This also results in underinvestment in skill by junior bureaucrats with career concerns, since investing in loyalty to specific politicians provides an alternative path to career success.

Concerned over such frequent transfers, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has said that no system can deliver if top civil servants are transferred without notice, and thus favours a minimum security of tenure. In State of Maharashtra v. Omprakash Ghanshyamdas Mudiraj, the Bombay High Court showed its concern and observed that “cases of transfer of employees prior to normal period of three years on the complaints of political parties should be looked into … with close scrutiny.”

In Maharashtra

Various steps have been taken by the government as well as the judiciary to curb this menace. The Central government introduced the Indian Administrative Service (Fixation of Cadre Strength) Regulations, 1955 (amended in 2010), that provides for a minimum tenure for postings for civil servants in all States. So far only 13 States and Union Territories have issued formal notices under the regulations indicating their acceptance.

Maharashtra is the only State to come out with a specific law — the “Maharashtra Government Servants Regulation of Transfer and Prevention of Delay in Discharge of Official Duties Act, 2005.” It provides for a minimum tenure of three years for all IAS officers and some State government employees. Any violation of the Act may be referred to the Maharashtra Administrative Tribunal with appeal lying at the Bombay High Court.

The Administrative Reforms Commission and Fifth Pay Commission have also endorsed the idea of a high-powered civil services board both at the Centre and the States to look into and regulate cases of premature transfers of civil servants.

The draft Public Services Bill, 2007 stipulates that the Central government should fix a minimum tenure for cadre posts, which may be filled on the basis of merit, suitability and experience, with proper norms and guidelines to enforce transfers and postings. It proposes explicit limits on the political executive’s ability to transfer bureaucrats before they complete two years of service.

For a minimum tenure

Unfortunately, even after several major steps, the frequent transfer of civil servants remains a serious problem. This is because politicians are not interested in making the situation better.

One of the measures of civil service reform should be to give every senior official a minimum tenure of three to five years in a post through a new Public Services Act. The senior officer, who would get a fixed tenure under the new Act, would be strictly accountable for performance of targets set for him in a memorandum of understanding between him and the political executive.

Further, a new provision should be introduced to ensure that no random transfers are made after 10 years of service and that the civil servant should be placed in a subject stream for which s/he has specialised during training.

There is need to balance the government’s inherent right to transfer a civil servant against the need for effectiveness and independence in policy implementation and better institutional and procedural reforms. The best way to achieve this is by granting those in crucial positions stability of tenure.

(Pradeep S. Mehta is secretary-general, Consumer Unity & Trust Society International. Tanushree Bhatnagar of CUTS contributed to this article.)

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