In the last 10 days, we have witnessed both the emancipation and subversion of the people’s will. The emancipation was at the hands of the Supreme Court, where a five-judge Bench unanimously recognised the control of the Delhi government over administrative services. The subversion was at the hands of the Central government, which, by promulgating an ordinance to nullify the effect of the Supreme Court judgment, snatched away the Delhi government’s power to control services and handed it to Central government appointees.
Government in the dark
The story began in 2015, when the Union Ministry of Home Affairs took away the elected Delhi government’s control over services and gave it to the Lieutenant Governor (LG), a Union government appointee. This severely impeded the Delhi government’s work. There were day-to-day problems in the functioning of important departments as secretaries were changed every now and then. Frequent transfers of officials, before they could even familiarise themselves with the departments they were working in, minimised any potential for vision, consistency and efficiency in governance. Over two years of the pandemic, the Centre changed Delhi’s Health Secretary eight times and derailed the Delhi government’s relief efforts.
Over the past one and a half years, decisions for appointments and transfers were made by the Services Secretary, the Chief Secretary, and the LG, while the elected government was kept in the dark. As the government had no functional control, it could not punish errant officers. Delhi witnessed the highest number of vacancies of teachers, doctors, engineers, clerks and other staff as a result of perennial mismanagement of the Delhi Subordinate Services Selection Board, managed by the LG.
Most disappointingly, several honest and efficient officials were often penalised for their merits and subjected to punishment postings. They had no clarity on whose directions they were to follow. On the one hand, they felt duty-bound to honour the will of the people expressed through the elected government, and on the other hand, they had to stay under the functional control of the LG.
On the strength of the Home Ministry notification, the Services Department even refused to answer questions raised by MLAs in the Vidhan Sabha, which dealt with crucial issues such as vacancies, vigilance enquiries and corruption cases. Some senior officials even started skipping meetings called by Ministers. They avoided telephone calls and evaded answerability for delayed, inefficient and inadequate action. Thus, important issues such as procurement of anti-smog guns, prevention of dumpsite fires, infrastructure maintenance framework, upgradation of sewage treatment plans, supply of medicines in Mohalla Clinics and hospitals, and redevelopment of Inter-State Bus Terminals were left unattended.
By holding that services in Delhi are to be controlled by the elected Delhi government, the Supreme Court paved the way for an efficient, honest, responsive, accountable and compassionate bureaucracy. It ensured that the chain of accountability involving the people, the legislature, the government and bureaucracy was restored. Empowered by the Court’s decision, the elected Delhi government sought to make transfers and postings of officers based on their performance. It could have taken action against errant officials. With the clarity provided by the Court, the officials who felt suffocated in the previous system were eager to work towards the development of Delhi and the welfare of its people. The Delhi government planned to overhaul the bureaucracy, and after the success of its health and education models, sought to set up a skilled administration model.
What the ordinance does
The Services ordinance again hands over the control on services to the unelected LG, who will use his sole discretion in these matters. The National Capital Civil Service Authority will see two bureaucrats appointed by the Centre vetoing the views of Delhi’s Chief Minister. It will enable the appointment of officers who do not execute the government’s policies or attend meetings with Ministers, and have no responsibility to answer for bureaucratic delays. Those who cooperate with the elected government will be shunted out, and even subjected to disciplinary proceedings.
The Supreme Court decision was a scathing indictment against the Union government and its tendency to usurp powers of States and the National Capital Territory (NCT). But the ordinance, by disregarding the elected government in the matter of services, reduces the value of the citizen’s vote and of cooperative federalism. It is an institutionalisation of the Centre’s tendency to use the apparatus of Governor/LG to undermine democratically elected governments in non-BJP ruled States/NCT. The Supreme Court judgment will be noted for decades. So will the Services ordinance. While the judgment will be remembered as a vindication for the elected Delhi government and its people, the Ordinance will be remembered as a bleak attempt to disempower opposition-run governments and disenfranchise the people.
The Arvind Kejriwal-led government has a track record in delivering its promises even in a hostile environment created by the Centre. While we pin our hopes on the Supreme Court to again do justice to the people of Delhi, the Delhi government will continue to deliver even in the face of adversity.
Kailash Gahlot is Law Minister of Delhi