This entry of professionals from various fields at the Joint Secretary level will happen in spite of stiff resistance from the country’s powerful IAS lobby.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has decided to go ahead with the much needed but delayed reform in the top bureaucracy by directly inducting private individuals, a process better known as “lateral entry” of officers. This entry of professionals from various fields at the Joint Secretary (JS) level will happen in spite of stiff resistance from the country’s powerful IAS lobby. The IAS lobby is being supported in this by the Opposition parties and some caste lobbies in a big way. Sources say that there has been a lot of blowback from these officials and others who want the exercise postponed, preferably after the Lok Sabha elections. In fact most of them want the “experiment” to fail. But the Prime Minister is determined to clean up administration and make it more efficient and has made it clear that he wants to choose talent from a greater pool of people. Sources add that around 300 names in the private sector and government have already been vetted by the intelligence agencies. To this will be added the pool of names selected from the applications coming in response to an advertisement released all over the country. Applications are expected to come from both inside the country and from Indian nationals working abroad.
Sources say that since the pool of professionals is expected to be vast, it is certain that the process will go beyond the selection of just 10 officers, who will be the initial inductees. The number will increase exponentially in the near future.
Highly-placed sources say that the government think-tank NITI Aayog had made a detailed presentation before Prime Minister Modi in July last year, saying how lateral entry was needed to transform India’s colonial-style bureaucracy, which has been resisting all reforms so far.
The recruitments are being done for the Ministries of Finance, Commerce & Industry, Civil Aviation, New & Renewable Energy, Environment, Forests & Climate Change, Shipping, Road Transport & Highways and Agriculture. As per the 31 August 2017 list available on the website of Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT), as many as 99 posts of directors are vacant in 47 ministries and departments across the government establishment.
Before making the final appointments, a careful vetting of the short-listed candidates will be done at par with the process that is generally followed for officials appointed to key positions, said sources.
NITI AAYOG’S BELIEF
Pushing for lateral entry in the bureaucracy, NITI Aayog has said that rising complexities in the economy has meant that policy making has become a specialised activity. Therefore, it is essential that specialists be inducted into the system through lateral entry. Such entry will also have the beneficial side effect of bringing competition to the established career bureaucrats, it explains.
The Aayog has also called for replacing the current system of rapid rotation of officers across ministries by a system of longer postings according to specialization. “Specialists could be brought on three- to five-year contract. Such a system will bring in best talent and high energy into the government set-up and lend new dynamism to the ministries,” it further observed in the presentation to the Prime Minister.
PROCESS BEING INSTITUTIONALISED
Commenting on the resistance from the IAS lobby in particular, a source said, “Some ministries need technical experts who have exhaustive domain knowledge of their respective fields, which the sitting bureaucrats do not have. So, there is nothing wrong if a specialist is brought in for a specific purpose. The ministries and the departments are not the fiefdoms of the bureaucrats. These are not castles for bureaucrats where no one else can enter. The main objective behind the whole move is to carry out public good.”
In the past too, non-IAS individuals have worked in crucial positions in various ministries, they added and cited a few examples: Manmohan Singh, who later became Prime Minister, was once appointed as Secretary in the Department of Economic Affairs. Manuel Menezes, who was associated with Indian Rail Board all his life, retired as a Secretary (Defence Production). Chemical scientist Lovraj Kumar served as Petroleum Secretary during Indira Gandhi’s government. Scientist S.S. Bhatnagar served as a Secretary in the then Education Ministry. Agricultural scientist M.S. Swaminathan worked as a Principal Secretary in the Ministry of Agriculture. Economist Vijay Kelkar served as the Finance Secretary in 1998. Similarly, well-known nuclear scientist Homi Bhabha and economist Indraprasad Gordhanbhai Patel also served in various positions in the government.
But this is for the first time the process of lateral entry is being institutionalised, which has the IAS officers worried. While publicly the IAS Association is maintaining that they are studying the move, sources say that the truth is that they will try their best to derail the process. The IAS officers are worried that if not thwarted now, the government will bring in many more specialists in positions that are “reserved” for them.
BAND OF BROTHERS
Serving and retired officers from other cadres feel that this is a good move. But they say that the recruitments will have to be done objectively. Delhi-based Arun Bhatnagar, who retired as a Secretary, said that for this idea to succeed, it should be executed in a very transparent manner. Moreover, the exercise is being taken up at a very late stage, in the last year of the incumbent government, he added.
“First of all, the recruitment system needs to be very transparent. Already, opponents are talking of political motive behind the move. So, let it be done through the UPSC. Also, I am not expecting the best of the corporate sector to be too enthusiastic about it. JS was a very functional post till 20 years ago, but has been diluted now. Overall, it’s worth experimenting with. How the new recruits fit into the system is to be seen,” he further said.
Similarly, former Bihar-cadre IAS officer Pancham Lal, who retired from the rank of Chief Secretary, said that the government’s focus should be on making the recruitment process clean. “There is no harm in inducting specialists into the system. It is done in other fields also. In judiciary, eminent lawyers are appointed as judges in High Courts and even Supreme Court,” he added.
“It happens in many other countries also. But my concern is about maintaining objectivity and transparency in the whole recruitment process. It should be done strictly on the basis of merit, maybe through a written test. After all, for the bureaucracy, Joint Secretary is the position where the real power flows from,” he commented.
Bhopal-based former Indian Forest Service (IFS) officer, Azad Singh Dabas, who faced 32 transfers in his career, said that if the real intention of the government was to improve the bureaucratic set-up, then it was a welcome step. “However, if they are using this exercise to bring in people of a particular mindset in the system, or their favourites, then this should be opposed by everyone,” he said.
However, he added, “It is but natural that the IAS lobby will resist this move as it challenges their hegemony and monopoly. What will happen to them if genuine people are recruited and they perform better than the sitting ones? They will naturally be afraid that this will automatically lead to lateral recruitments at the Additional Secretary level and then the Secretary level in the next phase.”
“There is no doubt that there is an urgent need to reform the promotion system in the IAS cadre. Right now, once a person enters the system, his promotion depends on the ACR (annual confidential report) that is written by one of his/her seniors who too is from the same service. And among IAS officers, there is an unwritten code that they will not ‘play’ with the ACR of their ‘brothers’. So even the non-performers get promoted,” he pointed out.
SABOTAGE BY IAS LOBBY?
There is also fear that many of these IAS officers will now actively work against the NDA government and try to hurt its electoral prospects. Those in the know say that the immensely powerful IAS officers are in a position even to influence voting in elections.
A Delhi-based retired IPS officer, who has served at various positions in Ministry of Home Affairs, said that it was but natural that lateral appointments would be opposed vigorously by a section of IAS officers as this whole exercise was going to loosen their grip on the reins of power.
“IPS officers are the least concerned. It is the IAS lobby that is feeling restless as it is their ‘fort’ that is being breached. Honestly, I do not see this move being successful as the bureaucrats will make sure that it is shelved. This has also generated anger in the IAS lobby against the Modi government, and if PM Modi does not come back to power in 2019, we can safely say ‘bye’ to this whole exercise,” he said.
Welcoming the move, N. Dilip Kumar, who served as Joint Commissioner of Police of Delhi, said that it is important that the appointments are based on objective reasoning. “This move is a very good decision by the Central government as it would bring talented people into the system and create a sense of competitiveness amongst the civil servants,” he said.
“The norm should be like the corporate culture where individuals are given promotions on the basis of merit and performance. However, the government should ensure that no bias or ideological factor comes into play while selecting candidates. The move is likely to create a sense of anguish among the serving IAS officers. Just wait and watch how the lateral entrants are welcomed into the system by the service officers,” he added.
The apprehension is that IAS officers will adopt a stance of non-cooperation with the lateral entrants, so that the latter fail to carry out their duties and the “experiment” proves to be a failure. But sources say that the Prime Minister is determined to ensure that the lateral entrants, who will all be domain-specific professionals, make administration more efficient.