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Thursday, October 24, 2019

AN unfair Game


The row over the recent suspension of Durga Sakthi Nagpal is another example of how honest officials are finding it increasingly tough to survive in the system. Parimal Peeyush and K S Narayanan look at the larger picture
PARIMAL PEEYUSH AND K S NARAYANAN | Issue Dated: November 30, -0001, New Delhi
Tags : Durga Sakthi Nagpal | Gautam Buddha Nagar | Sand mining mafia | Akhilesh Yadav | Ashok Khemka |

Once touted as the steel frame of governance, the credibility of India's civil service has seen its fair share of highs and lows. The recent suspension of Durga Sakthi Nagpal, who was appointed sub divisional magistrate (SDM) of Gautam Buddha Nagar in Uttar Pradesh, is not just controversial it also marks a new low in the conflict between the bureaucracy and the executive that has hounded several upright and honest bureaucrats across the country.

Just days before her suspension on July 27, this 2009-batch Indian Administrative Service officer (IAS) of UP cadre had hit headlines for daring to take on the sand mafia in western UP. Much to the dismay of her political bosses, Nagpal had led a crackdown on unauthorised mining in the district and got over two dozen FIRs registered against those involved in illegally removing sand. Special flying squads set up by her to stop the rmpaging sand mafia along the Yamuna and Hindon rivers in western UP, a move that eventually led to the seizure of 24 dumpers engaged in illegal quarrying and the arrest of 15 persons.

The officer had asserted that there would be no let-up in the fight against unauthorised dredgers. “The entire district has been affected and illegal mining has become a huge problem. The stakes are too high and those involved get huge monetary returns. The act could lead to serious environmental issues and, therefore, needs to be stopped," she had warned. In a rare show of urgency, the UP government issued orders for Nagpal's suspension late at night for allegedly demolishing a wall of a disputed place of worship.

Opposition parties, former bureaucrats and the state IAS association all seem to be rallying behind the officer who has been punished for performing her duties courageously. Haryana cadre IAS officer Ashok Khemka termed the action taken by Durga Sakthi Nagpal as a legal and bold step. “There are only a few young IAS officers could have dared to take on the sand mafia the way she did," said Khemka who has himself been witness to 44 transfers in about 22 years of his career as a civil servant. "At the age that she (Durga) is now, even I would not have taken this step,'' Khemka added.

While the high-handedness is glaring, the fact remains that the case of Durga Sakthi adds itself to a long list of honest officials who have been hounded and victimized.

Sample the following:
***Ashok Khemka was transferred for the 44th time in October 2012 for cancelling an alleged irregular land dal between Sonia Gandhi's son-in-law Robert Vadra and DLF.
*** In Tamil Nadu, 1990-batch IAS officer Uma Shankar was dumped into a junk posting after he unearthed a cremation shed scam that is said to have led to a poll defeat for J Jayalalitha.
***2002-batch Indian Forest Service officer Sanjiv Chaturvedi was slapped with five criminal cases for taking on the authorities in Haryana. He later petitioned the Supreme Court for a CBI inquiry into numerous cases unearthed by him during his tenure in Haryana. He currently serves as the Chief Vigilance Officer at AIIMS.

As was Jaisalmer SP Pankaj Chaudhary, hounded for following the rule book. "The problem is deep seated malaise, not just in UP, but all over India," says former cabinet secretary T S R Subramaniam. (See interview).

These are stories that resonate across the administrative and police services. In a survey of the civil services released by the government in 2010, 36 per cent civil servants said they were being harassed while 33 per cent had even considered quitting the famed services. A staggering 38 per cent of those who wished to quit admitted to being subject to immense political interference as a major reason for such a consideration. Inconsequential postings and lack of recognition also figured high on the grievances list.

The backbone of India's entire structure of governance has today perhaps become its weakest link. Already saddled with inefficiency and corruption, it is the system that today prevents honest officers to function with dignity. With appointments to top posts in the states dictated by the executive, bureaucrats too have found it convenient to play along in search for plum postings. Sadly, their tribe seems to be growing as officers have come to believe that only towing the line, even unreasonable demands, is the way out. Many of them may even offer moral support to those handful of officers who are punished but not very much more that. The rot runs deep. About a decade ago, in what is perhaps the only survey of its kind conducted till date, bureaucrats in UP decided to vote for the three top most corrupt officials in the state. Ironically, two of them went ahead to become chief secretaries. If that is a precedent to go by, honesty certainly doesn't pay.

‘These are the people who will change India’

In conversation with K S narayanan and parimal peeyush, former Cabinet Secretary TSR Subramaniam says that there was nothing wrong in what Durga Sakthi Nagpal did. India, he says, got it wrong when it failed to define the relationship between the bureaucracy and the executive in 1947. Excerpts:

You have seen UP closely for very long. What is your view about the action against Durga Sakthi Nagpal?
What is happening has been happening for very long. The problem is a deep seated malaise, not just in UP, but all over India. The eighties was an era of the rise of a new breed of politicians.  Criminals used illegitimate means to acquire political authority. Politics became a lucrative business and the breed of those entering politics exclusively to make wealth, became the norm. Total political control of the civil servants became essential as they are the instruments to make money. Politics today is the biggest business with no checks and balances. Like all businessmen who fight among each other but gang up together to demand things from the government, politicians too gang up to say no to RTI, Lokpal etc. So, a public servant had to become a private servant in the need to survive in the system.

What do you think has led to this change?
Long back when we had civil servants ruling as masters, it was a pure hierarchy of bureaucrats. Slowly, the top crop got replaced by the political hierarchy. This was a fundamental change but nobody recognised it. The great blunder in 1947 - when they gave us a beautiful Constitution and a wonderful judiciary - was the failure to realise that the boss who was sitting in White Hall 5,000 miles away was now sitting right in the village, the district. This was a critical difference which we never understood. We didn't understand that the relationship between the bureaucrat and the politician had to be clearly defined and a paradigm had to be created. Now, we are evolving and the evolution has naturally gone in favour of the one who wields might.

Can the centre intervene and protect her?
The Centre's interference is a technical matter. There are thousands of cases and there will be a constitutional break down if the Centre starts entering into the states’ territory. The theory is that officers are identified and selected by the Government of India and given a permanent settlement to the states. While there, the management of the official is done by the state and not the centre. You can have an umbilical cord, you can give directions etc. But beyond a point it is not possible. The second point is that the checks under Articles 308 to 312 of the Constitution are that transfer is the pure administrative matter in the province of the state government, whether for officers of the All India Services or the state government. Even suspension, which is not deemed to be a punishment, is a prerogative of the state government. When we ask Yeddyurappa or Pawan Bansal to step down when there are allegations, we are asking for punishment. We are saying that there are charges against you so do not discharge your functions until the inquiry is on. It is not your fundamental right to discharge your functions. Same thing for civil servants except that there is no Lokpal to do that here. For the civil servant, the Commissioner can do it and an Akhilesh can do it. So, suspension is not a punishment so long as prima facie there is no malafide intention. Secondly, suspension is for an offence serious enough that can lead to major charges. Not because you spat on the road or you didn't salute the chief minister when he passed by.

In the current context, the intention does appear to be malafide. What safeguards does the officer have against such attacks?
Look, if somebody is suspended and for six years there is no enquiry, then the rule says that if within 30 days, he/she does not get a chargesheet, he can appeal to the Government of India saying that he is being victimised. Then centre can step in.If within 60 days, they receive no information, then the official can be reinstated. That is the first safeguard. Second, after an inquiry is conducted and a minor punishment is proposed, the Central government can be consulted. If the punishment is major, then the aggrieved official can go to the UPSC. What is happening is that in a sense, nobody can question the procedure followed by the state government except that it can be argued that the charge against her was so flimsy that it could never have led to a severe punishment. Therefore, the suspension should not have been resorted to.

Do you think Durga went wrong somewhere in this particular case?
No. She did nothing wrong except that she was doing her duty with a vengeance. We need people like her. These are the people who will change India. Her point is clear. It is my job that I am doing.
q) The DM's report has exonerated her. Has proper procedure been followed while handing suspension?
a)  It is not the question of Durga Sakthi Nagpal. It is the system for you. It is not a new phenomenon that two years or so before retirement, the thought of leaving the system suddenly hits the officer. He becomes liable to become more pliant than required. His thoughts are focused on a post-retirement job and his ability to challenge service officers gets subordinated to his personal interests. The principal secretary is chosen like that, the chief secretary is chosen like that. So, at 12 o clock when they are asked to sign on an order, they respond. Even in this case, look at the sequence of events. Akhilesh was in Bangalore, Mulayam was in Delhi. A day before the suspension, Durga had been conducting raids. When it hits home, Narendra Bhati gets very angry and on that day they transfer the district mining officer. Next day, he calls Mulayam and says that Muslim votes could suffer and the entire matter takes a communal turn. An administrative matter thus becomes a communal matter. Mulayam calls Akhilesh who calls his secretary and demands that the order be sent within 10 minutes. When there is a suspension, there is some basic inquiry which is carried out, ask for some report - even a telephonic report, ask someone to go to the spot. Nothing happened there.

The inquiry is now going to be done by the Commissioner.
It will be a test case. His own CM has given his mind saying she is guilty.

So the outcome is already, in a sense, influenced?
Obviously. Azam Khan has said that DM should be suspended. They have already come to a conclusion. About 25 politicians are supporting the decision now, CM has spoken. The maximum he can do is to say that there were mistakes committed but it is okay. He can not give a clean chit now.

Can the judiciary intervene?
The Government of India can step in only if a punishment is given. So, what I suspect will happen is that they will very carefully ensure that no punishment is proposed. 

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017