It was an unprecedented situation India witnessed at Kalaikunda on 28th May, 2021, during the Prime Minister’s visit -- soon after the Cyclone Yaas -- to take stock of the damage the cyclone brought about to West Bengal. The Chief Secretary appeared with the Chief Minister and left the meeting soon after along with the Chief Minister. The Prime Minister of the country couldn’t get an official account of the post cyclone situation from the head of the state’s Bureaucracy.
This incident brings to the fore the role of the All-India Service (AIS) in governance in a federal system like ours and also the relation between the Chief Minister /Prime Minister and the Chief Secretary/Cabinet Secretary and even between a Minister and the Secretary.
How does an AIS officer render service to the Minister/Chief Minister/ Prime Minister needs perhaps a discussion. Two personal experiences come to my mind. While I was Finance Secretary to Government of Odisha, Energy Department proposed sale of a new Thermal Power Plant. I was of the view that while the state government was competent to sell an asset, the modality of disposal has to be in conformity with established procedure. In a subsequent discussion on the subject with the Chief Minister who was also Minister in Charge of Energy Department, he even agreed to my suggestion for partial disinvestment of the company owning the asset, instead of its outright sale. This incident explains the role of the civil servant. He must suggest the best course of action without bothering if the advice would be palatable or otherwise to the Minister. After Election, a new Government came in. I continued as Finance Secretary. The Minister in Charge, in my first meeting with him, succinctly spelt out the Rules he would follow. He wanted me to express my mind in my noting in file and said maybe he would agree in every case; but where he didn’t, I was free to reiterate my views again. He might agree with me and retract from his earlier stand; but if he didn’t and held his views, I have to take it as Government orders and he, as Minister, would take full responsibility. I saw no flaw in the approach; it made our working pleasant; led to faster decisions, morale of officers improved.
Today it is worthwhile recalling how our Founding Fathers viewed the issue while framing the Constitution. In the meeting of the Constituent Assembly dated October 10, 1949, Sardar Vallabhbhai J Patel said, “If you want an efficient all-India service, I advise you to allow the Services to open their mouth freely. If you are a Premier, it would be your duty to allow your Secretary or Chief Secretary, or other services working under you, to express their opinion without fear or favour. ...... The Union will go - you will not have a united India, if you have not a good all-India service which has the independence to speak out its mind, which has a sense of security that you will stand by your word and, that after all there is the Parliament, of which we can be proud, where their rights and privileges are secure. If you do not adopt this course, then do not follow the present Constitution. Substitute something else. Put in a Congress Constitution or some other Constitution or put in R.S.S. Constitution-whatever you like-but not this Constitution. This Constitution is meant to be worked by a ring of Service which will keep the country intact.” ......... “Today my Secretary can write a note opposed to my views. I have given that freedom, to all my Secretaries. I have told them, "If you do not give your honest opinion for fear that it will displease your Minister, please then you had better go. I will bring another Secretary. I will never be displeased over a frank expression of opinion.”
It’s time both political masters and civil servants made an honest heart-searching to find out how true they have been to the lofty ideals set by Sardar Patel, the Iron Man of India and a Statesman, par excellence.
In the West Bengal case, the Head of the Bureaucracy in the State certainly did have a choice; he should have advised the Chief Minister that he needs to attend the meeting taken by the Prime Minister. We won’t know what his compulsions were not to attend the meeting to apprise the Prime Minister of the impact of the cyclone in the state.
While the civil servant must be forthright to express his views without fear or favour, it needs to be reassured that a conscientious civil servant will not incur wrath of political masters. That signal must come loud and clear.
(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are the author’s own and have nothing to do with OTV’s charter or views. OTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same. The author can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)
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