No clean slate

Supreme Court’s order on civil servants will not result in radical change.

When the bureaucracy has to approach the judiciary to restrain the political executive through a PIL, times must be really bad.

The first prayer made before the Supreme Court by T.S.R. Subramaniam, a former cabinet secretary, and 83 others (including myself) was for setting up independent civil service boards (CSBs), which would, inter alia, prescribe fixed tenures for civil servants. Citing the recommendations of the Santhanam Committee, the Hota Committee and the second Administrative Reforms Commission, the SC has directed the government of India to issue rules under Article 309 of the Constitution to establish CSBs to guide and advise the Central and state governments on service matters, especially on the tenures of officers. The SC has recognised that the political executive has the authority to overrule the CSBs if its reasons for differing with the their recommendations are duly recorded. The CSBs, which will be made up of senior serving officers, are to be established within three months and are to make recommendations on most service matters.

This is nothing spectacular. Civil service boards already exist in many states — including in Uttar Pradesh. Despite this, successive governments in several states have buffeted and battered countless senior civil servants, such as Ashok Khemka and Durga Shakti Nagpal, with impunity. Earlier the Central government would step in and intervene when states took arbitrary decisions. Of late, coalition politics has curtailed that. The CSBs, even if they draw authority from Article 309, will have limited power and influence if they do not have functional independence. Even though it does not have statutory backing, the Central Establishment Board, chaired by the cabinet secretary, has worked reasonably well. This is because its key officers — the cabinet secretary, the personnel secretary and the home secretary owe nothing to individual ministers or other powerful individuals. They can afford to be independent, both individually and collectively. It is this triumvirate that takes a call on the empanelment of officers who later rise to be secretaries to the government of India. When individual ministers seek the removal of their secretaries, or heap humiliation on them, the cabinet secretary usually intercedes and gets the prime minister to override those ministers by not transferring the officers in question. The Shibu Soren versus P.C. Parakh episode is a case in point.

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