Millennium Post

'India needs a better system of appraisal for bureaucrats’

Delhi finance and power secretary Shakti Sinha, a 1979 batch IAS officer of AGMUT cadre, has had an exciting three-decade career. He served on the board of World Bank, advising it on several projects related to developing countries, and worked with the Afghanistan government, helping it prepare national development strategies. He also served as joint secretary to former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Not empanelled for the post of secretary to the government of India and overlooked for the position of the chief secretary to the Delhi government, Sinha decided to opt for voluntary retirement scheme (VRS) four years early. In a freewheeling interview, Sinha speaks of his disappointments, his experience of foreign assignments, his tenure with Vajpayee and life after VRS.

Edited excerpts:
Why are you quitting the IAS? It is quite unusual for an officer of your rank, with four years of service left, to opt for VRS?
One thing is clear to me over a period of 20-30 years: the accountability norms in government have broken down and therefore when things go wrong we are not in a position to identify why they went wrong. If they went wrong for external reasons then it is another matter. But when there is human failure, we are not able to either pinpoint the failure or take action against the wrongdoer. On the flip side, good performance is also not equally rewarded because, again, the system has become very blurred in terms of responsibility. We don’t have very clear-cut responsibilities at times. That is why I felt these are the issues worth exploring and I thought I could contribute to the debate more from outside the government than from inside.
I am very clear that I don’t want to turn 60 and suddenly say everything is wrong. There are many good things, and there are weaknesses. And it is in the fitness of things that if I feel I am not growing in the government I should go out and grow.

Some reports say you are miffed because you were not empanelled for the post of secretary to the government of India, and also overlooked for the post of chief secretary to the Delhi government.

My ACRs [annual confidential reports], my appraisal reports are not up-to-date. There are a number of gaps. I have lived out of India on government orders, and the ACRs for that period are not there. It’s fine if the government feels so… [but] in totality of things, those ACRs are very important and in the absence of those they cannot judge me. So they cannot consider me for empanelment. I am grateful that they didn’t say I am not fit for empanelment. They said they cannot consider my case for empanelment. The fact is even if I wait for 10-15 years, theoretically those ACRs are never going to come back or cannot be written today. Therefore there is no point is just waiting.
a civil servant joins the service there are certain personal goals in mind, of course along with the purpose with which we join public duty. Personal goals cannot be ignored also. So rather than wait, I thought why not step out and try to do my own thing. Just because I have not been empanelled I should not be critical but I think we should have a better system of appraisal. Today every ACR that I see gets 9 and 9.5 [out of 10 points]; but then obviously everybody is not outstanding. So something is wrong in the system of appraisal. If all of us are brilliant you don’t need an ACR and you can keep considering everybody.

There are also reports that you had differences with the government on subsidy to private power distribution companies and therefore you were overlooked for the position of chief secretary.
Well, I am entitled to my opinion, like everyone else. Differences of opinions do occur in the government; but then I would not want to comment on it.  

You were associated with Vajpayee as the PM’s joint secretary and you were witness to some of the critical decisions he took – like counter-guarantee to Enron and the nuclear tests.
Those were exacting times, and there were more than the two crucial issues that the PM tackled. As you mentioned there was the Pokhran test, then there was the Kargil war. On the economy front there was this insurance bill and there were a lot of other things that happened. He also initiated the Lahore declaration, which in a way led to the Kargil war. It was a momentous period full of ups and downs. But on the whole it was a very learning experience.

Since you have seen closely how Vajpayee worked and how he took critical decisions, do you acknowledge the fact that policies, good or bad, stem from the leadership – given the charge of weak leadership that the current PM faces?

I can only speak in theoretical terms and not specifics, because being a government servant I cannot compare one leader with another. You can understand my constraints. But obviously in any system – even a small private company, a kirana shop or international bodies like the World Bank and IMF – leadership plays an important role. It does not mean the leadership is everything but in terms of goal-setting, in terms of motivation, obviously leadership is very important. But then, as I said, leadership is not everything.
We also have to take into account the institutional framework and what I feel is that over the years our institutional frameworks have become weak, corroded. When you do not have a sufficiently good incentive structures – it does not mean salaries, which are undeniably very good these days – which leads to growth of the person and his personality… whether that person is growing up to his/her potential and contributing. So in that sense things have obviously changed. They have become sub-optimal.

How do you see the Durga Shakti Nagpal episode? Do you see it as some kind of new phenomena – of bureaucrats standing up to political pressure?

I am not sure even today bureaucrats are standing up to the political pressure, but yes individual cases do occur. And some extreme cases, they are speaking up. One thing that has helped, of course, is the social media. The ability of the social media makes a lot of difference. Thanks to the social media people are able to connect across the country much better and articulate positions. But, yes, it’s good that the younger generations of bureaucrats are prepared to stand up, speak up and say, ‘yes, we recognise the political supremacy, which is an important component of democracy, but at the same time you cannot victimise individual people who are merely doing their job and following the law.’ And there are many such officers.

Are there enough of young officers doing their jobs by the book?
I am not much in touch with the field-level officers, the district magistrates, but I know there are enough numbers of officers at these levels who are standing up to political pressures and doing their jobs properly. Some are being penalised, there is no doubt about that and some cases are coming up but many are not being penalised. After all, the system needs to run and most people recognise that people need to do their jobs. Also public awareness has increased and people expect us to do our job. The days of the mystical imperial civil services are gone. Everything is out in the open. It could, of course, be difficult in certain areas but at many of the places I have worked in, people are doing the job they have been entrusted by the constitution.

Does it mean the talk of political pressures is a fallacy and those who stand up to pressures are not victimised?
There could be some cases where the bureaucrats may have to face problems here and there, but as I read in an article by a very senior retired bureaucrat from UP, Muthusamy Varadrajan [‘No country for honest officers?’, Hindustan Times, August 14], at best politicians can transfer you. So be ready to be transferred, and when transferred pack your bags and leave. If you are prepared to do that, than people are more hesitant to trouble you or put pressure on you. They know you are not going to listen. But unfortunately an enough number of people are willing to listen and that obviously sends a wrong message to the leadership; that there are people who are ready to compromise and eager to do wrong things.

You have had foreign assignments, first at the World Bank and then in Afghanistan. How important are such assignments for a bureaucrat?
These were two very different assignments. First was the World Bank where I was on its board. Mine was a kind of representation office where you considered loan proposals of the World Bank to countries like India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Bhutan. I contributed to the bank’s strategy for policies like private sector development, individual sectors, infrastructure development and so on. It was an extremely enriching experience.
I learnt a lot from what was happening in Brazil and China, Mexico and other parts of the world… how Indonesia was making a difficult transition. In the process of leaning I also contributed to the debates in the World Bank. For example, it had completely stopped lending to infrastructure under pressure from NGOs.  The Indian and Chinese officers worked together and pushed the bank to bring it on the agenda and ultimately it started lending to infrastructure projects. So it was enriching in the sense I could contribute towards changing bank’s policies in favour of developing countries including ours.

Afghanistan was completely different assignment. One, I was the employee of the UN. I had got this assignment through competition and I was helping a section of the Afghan government develop its national development strategies equivalent of our five-year plans.
Simultaneously I was working with the civil service commission which was in charge of the
administrative reforms, and the directorate of local governance, equivalent of our home ministry, on how to improve governance in Afghanistan.
So both assignments were extremely challenging, and I feel more and more bureaucrats should be exposed to such roles.

What is your agenda after VRS?

I am not very clear now. I want to be involved in public policy, specifically on governance and economic policy issues. For example, why some sectors are doing well in some parts of the country and not in other parts? What is wrong with elementary education? Why is that even after RTE [right to education] the leaning levels have been falling? Where is high malnutrition coming from? It is not due to lack of food for sure. Is it because of what they eat or sanitary conditions? I think I can contribute to these issues.
On arrangement with Governance Now
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