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No More a Civil Servant: Amid cryptic air

In this first part of the series on ‘My Understanding of the Cabinet Secretariat’, the author discusses the secrecy and pre-decided functioning of the institution

No More a Civil Servant: Amid cryptic air
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I was in awe of the Cabinet Secretariat before I joined it in 2013 as Additional Secretary. There were not many occasions that I had visited this part of the Rashtrapati Bhavan but, whenever I did, it was with much trepidation. However, both before 2013 and even after that, I never understood the following:

1. Why was everything kept secret here?

2. Why was such an august body still housed in one corner of Rashtrapati Bhavan with officials working in pigeonholes for want of space and when it had almost nothing to do with the President?

3. Why was there a fixed tenure of Cabinet Secretary for only two years when almost every incumbent in the recent past had served for four years?

4. Why did Cabinet Secretaries want to serve for four years when the office was reduced to a post office with shots being called by the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) irrespective of the nature of the government?

I never got the answers and, perhaps, never will.

***

In 2006, I had sent my name for central deputation, and it was retained. On a visit to Delhi, I wanted to ascertain whether I had been picked up for any post by the Central Government. One of my batchmates, an outstanding and genial officer, was posted in the Cabinet Secretariat. So, I thought I would find out the status from him. On reaching his room in the Cabinet Secretariat, he served me a hot cup of tea, leaving all his work to attend to me, but when I asked him about the status of my posting, he smiled (which he usually did) but did not reveal anything. As soon as I came out of the room, I got a call from another colleague posted in Delhi in one of the Ministries. He revealed that I had been posted as Director General, Labour Welfare, in the Ministry of Labour and Employment. So much for secrecy.

***

As mentioned earlier, I worked as Additional Secretary in the Cabinet Secretariat during 2013-14. My batch was being considered for empanelment as Secretary around that time. In a discussion within the batch, one got to know that a couple of batchmates had been empaneled. I congratulated them but wondered about the status of my empanelment. On reaching the office, I rang up my boss, the Cabinet Secretary. I asked him about the status of my empanelment. His response was cryptic, "You will get to know soon". This meant nothing to me but increased the suspense even more. What baffled me was that the list of empaneled officers was known to some. And in any case, a decision had already been taken. Only orders had to be issued. Why keep it a secret?

***

'We make toilets; we also produce coal.'

This was the tagline that I proposed for Coal India Limited (CIL), the principal coal producer of the country, before the commencement of a formal discussion on toilets to be set up by Coal India Limited in government schools. The discussions were being held at the Cabinet Secretariat in 2016, and I was present in my capacity as Secretary, Coal. Swachh Bharat was indeed an extremely laudable programme and deserved every possible support, but forcing the managers of Coal India to scout for locations and supervise the building of toilets went much beyond what these officers could expect. On the other hand, the country was reeling due to a coal shortage, and CIL could not supply around 800 million tonnes of coal per annum to power plants. The deficit had also led to scams as everyone who required coal was desperate to lay hand on any coal block by whatever means. Ironically, the country was sitting on 300 billion tonnes of coal reserves!

When I took over as Secretary, Ministry of Coal, Government of India, the crisis was at its peak. Alleged scams had been unearthed. The Supreme Court had cancelled all the 204 coal blocks allocated since the 90s, going much beyond even the rampaging CAG had recommended. Some of these coal blocks were producing coal. Consequent to these cancellations, most of them stopped production since the 1st of April 2014. This meant an estimated reduction of around 90 million tonnes of coal production. More than 20 power plants were critical for want of coal. There was panic in the States on account of poor supply.

After identifying the causes of lower coal production, a detailed action plan was worked out. The focus was on land acquisition. Intensive engagements with the States helped as the positive value proposition of the exercise was conveyed to them. Meetings were then held at the State level and with the Collectors/Deputy Commissioners to expedite processes. This yielded the desired results as Coal India acquired more than 5000 hectares of land in 2014-15. A similar effort was made to facilitate environment and forest clearances as most coal-bearing areas lay under forest cover. This also worked out as clearances were obtained for more than 3000 hectares during the year. Coordination with the Railways helped in increasing evacuation of coal.

As Coal India was preparing itself to enhance excavation of coal to reach record highs during the next financial year, came this much-needed focus on 'Swachh Bharat'. However, whether the officers of the PSU should have been driven to treat this as a priority instead of focusing on coal production was the point of contention.

I made my reservations known during the meeting at the Cabinet Secretariat, but I was overruled. In any case, the Cabinet Secretariat had no mind of its own. This was being done at the behest of the Prime Minister's office. No one in the Cabinet Secretariat had the courage or the willingness to present the likely fallout of what was proposed. I was all for the 'Swachh Bharat' movement and monetary contribution from Coal India, but I had serious reservations about the engagement of coal mine managers to go around locating schools and supervising building of toilets in them. This was neither their job, nor their area of expertise. All these forced activities impacted coal production subsequently. I got to know of it later when I had left the Ministry to take over as Secretary, School Education and Literacy. The coal production did not keep pace with the demand, and the crisis re-surfaced.

Many reasons contributed to the recurrence of the crisis. However, the shift of focus from coal production to constructing toilets by the managers who should have been engaged in supervising digging coal instead of supervising the digging of soak-pits was undoubtedly one of the significant contributors. For almost a year, the absence of a regular Chairman, Coal India, and the shuffling of Coal Secretaries did not help matters either.

***

The Civil Services Board was an institution that worked seamlessly over the years. This was primarily for proposing Joint Secretary level officers' posting at the Centre. Cabinet Secretary chairs the Board and Secretary, Department of Personnel and Training is the Convenor. The Secretary of the concerned Department where the vacancy existed is also a member. As Secretary to the Government of India for almost four years, I had the occasion to attend many such meetings. Soon I discovered the futility of such meetings.

In many cases, the names of the officers were pre-decided at a different level, some coming from the PMO. Our job was primarily to endorse those names. There were indeed a few cases where there was no interest of those that mattered, and we could propose the name of an officer we thought was fit.

To be continued…

With excerpts from the writer's recently released book, 'No More a Civil Servant'. Views expressed are personal


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