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No More a Civil Servant: On a treadmill?

In second part of the series, My Understanding of the Cabinet Secretariat, author highlights the redundancy of the institution through his experience as PMG head

No More a Civil Servant: On a treadmill?
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It was 2013. Everything that could go wrong was going wrong for the UPA-II government. There were scams all around. Everyone, including civil servants, was on the run, with enforcement agencies in hot pursuit. Consequently, no one had the time or inclination to take decisions. Investment had come to a grinding halt as necessary clearances were not coming through.

"Cabinet Secretary wants to speak to you urgently," came a message as I landed at the IG International Airport after a visit to Siem Reap, Cambodia. I had gone there to discuss the National Health Insurance Scheme, RSBY. It was late evening, yet I tried to reach the Cabinet Secretary on the phone, anticipating some 'news'. He asked me whether I could meet him early in the morning on the following day. I attempted to ascertain the context, but his reply was cryptic though pleasant, "Just for a brief chat." Aware that the top bureaucrat would not just want a 'brief chat', I could barely sleep that night. My mind was cluttered with all sorts of thoughts.

Arriving ahead of the appointed hour at the Cabinet Secretariat, I awaited the arrival of the Cabinet Secretary with bated breath. I was more anxious than nervous. Even the Cabinet Secretary arrived early. As he walked through the corridor leading to his room, he spotted me sitting in the visitor's room. He waved and called me in.

"You have been drafted for a new assignment," he announced, getting down to business even before I could settle down. My mind was racing. A couple of years ago, I was drafted to man the 'Naxal Division' in the Ministry of Home, but the Labour Minister saw to it that I continued to serve the poorest of the poor through the RSBY. However, there could not be any such excuse on this occasion as my extended tenure of seven years was coming to a close. I said to him, "Sir, I am completing my extended tenure. Hence, I will have to return to the State for mandatory 'cooling'". His response confounded me further, "You have been given an extension of one more year." This was unusual. The maximum tenure for IAS officers on central deputation was for seven years, and he had just announced an extension beyond that. My apprehensions grew as I was still not aware of what awaited me. As I looked incredulously at him, he revealed the nature of the assignment. With a view to fast-tracking stalled, large investment projects, a Project Monitoring Group (PMG) was to be set up in the Cabinet Secretariat, and I had been drafted to head that group. This decision was taken after discussing with the Prime Minister, the Finance Minister and the Cabinet Secretary. Hence, there was no choice. Had I been given a choice, I would have loved to continue to serve the poorest of the poor for this additional year, but I was now assigned the task of serving the richest of the rich.

As I got out of the room, there was a buzz on my phone. One of my school friends, who had risen to become the Chairman of a public sector bank, called me. He informed me that the Finance Minister had just announced in a meeting of bankers in Mumbai that a 'Swarup Panel' had been constituted to fast-track projects that had an investment of INR 1,000 crores or more.

For once, the government had demonstrated that they could act fast if they so desired. For me, it was yet another journey in uncharted territory at a time when scams were breaking out each day, and I was to facilitate the clearance of high-value projects.

***

While heading the Project Monitoring Group (PMG) in the Cabinet Secretariat, one day, I received a call from the Cabinet Secretary, "Montek (Singh Ahluwalia) has desired that you should meet him." Montek, as he was popularly known, was the Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission. Again, the context of the meeting was not revealed, but I was summoned immediately. As I entered his room, he complimented me on the excellent work I was doing at the PMG. In reality, the delays in clearances pertaining to the Ministry of Environment and Forests were beginning to frustrate us. The crisis had reached epic proportions as a minister had been sitting on files relating to projects entailing an investment of more than INR 50,000 crore. There were rumours that a 'tax' named after her was charged. I had sent notes on three different occasions to the Cabinet Secretary requesting him to inform the Prime Minister about this specific case, as such delays were likely to create embarrassment for the government that was already reeling under various scams.

When I conveyed my reservations in the meeting, Montek asked for the details. I shared the problems faced with the Ministry of Environment and Forests and the potential fallout. He looked perplexed and enquired, "Have you informed the Prime Minister?" I told him that I had no access to the Prime Minister. He assured me, "Ok, I will have a word with him." I returned to my room in the Vigyan Bhavan Annexe. In the late afternoon, there was a call from the Cabinet Secretary yet again. He had just finished a long conversation with the Prime Minister. Usually an unflappable person, he appeared a trifle perturbed.

"What did you tell Montek?" he questioned.

"I told him all that I have been telling you for the past couple of months," was my response. "Everything?", he was surprised. Then regaining his composure, "No wonder the Prime Minister wanted to know more about it."

It was evident that Montek had spoken to the Prime Minister. The Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister rang me up the next day and sought further details. Those could be sent promptly, as a soft copy of everything was available on the website. He was surprised at the speed with which I had managed to furnish the details and the availability of the soft files. The details disclosed that files and decisions were held up in the Ministry of Environment and Forests.

Nothing happened during the following week. I had a chance to meet Oscar Fernandez (with whom I had worked when he was the Labour Minister) in that period. He had subsequently moved to another ministry. I used this opportunity to broach the issue related to delays in clearance by the Ministry of Environment and Forests and the associated rumours regarding 'speed money' that infamously came to be known by the name of a cabinet minister. It was rumoured that this money was being collected for the party fund. Oscar Fernandez had heard similar rumours. Being close to the 'family', I suggested that as the name was dragged into this mess, he should inform the 'high command'. I don't know what happened after this to trigger the decision, but the concerned minister was shown the door within a week. However, this was not on account of the Cabinet Secretary, who did nothing about the notes I had sent him periodically. I gradually became convinced that the Cabinet Secretariat was reduced to a post office, perhaps worse than that.

***

In the concluding chapter of my book, 'Not Just a Civil Servant', I stated that I would like to be an IAS officer if I were to be born again. This was primarily because of the opportunities this service offered to derive enormous satisfaction in serving the people, especially the deprived lot. However, when someone asked me why I wanted to be an IAS officer during my next life, I answered him in jest and with due apologies to some of the finest officers that have held the post of Cabinet Secretary, "In the IAS, if you are efficient there is a likelihood of your becoming Secretary to Government of India. However, if you are redundant, you might climb to the highest and become Cabinet Secretary, Government of India. Which service gives this opportunity?"

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

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