The key to ensuring good and clean governance lies in appointing the right officers

A diluted system has allowed mentors to build a team of compliant officers to swing decisions in their favour
Civil servants securing posts of joint secretary or secretary with ministerial help lose their moral authority to protest(AFP)
Civil servants securing posts of joint secretary or secretary with ministerial help lose their moral authority to protest(AFP)
Updated on Jun 19, 2019 08:11 PM IST
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BySatyananda Mishra

In 1987, I moved from Madhya Pradesh (MP) to New Delhi as a director in the office of the Establishment Officer (EO) , also secretary to the Appointments Committee of the Cabinet (ACC), the highest appointing authority of central government. There was little system in appointments in MP, with most decisions being taken at the chief minister’s discretion. More than 2,300 assistant professors, for example, had been appointed and later regularised in this process during those days. Secretariat and district level appointments, too, were made mostly on political considerations with the chief secretary or the administrative system playing a very marginal role.

I was really pleased to see that things were different in the government of India and all appointments were made strictly as per norms and not on any peremptory orders from the desk of the prime minister. P Chidambaram was the minister of state (MoS). My EO, JC Lynn, sometimes took me with him to discuss some files with the MoS. On one occasion, when Chidambaram made some comments the EO didn’t agree with, Lynn, somewhat in a lighter vein, chided the minister that he should spend more time in dealing with the Indian Peace Keeping Forces (IPKF) in Sri Lanka and leave the appointments to him. I don’t remember Chidambaram, young and taciturn, taking Lynn amiss. I had personally witnessed on many occasions EO firmly declining requests or suggestions of secretaries and ministers for posting specific officers to their departments. It is of course said that Lynn could not become a secretary to government in his turn because of his forthrightness. He challenged us, his junior colleagues, to record our views as strongly as we wanted and would admire those who followed his advice. In contrast to how it was in MP, the government of India those days had a very robust process-driven system for appointments, be it in the ministries or in the public sector undertakings (PSUs). Scams were non-existent or very few.

I landed up in Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT) again in 2006, this time as EO. Things had changed so much in these years that I couldn’t recognise this as the same EO’s office. Obviously, under pressure of coalition partners, the ACC had relaxed the rules and had allowed the ministries to demand for specific officers for posting at various levels, unaccepted under earlier rules. I remember a very haughty minister, a coalition partner from the south, summarily not allowing an officer to join his ministry as joint secretary as he had somebody else in mind and the ACC meekly succumbing and posting the officer to another ministry. Such was the dilution in the system wrought by the coalition of unlikely partners.

Even for board level appointments in PSUs, the Public Enterprises Selection Board (PESB) used to recommend only one name, leaving little option to the ministry to choose. Now, it had started recommending two names for each post and it was for the minister concerned to select one of these two. I remember ministers sitting over PESB recommendations in key PSUs like ONGC, SAIL or NTPC for months and then selecting the second option. The message was loud and clear to all aspirants. Unlike Lynn, I had to advise aspiring Indian Administrative Services (IAS) officers wanting posting in the government of India first to check with the ministries concerned before we could send their names there. The ministries now, under the new rules, held the power to decide and not the ACC. The appointments in the financial institutions, including public sector banks, were no different. Rules and eligibility conditions were being routinely modified to accommodate select individuals for specific jobs.

I had become secretary of DoPT later and noted the steady erosion of objective systems built over decades almost all across the government and key appointments made mostly on discretion. Dilution of standards of appointments was all pervasive, from central secretariat to educational institutions to public sector banks and undertakings. Many odd private educational institutions, many clearly undeserving, were made deemed universities during those years as, of course, the spectrum and coal blocks allocated to some undeserving beneficiaries. Pliant bankers lent at the behest of their mentors and benefactors leading to huge non-performing assets (NPAs) in later years and the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI ) inquiries against many of them. Some of us had pointed out the dangers but the compulsions were such that a very well meaning ACC could hardly help.

At the root of the so called scams, some of which exploded in many sectors of the economy later, was this diluted system of appointments in key positions which helped their rapacious mentors first to build teams of compliant officers and then swing decisions in their favour. Civil servants securing posts of joint secretary or secretary with ministerial help had lost their moral authority to protest or prevent. The key to good governance is to insulate appointments inside impregnable processes and systems and to not dilute these in any circumstance.

(This is part of a series of articles on India’s priorities as we head towards 75 years of Independence)
Satyananda Mishra is former secretary DoPT and chief information commissioner of India
The views expressed are personal
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