The move is among the bolder ones by PM Narendra Modi

The Union Government of India has, for the first time, invited people who are not part of the Indian Administrative Service or IAS to join as top bureaucrats in the central government.

The Department of Personnel and Training has invited anyone with 15 years of expertise in areas such as finance, energy and commerce to join it at the level of ‘joint secretary’, throwing open the third most powerful position in Indian bureaucracy to all citizens.

The government’s invitation to the public specifies that individuals working at “comparable levels” in companies, autonomous bodies, statutory organisations, universities, recognized research institutes, consulting organizations etc are eligible to apply as long as they have completed 40 years of age and have 15 years of experience, presumably in the area for which he or she is applying for.

Salary will start at Rs 1.44 lakh. Along with various perks, the person could look forward to getting a total compensation of a 2-4 lakhs per month.

For now, posts have been opened up in ten departments — revenue (tax), financial services, economic affairs, agriculture and farmers’ welfare, road transport and highways, shipping, forest and climate change, renewable energy, civil aviation and commerce.

WHO ARE JOINT SECRETARIES?

The bureaucracy of any central bureaucracy is organized under a ‘secretary’. The secretary is followed by ‘additional secretaries’ and the additional secretaries by ‘joint secretaries’.

A minister, who is the overall head of the ministry, can be in charge of several ministries. It is, for example, common to have a single minister for departments of IT and telecom.

However, the bureaucracy, starting with the ‘secretary’, is part of only one department, such as IT (and not telecom at the same time).

Much of the actual work in a central department happens under teams supervised by joint secretaries. In other words, joint secretaries are the hands-on people who implement various programs and policies of the government.

Typically, only those belonging to the central civil services cadres — such as the IAS — and have risen through the ranks are hired as joint secretaries.

FROM GENERALIST TO SPECIALIST

However, the practice of hiring IAS people to head all kinds of technical departments, such as petroleum, aviation, IT and telecom, has generated its own share of criticism as the IAS officers are often seen as ‘generalists’, and not specialists.

This is because a typical high-ranking bureaucrat — such as secretary or joint secretary — stays in his or her position only for a couple of years. Tenures of five years are more the exceptions.

More worrying is the fact that these bureaucrats are regularly shuffled across departments and ministries.

It is not uncommon to move a joint secretary in the ministry of urban planning to the position of a joint secretary in the ministry of textiles.

Part of the reason why the officials are subjected to regular transfers — often to a new department — is the same as why bank employees are transferred from their branches every three years: to prevent any corruption.

As an example, RS Sharma, the chairman of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India — a job that requires a high degree of technical and industry expertise — has in the past been appointed to various roles such as chief secretary to the Jharkhand government, Jharkhand’s principal secretary of public health and engineering, and so on.

However, such frequent transfers deny the officials a chance to become specialist in that particular field.

The move to recruit people from the industry, academia and non-governmental sector is likely targeted at overcoming this key shortcoming. It is also likely to be inspired by the American model where even ‘ministers’ are recruited from the non-political class.

POTENTIAL DOWNSIDES

While the potential benefits of the move are obvious, the opposition have been quick to point out the potential pitfalls and dangers of opening up positions in the higher bureaucracy to ‘ordinary people’.

The biggest risk that they have pointed out is the possibility of the individual showing partiality to his or her former employers or business associates.

This has often been a cause for concern in the US.

For example, several employees of Wall Street companies such as Goldman Sachs have taken up jobs as ‘finance ministers’ (Treasury Secretaries) in successive US administrations, where they could be in a position to decide on matters that can have tremendous impact on their former employers.

In other words, the same factors that make ‘private sector’ people such excellent choices for top positions in bureaucracy — including their extensive networking contacts in the industry — can also make them vulnerable to allegations of bias from the opposition.

The US, which has been sourcing top bureaucrats from the private sector for a long time, has established practices such as confirmation hearings by the upper house of the legislature to confirm the candidates appointed by the president.

However, given that the Modi government is only giving the position of ‘Joint Secretary’ — which is No.3 in seniority within the ministry — to private citizens, the requirement for such elaborate ‘double checks’ are perhaps not as pressing.

Another big concern that not many are highlight, but is almost certainly going to come to play, is the possibility of a ‘turf’ war between IAS officers and ‘civilians’.

IAS officers have a reputation for excellent networking and organization, and for defending their rights and privileges effectively.

However, such hassles can be overcome by the minister if he or she so wishes. For example, many ministers do bring in ‘civilians’ into powerful positions in the form of ‘officers on special duty (OSDs)’ or as ‘personal secretaries’.

Such civilians often exert a lot of influence in their respective ministries — often rivalling that of the department secretary — without causing any bureaucratic revolt because it is well known that he or she has the support of the minister.

An example of a recent lateral appointment is the case of Nandan Nilekani, the former Infosys executive who was brought in by the UPA government to head the Unique Identification Authority of India or UIDAI. Nilekani, who successfully carried out his mandate, was given the rank of a cabinet minister.

REACTIONS

So far, the reactions to the move have been largely along expected lines.

Many of the traditional ‘opposition’ have termed the move ‘dangerous’, a ‘ploy’ and so on, while others supported the move to tap a wider pool of talent to improve governance.

Shah Faesal, who became the first Kashmiri to top the Indian Civil Service Examination of 2009, was among those who applauded the move. “I totally support GoI (government of India) decision to allow lateral entry of professionals at Joint Secretary level,” he said.

“It’ll make the services more competitive and force IAS to specialise. New ideas will come in. And the fun part, that those who couldn’t enter IAS when young, find a crack in the wall!”

Ashok Khemka, one of the ‘most transferred’ IAS officers in India and one with a reputation as a ‘whistle blower’, also welcomed the move.

“Lateral recruitments to the posts of Joint Secretary in Govt of India notified,” he said on Twitter. “May the best talents from outside nurture public services.”

Tehseen Poonawalla, a well-known critic of the current administration, called the move one of the last nails in Indian democracy and termed it as unfair to career bureaucrats.

“So a person puts in years of efforts gets into services & the govt decides to get a lateral entry,” he pointed out. “How will a person say from a private bank who enters as joint secretary Finance later be moved to say agriculture and manage that. This is destroying the steel framework of India.”

“We are heading towards being taken over by a fascist government &their corporates. I will challenge this in court,” he added.

Rifat Jawaid, journalist and founder of jantakareporter.com, called it a “chilling” move. “If you ever needed example of how this government was following Hitler’s dangerous methodology, this is it,” he said.

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