During my stint in India’s north-east living in and reporting from the region between 1983 and 2006, I had many occasions to interact with civil servants both at the grassroots level and in higher positions. Most were diligent, sincere and committed to serving the people but there were exceptions. Some of them were downright prejudiced, sone hated to belong to civil service cadres in the region and some found ways to shirk their responsibilities. In view of the current controversy over an IAS officer couple being posted to Ladakh and Arunachal as a perceived ‘punishment’ posting, reproducing a piece I wrote in Outlook about recalcitrant babus in 1999.
The Briefcase Babus
Most IAS officers prefer to manage the affairs of the northeast with the bravery of being well out of range
01 November 1999
The occasion: A familiarisation tour of the northeast for a batch of ias-ips trainees from the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy, Mussoorie. During the interaction at the Assam Administrative Staff College, the trainees are given a questionnaire. Among several probing questions is a query: "Given a choice, would you opt for a deputation to the northeast for a period of five years?" A good 95 per cent of the trainees reply in the negative, citing various reasons for rejecting the option. For the course coordinators, this does not come as a surprise. After all, the newcomers are only reacting to what they have heard and have been told about the working conditions in the region.
What comes as a shock to many politicians and retired bureaucrats in the region, however, is the similar perception among serving bureaucrats, some of them with nearly two decades of service in the Assam-Meghalaya joint cadre of the ias. As a former chief minister put it very succinctly a few years ago: "These briefcase bureaucrats have little interest in serving the region. They always look down on a tenure in the northeast as punishment postings. When they are compelled to stay here, they are always looking for opportunities to visit Delhi, their briefcases ever ready for the trip to Delhi."
The pronouncement may be a little harsh and sweeping as not every bureaucrat is a reluctant time-server. But the fact remains that over the past two decades, the number of such officers has steadily increased. Those in the know say it happens something like this. A new entrant, like his counterpart in the rest of the country, joins the cadre, even if reluctantly, takes up his posting as assistant commissioner in a district, moving up the ladder in due course to become a sub-divisional officer and then finally the deputy commissioner (DC) in charge of a district. By the time his or her tenure as DC is over, the officer has already spent six to seven years in the state. The next logical step is to serve time at the secretariat in the state capital. The moment he or she comes to the state capital, the officer begins to explore the possibility of cornering a central deputation that would take him or her to Delhi. Opportunities in this respect are aplenty since state governments are allowed to send up to 40 per cent of its officers on central deputation.
The first deputation is for a period of five years. So far, so good. Logically, after five years, the officer has to be repatriated to the state for a "cooling off" period of two years. This rarely happens. Having made contacts in Delhi, the bureaucrats generally manage to get another posting outside the northeast. It could be in the form of "home cadre" posting under which the officer has to go on deputation to his or her "home cadre" for six years, or in the form of a two-year study leave. Home cadre for a Keralite of the Assam-Meghalaya cadre would mean Kerala. That over, the officer can very well bag another posting in Delhi and remain outside the northeast for another five years, making it a total of 16 years outside the region.
By the time this officer comes back to the region, he or she has become a full-fledged secretary or principal secretary to the state government. This is the time where his or her stint as a "briefcase bureaucrat" begins. Having got their family settled in Delhi, they constantly want to visit them. And what better way than to get the government to sponsor your visit each time? As a senior secretary to the government, there are plenty of opportunities to attend meetings in Delhi. As Jatin Hazarika, a former bureaucrat himself, puts it: "Every day, when you open your mail, there is an invitation for a meeting in Delhi. But it does not mean that the officer has to go to each of them. A resident commissioner is posted in Delhi precisely to handle such matters and liaise with the central government on behalf of each department of a state government. These days, however, the resident commissioner has become redundant."
Why has this happened? Explains H.N. Das, a former chief secretary of Assam: "I see mainly three reasons for this tendency of running away from the area at the slightest opportunity. One, there is a feeling among most ias and ips officers belonging to cadres from the northeast that facilities for education of their children and the general standard of living is better in other parts of the country than in this region. Second, several of them enter the service with a definite career aim in mind. By remaining in the northeast, they feel that the chances of career advancement are very limited, which is true to a certain extent, and finally, there is the unwritten caste system prevalent in the service wherein officers of cadres from the northeast are looked down upon by their counterparts elsewhere in the country."
Agrees Assam's home secretary, Mrinal Kumar Barooah: "For any person, his family is the most important. Everyone wants to give the best education to his children. As a result, most officers, when they take their first deputation outside the region, establish a base there. Later, when they come back to the northeast, the family stays behind. Second, career opportunities for anyone serving in the region are limited, and finally, the prevalent uncertainty of law and order makes many non-northeasterners wary of a posting in the region even if he or she belongs to the cadre here." Barooah, who is the general secretary of the ias Officers' Association, Assam branch, admits that some officers exploit the loopholes in the service rules to the maximum but does not feel that it merits sweeping generalisations.
Like a senior secretary in the northeast says: "It is unfair to bunch all of us in one category. There are many of us who have willingly stayed put in the region and are doing our best." Assam chief minister Prafulla Kumar Mahanta is, however, concerned. "Only those who willingly opt for cadres of the northeastern states should be selected to serve here. If people are forced to join a cadre, they do not work wholeheartedly for the good of the state," he says.
Easier said than done. Under the present scheme of things in the upsc, a candidate is given two choices. Only when he doesn't get his choice is he allotted a cadre which is clearly not of his liking. To overcome any reluctance, the central government has given special facilities for those serving in the northeast. To begin with, they get what is called a special duty allowance (sda) at the rate of 15 per cent of their basic salary and are allowed to retain the official quarters in Delhi along with other facilities like a telephone.
Despite these incentives, there are very few willing candidates for northeast cadres given the insurgency situation in the region and the general perception that the northeast is the most unsafe place to work in. Which begs the question, what is the solution to this dilemma? Das has a simple solution. First, take away the special facilities like sda and official quarters in Delhi and second apply a random method in allotting the cadres or simply employ the lottery system for selection so that there is no discrimination. It may be simplistic but it could be an effective method.
The serving officers, however, have their own point of view. As one of them puts it: "Why single us out? Every central government undertaking, bank and other financial institution follows the same practice. Moreover, officers coming to this region from outside come for a fixed tenure and additionally get a choice posting after putting in a two-year stint here. We are not afforded that luxury." Points out another: "It is very well to say that we should be more involved in the region's well-being but the fact is most politicians here want bureaucrats drawn from provincial services in key posts so that they can be easily manipulated. And then where is the guarantee of life?" To bolster his case, the officer cites various examples of ias officers killed or kidnapped by extremists.