Lateral shift: Can it cut both ways?

Richa Mishra | Updated on August 02, 2018

The recruitment drive is being monitored by South Block. SHANKER CHAKRAVARTY

The government has opened its doors to outsiders. Will it allow its senior bureaucrats to do short-term stints in the private sector too?

Some call it the corporatisation of the Indian bureaucracy. Others term it a much-needed reform. Whatever the views, the government’s radical move to induct lateral recruits in senior positions at the Centre has seen a rush of applications. The hiring portal got two lakh hits within two weeks of opening, and almost 2,500 registrations for the 10 positions on offer. “Not bad at all by any standards,” says an officer associated with the recruitment drive. Clearly, everyone loves the authority and perks that bureaucrats enjoy, says another officer.

The rationale behind inviting “talented and motivated” Indians to join the government at the joint secretary level was to bring in fresh ideas and new approaches to governance and also to augment manpower.

The advertisement invited candidates with specific expertise in Revenue, Financial Services, Economic Affairs, Agriculture, Road Transport & Highways, Shipping, Environment & Forests, New & Renewable Energy, Civil Aviation and Commerce.

Hidden messages

Does the move mean that there is a lack of talent in the Indian Administrative Service (IAS)? Or is there a genuine shortfall in strength of IAS officers? The Minister of State in the Ministry of Personnel, Public Grievances and Pensions and PMO, Jitendra Singh, recently informed Parliament that there was 22.11 per cent shortage of IAS officers as on January 1, 2018, vis-a-vis the total authorised strength of 6,553.

According to Singh, the government has increased the annual intake of IAS officers in the direct recruitment quota to meet the shortage. Lateral entries could beef up strength in the senior echelons.

Many think this move also undermines the role of the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC), which has the mandate to recruit through competitive examinations. Critics also wonder whether this could be the political executive’s way of instilling insecurity within the bureaucracy. Or is it the government’s way of getting ideologically aligned individuals into positions of power to ensure seamless implementation of its decisions?

Retired IAS officer Chandra Pal, who has held the post of Secretary, Micro, Small & Medium Enterprises, is one of those who believes it is an arbitrary exercise of power intended to promote people following a particular ideology. Pal has moved the Supreme Court challenging the government’s notification to invite lateral entry. He says, “What are the changes an outsider can bring in during his three-year contract period? It is mala fide and intentional to bypass the UPSC. It will also promote partiality instead of objectivity.” Besides, it will also bypass SC/ST and OBCs in services, says Chandra Pal, adding, “If you want to change the socio-economic scenario of the country, then all you need to do is to implement the Constitution properly. And if you still want to recruit, then ask the UPSC to do it.”

Countering the motives being imputed, Ashwani Mahajan, National Co-Convener of Swadeshi Jagaran Manch, says, “It is wrong to imply this is being done to get like-minded people. If that was the case there were many positions in the government that were vacant and anyone following a similar ideology could have been appointed.”

Are three years enough?

Interestingly, the posts are open to candidates from States, government bodies and PSUs who, the ad says, will be appointed on deputation. Candidates from private sector international/multinational organisations, on the other hand, will be appointed on contract basis. Shortlisted candidates will be called for a meeting with the Selection Committee. The period of contract is for three years, extendable up to five.

Talent expert Hemant Sharma, former HR head of Sun Microsystems, thinks that though it is a great idea, how well it succeeds will depend on the approach taken by the existing bureaucrats to integrate and leverage these inductees. “It will also require the incumbents to understand the system,” he said. Sharma adds that operational roles in direct execution will require a longer gestation period than the three-year contracts.

Former 1982 batch IAS officer Sanjeev Sabhlok, a government economist based in Melbourne, Australia, and senior leader of Swarna Bharat Party, believes that bringing in fresh blood at a senior level, particularly those competent in modern policy design, will definitely have an impact. The current system creates complacency; whether they perform or not, IAS officers have the assurance of job protection, he says.

Sunjoy Joshi, a 1983 batch IAS officer, who quit service, and is currently Chairman, Observer Research Foundation, says one must examine whether the process of selection is right or not and whether one is getting the right people or not. “UPSC’s selection process has withstood the test of time but if you are not using it then you have to create a faceless neutral system that is completely apolitical,” he says.

Besides, it should not be a one-way ticket – it should be a revolving door policy. If you are allowing private-sector entry into government, then an officer should also be allowed to work in private sector for two-three years and then come back, he argues.

Joshi says the lateral movement should be across the value chain. “Tax department, Railways, PSUs, airlines, all should be part of it.”

The chosen candidates will be deemed to be public servants for the purpose of the Central Civil Services (Conduct) Rules and will have to abide by them. The employment contract can be terminated by either side with a minimum notice period of three months. It will be interesting to see if all ten appointees last the full distance.

Published on August 01, 2018

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