No strikes please, we are the IAS!

Richa Mishra | Updated on July 05, 2018

Counterpoint: IAS officers Varsha Joshi, Manisha Saxena and Jaidev Sarang at a press conference last month   -  THE HINDU

As the SC verdict on Wednesday gives the Delhi government more teeth, a look at the power struggle in the Capital

If civil servants go on strike, what will happen to the administration of a State? Also, given the perks they enjoy, is it right for them to strike work?

This was the big debate raging in bureaucratic circles after the protests by the IAS and DANICS (Delhi, Andaman and Nicobar Islands Civil Service) associations following the alleged assault on the Delhi chief secretary Anshu Prakash at Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal’s residence in February. The Central Civil Services (Conduct) Rules, 1964, clearly state that no government servant shall resort to or in any way abet any form of strike in connection with any matter pertaining to his service or that of any other government servant. The rule also provides for disciplinary action.

Delhi’s mandarins insist they did not strike work and call their four-month-long agitation a Satyagraha.

“We are well aware of the privileges and of our commitments. We know that our conduct rules do not provide for going on strike, and we did not go on strike,” asserts a senior officer serving in Delhi state.

Strike or Satyagraha, the IAS officers’ protest in Delhi has divided the fraternity. Some even question the need for them to take to the streets and social media to air their grievances.

Mixed views

“Why should social media or other mediums be used when they are working together? Why not just sit across the table and talk in a more gentle manner?” wonders a senior serving bureaucrat.

“This is an unheard of incident ... both sides need to come to an agreement and work with dignity,” said former finance secretary Ashok Jha. After CM Kejriwal called off his sofa dharna at the Lieutenant Governor’s residence, there has been an uneasy truce. But Wednesday’s Supreme Court verdict means officials in Delhi need to tread more carefully as almost the first thing the Delhi government did was issue an order shifting the authority to appoint or transfer officials with itself, overriding the 2016 order, which gave the powers to the LG.

At the height of the impasse, some wondered whether the bureaucracy would have protested if it was a strong Chief Minister and a powerful State. Others blamed the Centre for instigating the officers. Still others bring out the rule book.

There is a difference between the Civil Services and other jobs – it is not a simple worker and employee job, says KKN Kutty, National President, Confederation of Central Government Employees & Workers. “What happened is unfortunate but officers have to collectively address the issue. They definitely can’t go on strike.” he says.

Ways and means of protest

Given the mitigating factors in this case, and the constant clashes between the Aam Aadmi Party and the bureaucrats, what were the choices open to the civil servants? How could they have registered their protest? Well, the first option would be to raise their voices through their association, which they did. They can also approach their superiors including the Department of Personnel and Training which is the coordinating agency, and the Cabinet Secretary, who is the topmost civil servant in the country. But, what happens if the higher authorities cannot get involved directly as it could have political implications?

“Where do we go then? Whom do we approach? If the topmost civil servant in the state himself is not safe, then how do you protect those down the ladder?’ asks an officer in the Delhi government. Former Culture Secretary Jawhar Sircar, who joined the service in 1975, says, “Civil servants cannot go on strike, but protest they can. There is a difference between strike and protest,” he says, adding that “politics should not come into it. Self-respect is important for everyone.”

“I would think that the executive is well aware of its responsibility as their work has a direct impact on policy decisions. The bottomline is that there is no going slow on work, so there can be ways to express displeasure,” says Dhir Jhingran, Founder Director of Language and Learning Foundation, a former IAS officer of the 1986 batch.

Jhingran had quit as member of Delhi government’s state advisory council for education in solidarity with Chief Secretary Anshu Prakash, who also happened to be his batch mate.

But, if the officers had been working and theirs had been a protest and not a strike, why did the bureaucracy become a ‘punching bag’? “This is because many people don’t understand the fact that it is the elected representative of the government who runs the government, not the bureaucracy. A bureaucrat only implements the decision,” said Jha.

Interestingly, globally too, civil servants are in the eye of a storm over their protests. In Germany, teachers who have civil servant status were disciplined for taking part in walkouts. They went to court. Last month German courts ruled they could not strike work. However, their strike was on issues related to long working hours.

The Delhi case is unique.

Even so, Anil Swarup, a 1981 batch officer and former Education Secretary, feels that “sitting across the table and sorting out issues between two individuals involved is a solution. But that wasn’t the case here.”

It’s going to be interesting days ahead as it remains to be seen how the Supreme Court judgment is interpreted by the parties concerned.

Published on July 04, 2018

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