The decision taken by the Centre to grant an extension of service to Union Home Secretary Ajay Bhalla has left the IAS cadre seething with a sense of resentment and disquiet.
Bhalla, a 1984 batch IAS officer of the Assam-Meghalaya cadre, was appointed as Union Home Secretary, considered to be the second most powerful bureaucrat in the country after the Cabinet Secretary, in August 2019. He was scheduled to retire in November 2020 after completing 60 years of service. However, his tenure was extended till August 22, 2021 in October last year. Now, the government has given him another extension, which means he will serve till August 22, 2022.
Serving and retired IAS officers reached for comments were of the firm opinion that the ‘extension raj’ being propagated by the government of the day amounted to favouritism and obliging such officers, which makes them even more subservient and compliant to implement its diktats and demoralising deserving officers from being appointed to such posts.
Most of them were reluctant to be quoted on the record, however, expressing fear of administrative retribution. One of them, a superannuated 1983 batch UP cadre officer, said that gag orders had gone out to some retired IAS officers who were part of the Constitutional Conduct Group (CCG), which has been issuing open letters to the government on a range of critical issues affecting the citizenry.
“I personally know of an Uttarakhand cadre lady officer, who was known to be very upright during service, who had co-signed such letters. She recently received a notice from the government effectively telling her to shut up. She was furious, but one can do little as nobody wants to lose post-retirement benefits,” he said.
Commenting on the issue of Bhalla receiving a second extension, he said that while the current regime has been resorting to giving extensions to loyalists in many instances, this instance rankled in particular because it implied that this post too has now been effectively politicised.
“Cabinet Secretaries have, of course, received extensions, but not a serving Secretary at the Centre, that too Home Secretary. Officers at the pinnacle of their career who were counting on being considered for such a position have been left disenchanted. It also sends a wrong signal to young officers, including those who have just joined the IAS or aspiring to do so,” he said.
He pointed out that as a matter of principle and tradition, an officer selected to be the Home Secretary is appointed as an Officer on Special Duty (OSD) in the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) prior to formal appointment so as to learn the ropes. “But now, those hoping for the chance have been left demoralised,” he added.
Asked why the IAS Association didn’t take up such issues, he said it was now practically defunct. “IAS Association used to be very strong in my home cadre Uttar Pradesh. They used to intervene directly with the CM when necessary. We often used to attend formal lunches and dinners hosted by the Governor and CM in bandhgala dresses. But all that is a thing of the past now. Now nobody dare question the CM, let alone the PM,” he said.
NC Saxena, a retired 1964 batch UP cadre IAS officer who had a distinguished career, and served as Member of Planning Commission of India and Member of National Advisory Council, said, “I’m not in a position to comment on the merits or demerits of Ajay Bhalla’s case in particular, but this government is known to favour officers who toe its line and have a particular ideological shift. They want officers who are yes men.”
“The Cabinet Secretary has a fixed tenure of two years to provide continuity, but not others like the Home Secretary,” he pointed out. Incidentally, the incumbent Cabinet Secretary, Rajiv Gauba, an IAS officer of 1982 batch from Jharkhand cadre, was scheduled to retire on August 30, 2021 after serving for two years, but he has been given a year’s extension to continue in the top post till August 30, 2022.
Saxena agreed that giving such extensions deprives other competent officers who are eligible to serve in the position from doing so and does not give the right message to the cadre as a whole.
He added that longer tenures are not a bad thing per se. “In Singapore, which is considered well-administered, top bureaucrats have a tenure lasting even six to seven years. But then we have a different system and it must be honoured,” he said.
Dr Ashok Pandey, a retired 1965 batch Bihar cadre officer, was a little more circumspect. “In general, I don’t think giving extensions is a healthy thing, but I can’t comment on this particular case,” he said.
An IAS probationer serving in Punjab, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the turn of events was disheartening. “When we clear UPSC and join IAS, our age and rank give us an indication of how high we’ll reach. Promotions in the IAS are, of course, time bound, and most of us will get the rank of Secretary to Government of India, but one dreams of serving as Home Secretary or Cabinet Secretary. I can well imagine how senior most officers eligible to serve in those positions, but now forced to just wait for superannuation instead, must feel,” she said.
A 2010 batch IAS officer of the AGMUT cadre, who did not want his station of posting disclosed, was far more caustic and forthright. “This government wants subservient officers, period. We have coined a term for it: ‘Extension raj’. As for the officers concerned, they crawl when asked to kneel, as the maxim goes,” he said, requesting anonymity.
Asked how the government circumvents the provision that civil servants must superannuate when they attain the age of 60 years, he said, “They issue such extensions by relaxing proviso 56 (d) of Fundamental Rules and Rule 16 (1A) of the All India Services (Death-cum-retirement benefits) Rules, 1958. They can take such decisions as assent of an institution like Parliament is not required”.
He added that he hoped somebody moves the Supreme Court over the issue, as in the case of Enforcement Director (ED) Sanjay Kumar Mishra.
Mishra, a 1984 batch IRS officer, took over the reins of the Enforcement Directorate, which has been highly proactive in booking all and sundry under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act – often targeting those not in the good books of the ruling regime – on November 19, 2018 from his IPS batchmate Karnal Singh.
The Enforcement Director is traditionally appointed from the IAS cadre.
Mishra reached his retirement age in May 2020, but the appointment order had fixed his tenure for two years. Then, with just days remaining for the end of his tenure in November 2020, the government retrospectively modified his tenure to three years in the original appointment order.
NGO Common Cause challenged the extension in the Supreme Court, which is examining whether the decision to grant Mishra a three-year tenure was contrary to its 1997 judgment laying down a minimum tenure of two years for the heads of ED and Central Bureau of Investigation. The bench is also considering whether an extension granted post-retirement would go against Rule 56 of the All India Service Rules which mandates that all government servants retire at 60.
“Unbridled powers of the executive demoralises the officers. If you are the government’s favourite, you would be appointed and in case you are an independent officer, you won’t be appointed,” Senior Advocate Dushyant Dave submitted in SC on behalf of the NGO on August 17, 2021 during a hearing in the case.
“One month’s extension was understandable in case the govt could not convene a meeting, but a one year period is unreasonable. Your lordship does not want any favouritism,” he added.
Defending the govt’s move, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta said, “In the last two years (as Director), apart from investigating crucial money laundering cases, a sum of nearly Rs 9,000 crore worth proceeds of crime stood deposited in the investigation of three cases involving Vijay Mallya, Nirav Modi and Mehul Choksi.”
The division bench consisting of Justices L Nageswara Rao and BR Bavai then remarked, “We appreciate that he is doing good work. But you cannot continue with him till all these cases are over. The task of Enforcement Directorate is very important. You cannot leave it to one individual to complete it.”
Incidentally, those in the IRS who know Mishra describe him as being particularly pliant and prone to toeing the line of his superiors.
It may be recalled that the Modi government’s penchant for extending the tenures of select officers beyond their retirement had spilled over into the Central Board of Direct Taxes (CBDT) as well, with chairman PC Mody receiving two extensions. His predecessor Sushil Chandra too had received two extensions, making him the longest serving chairman in the Income Tax Department’s history. He is now serving as Election Commissioner.
Over the last few years, the Income Tax Department has come to be seen as an extended arm of the ruling party, which uses it to pressurise political adversaries.
Just last month, in a rare outburst, “highly agitated” Indian Revenue Service (IRS) officers of the Customs and Indirect Taxes cadre wrote to the Prime Minister, denouncing extensions and reappointment to members of the Central Board of Indirect Taxes and Customs (CBIC). They argued that this promotes “vested interests and lobbying” that is “detrimental to professional conduct and prevention of tax evasion”.
A year after a CBIC member’s term was extended, the IRS association said, some more members are expected to be getting an extension or reappointment post-retirement and proposals are under “active consideration”. It argued against extension for members of CBIC as well as the CBDT.
“…extension of tenure beyond superannuation demoralises the cadre as the entire chain of promotion gets blocked, that too when sufficient eligible officers are available for promotion,” the association said, adding that secretaries who belonged to the IAS were not being given an extension.
The extensions given to Home Secretary Ajay Bhalla seem to have proved them wrong.