The Uttar Pradesh government, on being asked by the Centre's Department of Personnel and Training to explain its suspension of the officer of the Indian Administrative Service, Durga Shakti Nagpal, has replied by saying that her actions were "untimely, lacking in vision and reflected poor administrative acumen".
Nagpal, according to the Uttar Pradesh government, was suspended for facilitating the demolition of an illegally constructed extension to a mosque in a village in Gautam Budh Nagar near New Delhi, where she was a sub-divisional magistrate. There are persistent media reports, however, that the real reason was that she took on those with political connections who were mining sand illegally in the district.
Whatever the true reason, Nagpal’s suspension under these circumstances highlights the systemic problem in the relationship between the elected executive and the tenured civil servants. State governments habitually use transfers and suspensions as a way of ensuring that civil servants are pliable, rather than carefully following the law.
Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav compared civil servants to "children" who need to be "disciplined" by their parents, the government. Uttar Pradesh has had a history of such transfers; in its 16 months in power, the Samajwadi Party government has ordered as many as 800 transfers of IAS officers, in spite of the fact that there are less than 400 IAS officers serving in the state.
This is in spite of an affidavit the state government submitted in 2002 to the Supreme Court, when the state's IAS officers had appealed against arbitrary transfers; in that affidavit, the Uttar Pradesh government committed to an average tenure of two years for civil service officers. That promise has not been kept.
The temptation to play politics with what is a structural problem should have been avoided. The letter written by the chairperson of the United Progressive Alliance, Sonia Gandhi, to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, asking the prime minister to look into the case of Nagpal, is a prime example of such politicking. Further, it shows blatant hypocrisy, as Gandhi’s Congress has hardly been above using transfers as a method of controlling difficult officers.
The Union government should ignore Gandhi’s attempt to politicise this problem, and look into how, precisely, the dysfunctional relationship between the civil servants and politicians can be mended.
Naturally, the right of civil servants to the jobs they expect is not absolute; the Supreme Court itself has observed in this context in the past that "it is the privilege of the master to choose his cook".
This has meant that, for example, even the higher levels of the civil service in Lucknow and Delhi have not stood behind Nagpal, as they should have.
However, there are ways to control arbitrary transfers. One possibility is to ensure that any transfers after a particularly short tenure are automatically examined by a local Lok Ayukta, in the states that have them, or by some other similar independent authority.
Without some attempt to fix this problem, all the advantages of having a tenured civil service will slowly be lost.