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Regulators? Still the preserve of the IAS

March 17, 2009 10:16 IST

One of the reasons why the Sixth Pay Commission had substantially raised the salary for chairmen of all the regulatory bodies was to make that job a little more attractive for professionals and experts from the private sector.

The time has now come to check out if the government has indeed used the better pay package for its regulators to widen the choice and attract private sector people.

A few weeks ago, the United Progressive Alliance government selected Dhanendra Kumar, a retired IAS officer, as the chairman of the Competition Commission of India. There were many candidates in the fray, but most of them belonged to the civil service.

By next Monday, a new chairman of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India will be in place. Nripendra Misra will complete his three-year tenure on March 21 and the government's search committee is expected to complete its job in a few days and an announcement is likely before the week ends.

Once again, a large number of the candidates in contention for the Trai chairman's job are civil servants belonging to the IAS. Only one of the candidates belongs to the private sector. Will the government's search committee make a departure by recommending a non-IAS officer for the job? This appears unlikely.

Civil servants get upset when questioned on why only serving or retired IAS officers are selected to head the many regulatory bodies that have been set up in the wake of economic reforms.

At present, there is only one regulatory body, the directorate general, Hydrocarbons, which is not headed by a serving or a retired IAS officer. V K Sibal worked in a public sector oil company before taking charge of the DGH.

Nobody can, of course, argue that IAS officers are not competent to lead a regulatory organisation. Given their exposure to the manner in which the government machinery functions and the need for a regulator to understand the working of the government system, IAS officers have a definite advantage over professionals or experts from the private sector.

But that should not rule out the possibility of private sector professionals with requisite experience in a sector from performing equally well in leading a regulatory organisation. Indeed, attempts were made in the past to get private sector professionals to head regulatory bodies.

These moves, however, did not bear any fruit because the salary offered to a head of a regulatory body was not attractive enough for a private sector professional.

The SPC took note of this feedback and made amends. Ironically, however, the enhanced pay package has made the job of a chairman of a regulatory body even more attractive for the IAS officers, particularly for those who are approaching retirement.

And only a few applications have come from private sector professionals. In sharp contrast, several secretaries to the Union government were interested in heading the Competition Commission of India.

The list of candidates being considered for the Trai chairman's post also has several secretaries, including even the finance secretary.

No doubt, the situation under the UPA regime has become a little better than in the past. During the Vajpayee government, bureaucrats approaching retirement were shortlisted and expected to head regulatory bodies once they superannuated.

The post of the chairman of the Central Electricity Regulatory Commission remained vacant for several months till A K Basu, an IAS officer, retired and took charge.

Similarly, Dipak Chaterjee was identified to head the Competition Commission of India just before he was due to retire as commerce secretary.

The UPA regime has not seen such instances of keeping a job vacant so that a bureaucrat of its choice could take that up after superannuation.

Yet, the concern that the SPC sought to address remains valid. What should the government do now? It may be time now to create a pool of experts, selected from both the IAS and private sector professionals, which could be used by the government's search committees to identify the chairman of a regulatory body.

The search committee, which at present is largely influenced by the ministers concerned, will then be able to act more independently and have a larger pool of talent to choose from.

A K Bhattacharya