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Transfers or badges of honour?

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“Surprising that a few IAS officers display a number of transfers in their careers as badges of honour. They should introspect and perhaps look at such officers who were honest, who survived and made a difference without being bothered about transfers”.

This tweet caught the fancy of a large number of ‘tweeple’ with most of them endorsing what was said. As officers, we have unnecessarily assigned too much “importance” to the issue of transfers. Yes, stability of tenure does matter and a lot needs to be done about it but that is not under the control of an officer. Dislocation can indeed cause a lot of inconvenience but beyond it, it should not make much of a difference, especially in the context of IAS officers where each job is pretty important. Hence, why bother? The focus has to be on “karma” over which the officer has total control. In any case, for a civil servant, transfer, like death, is inevitable. So, why give it more importance than due?  Moreover, if we believe in Hindu philosophy, we will be born again. Hence, if we have conviction about our capacity to deliver, we can continue to do it in our new “incarnation” (new place of posting). Why hang on to a particular post?

In my book, “Ethical Dilemmas of a Civil Servant”, I touched upon the issue of transfers and how, perhaps, an officer can look at it. One such instance is narrated below.

The order was cryptic but clear. It came from the Minister. It was 2003 and I had just taken over as Secretary, of the Department of Horticulture in the state of Uttar Pradesh (UP) after having completed my deputation with the Central Government. The State had undergone a massive transformation during the last few years when I was away at Delhi. It was hurtling down a precipice, economically and socially, on account of political and bureaucratic instability. UP had always enjoyed the dubious distinction of being a corrupt state, but now it had become much worse. Now the corrupt were ruling the roost and they were brandishing their corrupt practices as a badge of honour. My Minister, unfortunately, carried this pedigree that was growing by the day.

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No reason was assigned or indicated in the order that directed for the suspension of an officer. I had known the officer and he enjoyed the reputation of being an honest and efficient one, a breed that was fast disappearing. I rang up the Minister to ascertain the details, “Sir, you have desired suspension of a Deputy Director but you haven’t indicated any reason. Has he done anything wrong?” His response was immediate and cryptic, “He hasn’t come to meet me.” I was flummoxed. How could an officer be suspended for not meeting the Minister and why would he not meet him? I assured the Minister that I would speak to the concerned officer.

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I called up the officer and inquired, “Why haven’t you called on the Minister? He is very annoyed with you and he wants me to issue your suspension order.” There was a pause from the other end and then he responded, “Sir, I have met him on a number of occasions but the manner in which he wants me to ‘meet’ him, I haven’t been able to do because I don’t have the resources to meet his demands.” I immediately got the point. The Minister was expecting a ‘nazrana’ (an offering) from the officer.

I was facing a huge dilemma. Here was an officer who was not at fault. However, the Minister had the power to suspend him under the rules. How could this officer be protected? I was fortunately aware of a provision in the State that if the Secretary of a Department disagreed with the views of the Minister, he could route the file through the Chief Secretary. If the Minister over-ruled the Chief Secretary as well, the orders were to be carried out. I wanted to take this chance. Hence, I spoke to the Chief Secretary, V K Mittal, an extremely competent and honest officer, and narrated the background.

I had the advantage of having worked with the Chief Secretary earlier when he was posted as Agriculture Production Commissioner. He understood the case and agreed with my proposal of routing the file through him. The file was duly sent to him with my comments. The Chief Secretary sat on the file. For a change, bureaucratic red tape was being used to prevent a corrupt Minister from penalising an honest officer.

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The Minster did inquire about the status of the suspension order and I informed him that the file had been sent to the Chief Secretary. He could either not muster up sufficient courage to speak to the Chief Secretary or chose not to speak to him. He went to the next higher level. He met the Chief Minister. It never came to be known what transpired between the two of them but I was transferred out of the Department.

The Chief Secretary was quite upset at my transfer. So, I went to call on him after having taken charge of my new assignment. His remark didn’t surprise me, “See what has happened. You wanted to protect this officer. Consequently, you have been transferred. You could have continued had you carried out the orders issued by the Minister?” I thought for a moment and shared with him my analogy of death and rebirth in the context of a civil servant’s career. I concluded, “Sir, there was no way that I could have let the officer down. He had not committed any mistake. And I was simply doing my duty.”

The Chief Secretary smiled and wished me well. I had neither any guilt nor compunction. In fact, I felt proud of heeding the call of my conscience. I was doing my karma and I wasn’t bothered about the consequences.

Each officer who is being transferred frequently has to introspect and assess instead of blaming the system or “others”. As mentioned earlier, he can’t do much to “others”. He has to look inwards and seek inspiration from such officers who haven’t really bothered about transfers but focussed totally on job at hand and succeeded. There are many such officers but the choice is with the concerned officer whether he wants to continue to find fault with the system or learn from those who have performed without compromising their principles.

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Anil Swarup IAS (Retd)
Anil Swarup IAS (Retd)
Anil Swarup is a former 1981 batch, Uttar Pradesh cadre  IAS officer, and was awarded Director's gold medal for "best officer trainee" at the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration (LBSNAA). He served the Government of India in various capacities for 38 years and went on to become Secretary, Department of School Education and Literacy and the Coal Secretary of India. He also served as Additional Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat, Additional Secretary, Labour & Empowerment, Export Commissioner in the Ministry of Commerce & Industry of India and as the District Magistrate of Lakhimpur Kheri. He couldn’t make it to the “elite” Indian Administrative Service (IAS) on his first attempt but qualified for the Indian Police Service where he worked for one year before clearing IAS in his next attempt. He is today an author of several looks like 'No More a Civil Servant,' ‘Ethical dilemmas of a civil servant’ and ‘Not just a civilservant’. The views expressed are his own.


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