A K Bhattacharya: Three finance secretaries in 15 months

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Facts should speak for themselves. The Narendra Modi government has just completed 15 months. In this period, relatively short in the life of a government, it has already seen three home secretaries, three finance secretaries and two foreign secretaries.

Anil Goswami, whom the present regime had inherited from the United Progressive Alliance government, had to go on leave early this year in a manner that was both abrupt and controversial. In came L C Goyal, a 1979-batch Indian Administrative Service officer, who was till then heading the rural development ministry, to steer the ministry of home affairs. Last Monday, Mr Goyal sought voluntary retirement, a request that was immediately accepted by the government. The new incumbent is Rajiv Mehrishi, who was due to retire that very day and was given a two-year term as the home secretary. For Mr Mehrishi, it was a short walk from one end of North Block to the other end. Both the finance and home ministries are headquartered in North Block.

Across the road, in South Block, secretarial reshuffles have been no less dramatic. Within days of the Republic Day celebrations early this year when US President Barack Obama was the chief guest, there was a change of guard in the external affairs ministry. Sujatha Singh had to quit as foreign secretary and make way for S Jaishankar, who returned from the US where he was India’s ambassador. The controversy over her exit has died down even as the new foreign secretary has taken charge of the ministry with his competent handling of the government’s external relations. But the way the present government has dealt with appointments of civil servants remains to be a cause for concern. Consider how Sunil Arora, who was brought in from Rajasthan to lead the newly created skills development ministry as its secretary last year, has now been sent to the information and broadcasting ministry as its secretary. And guess who has replaced Mr Arora? Rohit Nandan, who headed Air India for the last four years amidst many controversies.

Back in North Block, the finance ministry too has seen some high-profile exits. Arvind Mayaram was the finance secretary when the Modi government was formed. But Mr Mayaram did not last very long. In the space of a few days, his next posting was changed more than once, leaving him and everybody else a bit confused. By the end of October 2014, Rajiv Mehrishi was brought in from Rajasthan to head the finance ministry. But little attention was paid to the fact that his date of retirement was less than a year away. In other words, a new finance secretary was chosen with the clear knowledge that he would practically have only one Budget to handle.

But who could have anticipated the Modi government’s plan for Mr Mehrishi? He was sent to the home ministry as secretary with a two-year term, making way for a new finance secretary – the third in the last 15 months. R P Watal, who heads the department of expenditure, will be the new finance secretary since he is senior to all other secretaries in the finance ministry.

A new government is always entitled to build its own team of civil servants in key positions. For instance, it chose to continue with the incumbent cabinet secretary, Ajit K Seth, when it came to power in May 2014. But in June this year it opted for a change by appointing Power Secretary Pradeep Kumar Sinha with a two-year term to succeed Mr Seth. But what happened in the home ministry or in the finance ministry raises many questions about whether the government believes in the importance of team-building and stability at the level of secretaries in key departments.

Soon after the formation of the new government, Shaktikanta Das was elevated to head the revenue department in June 2014. In October and November that year, three key decisions were taken – bringing in Mr Mehrishi to replace Mr Mayaram as the finance secretary, inducting Hasmukh Adhia as secretary in the department of financial services and appointing Aradhana Johri as secretary in charge of the disinvestment department. With R P Watal as expenditure secretary, a new team at the helm of the finance ministry appeared to have been set up.

But in less than a year, that team appears to be disintegrating. Mr Mehrishi has already left the finance ministry. Mr Watal will be retiring next February and Ms Johri too will reach her age of superannuation six months later. Expect, therefore, new faces at the helm of the key departments in the finance ministry in the next one year, almost at the same rate that one has seen in the last twelve months.

The government will argue that such changes are inevitable because of the very nature of the civil service, where most secretaries reach retirement age before they can complete a year or two at the helm of a ministry. The other argument would be that civil servants are trained in a manner that even though there may be frequent changes, continuity is provided by a strong and stable network of mid-level bureaucrats who enjoy a longer stint in the same ministry.

Yet, it is undeniable that longer tenure for secretaries makes a big positive difference to governance. In the 1990s, the finance ministry had a top team that remained virtually the same for about six years, without any change in the finance secretary or the chief economic advisor. That long uninterrupted tenure surely helped economic policy formulation in those years, and history is proof of that record.

It is true that securing such longish tenure for top civil servants in the finance ministry would be difficult in the current situation. But certainly a start can be made by giving a minimum term of two years for occupants of the top three secretaries’ posts in the finance ministry – those in charge of the departments of economic affairs, revenue and expenditure. If two-year terms can be given to the cabinet secretary and secretaries in a few ministries, including those for home and defence, surely the same privilege can be extended to the finance ministry. Such reforms, mercifully, would not need any legislative sanction and are not likely to face any roadblock in Parliament.

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