Continuity and stability at the top are among the important reasons cited in defence of the civil service in India — or for that matter in any functioning democracy. Ministers may come and ministers may go. But the civil servants heading ministries with their relatively longer tenures provide continuity and, therefore, stability to the government system. Civil servants may change, but since all of them belong to a cadre of a service and share a common style of functioning, there is no sudden disruption of work just because there are frequent changes of the ministers at the top.
In the Union government in the last few decades, however, this principle seems to have been turned on its head. Strange as it may sound, it is the ministers who provide better continuity and stability at the top for the simple reason that there are less frequent changes of ministers compared to the transfers of secretaries. So, there have been occasions when a ministry has completed an entire five-year tenure of the government with only one cabinet minister at the helm. But the same ministry has seen more than one secretary in that same period.
Take a look at the Railways Ministry. In the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, there has been only one railway minister in Lalu Prasad. And how many railway board chairmen do you think Prasad has had to deal with in the last four and a half years? As many as three. Forget about the railway board chairman, even the composition of the Railway Board has changed so frequently that it makes a mockery of the principle of continuity and stability.
Go back in time and you will see an even more interesting picture. Congress governments or Congress-led coalition governments have always tended to provide uninterrupted stints to their railway ministers. Madhavrao Scindia in the Rajiv Gandhi government in 1985-89, C K Jaffer Sharief in the Narasimha Rao government in 1991-96 and now Lalu Prasad in the Manmohan Singh government will prove that point. Frequent changes in the portfolio of the railway minister have taken place only in the United Front governments (between 1996 and 1998) and the Vajpayee government (between 1998 and 2004). But the average tenure of a Railway Board chairman has been less than two years.
The finance ministry too has seen a similar situation. The only exception is the five-year tenure of Manmohan Singh as finance minister, when it managed to do with a fairly stable team of top secretaries with the least number of secretarial changes in that period. Yashwant Sinha presented five budgets and in each of his budgets he had a different finance secretary. In fact, in one of his budgets, he did not even have a finance secretary and managed to do with an economic affairs secretary. P Chidambaram also presented five budgets in the UPA government, but has had as many as four secretaries in charge of the finance ministry.
This may not be a major cause for concern. But it points to a larger flaw in the system. Civil servants at the top are now increasingly getting shorter stints for them to be adequately effective in their functioning. The average time spent by a secretary in any one ministry is rarely more than two years. A few years ago, the government decided that the cabinet secretary, the senior-most civil servant, must have a minimum tenure of two years in that job. The UPA government chose a foreign secretary by superseding several other IFS officers in the hierarchy because it felt that the person it chose was better suited for the job and was young enough to enjoy a three-year tenure as the foreign secretary before his retirement. This became controversial. But the government stuck to its decision and the Manmohan Singh government has certainly benefited from its decision to get a foreign secretary for that long a period.
For most non-ministerial top jobs, whose incumbents are appointed by the government, the usual tenure ranges between two and five years. But when it comes to selecting the incumbent for the top job in a central ministry, no attention is paid to the need for providing a minimum tenure. It is time secretaries appointed to head a certain ministry also got a minimum tenure so that there was an improvement in their effectiveness and governance.
6 months ago