On a merry go round in the civil service

Life in the civil services is often like being on a merry-go round, with officers often finding themselves going around in circles. Retired IAS officer Vivek K. Agnihotri, former secretary-general, Rajya Sabha, Parliament of India, recounts a stint alternating between under secretary and deputy secretary in the capital

I am reminded of my days in government during and immediately after the Emergency.  On 25 June 1975 I was in a quiet and nondescript place called Khammam, eponymous headquarter of a district in the erstwhile state of Andhra Pradesh, awaiting a posting to Delhi.  My wife's medical condition at that time required treatment, which was not locally available. 

At my request, the government of Andhra Pradesh had agreed to sponsor my name to the Central Government for a posting in Delhi.  Finally I landed up in Delhi on a fateful day in September 1975.  Having spent the past several years in the backwaters of various districts of Andhra Pradesh, I, my wife and two small kids, who had yet to go to a proper school, were completely taken aback by the hurly-burly pace of the metropolis.  ''Dub-deck, dub-deck'', my younger son would shout and clap, whenever he saw a double decker bus.

I was posted as under-secretary in the department of health, ministry of health and family welfare.  When I received my posting orders, I considered it a very thoughtful gesture on the part of the government of India, since my wife needed specialised medical treatment.  Much later I learnt that it was a fortuitous occurrence and happened as part of a routine exercise; except that one of my instructors in the National Academy in Mussoorie, where I was trained, happened to be the officer on special duty (OSD) to the then health minister Dr Karan Singh and had picked my name from a panel of names sent to the ministry. 

Had he not been there, perhaps my name would have gone on doing the rounds of various ministries, and God only knows when it would have been picked up, as actually happened a few years later when the need arose on account of my promotion.  However, my posting in the department of health did not help me much as far as my wife's ailment was concerned; but it came in handy when one of my sons had an accident.

It was my very first posting in a secretariat, and that too happened to be the central secretariat.  For the first few days I sat in my room in a trance, not knowing how to deal with the files that kept on piling up.  The problem was compounded because the post I was assigned, had been lying vacant for over a month; so there was no one to 'hand over charge' to me and pass on the baton, in a manner of speaking, as had been the practice in all my previous assignments in the districts thus far.  I literally sat at the feet of my juniors to get the hang of it.

The emergency had cast its shadow in my room in the shape of a poster stating in Hindi: batein kam kaam jyada (talk less, work more).  The corridors were quiet; the officers and employees were largely to be found in their rooms.  I remember my car being stopped ostensibly for a traffic offence one night by the Sanjay Gandhi Brigade for having turned left from Connaught Place outer circle into Kasturba Gandhi Marg (Curzon Road) while the traffic light was turning amber.  I was allowed to go after some discussion.  Given the chaotic nature of traffic on Delhi roads these days, I wish government would appoint such traffic wardens officially.

During emergency, there was a lot of urgency and many heretofore unacceptable ideas were being tried out with Úlan.  One such idea pursued by the department of health was to post administrators (in lieu of the existing hospital superintendents) at its two prestigious hospitals - the Wellington (subsequently renamed Ram Manohar Lohia) and Safdarjung hospitals.  A doctor from Post-Graduate Institute, PGI, Chandigarh, and I were selected for this.  We were deputed to attend a 10-week course for senior hospital and health services administrators organised by the International Hospital Federation at the Kings Fund College in July-September 1977. 

Things were turning out rather well for me.  First came my promotion as deputy secretary, albeit on an ad hoc basis, dot on the due date (1 May 1977), when a temporary vacancy arose when a south Indian deputy secretary helpfully went on long home leave to help accommodate me.  He conveniently returned only after I had departed for the training programme. Then came my very first trip abroad, that too to 'dear old Blighty', for 10 weeks!

What followed was a unique pendulous movement in my career.  The government had changed even before I had left for the UK; and though the wheels of government grind slowly, they grind fine.  My mentor, the OSD to Dr Singh had moved out with the minister.  Given the twin facts of lifting of the Emergency and the change in government, the 'administrator move' had perhaps been challenged by the medical fraternity of the concerned hospitals while I was away. 

So when I returned, not only had the south Indian deputy secretary come back and ensconced himself in his position, but there was no posting as administrator in any of the hospitals waiting for me either.  The new government had scrapped the decision, which meant that when I returned, I had to rejoin on the lower post of under secretary. 

To rub salt in my wounds, the additional allowance of the post of deputy secretary, paid to me for the period I was abroad, was recovered from me, since I did not join as deputy secretary on return from UK.

Since there was no possibility of a vacancy of a deputy secretary arising in the health ministry in the near future, a proposal was sent to the department of personnel to find a berth for me elsewhere.  Days turned into weeks and weeks into months, but there was no news.  In the meanwhile, the department of health would helpfully promote me to the post of deputy secretary as and when an officer went on leave.  So I underwent cyclical and iterative interchanges between under secretary and deputy secretary, from time to time. 

To add to my woes, my younger son, all of four years, decided to take a short cut from our second floor flat in Asia House, Kasturba Gandhi Marg to the ground floor, by sliding down the railing of the staircase (as he had seen some older children doing it).  He fell in no time, crashing to the ground and broke his crown.  We were in and out of hospitals (Ram Manohar Lohia and AIIMS, this time) for next three months. 

I was on leave and occasionally visited the department of personnel to check the developments relating to my career's progression.  I met the secretary, department of personnel too in desperation; he was a senior colleague from my cadre of Andhra Pradesh. He promised to do his best and get me a 'good' posting.  He told me that a useless post of a deputy secretary had been lying vacant in his own department for over seven months, and advised me not to take it.
A little over a year after this saga began on 1 May 1977, I received two letters from two different divisions of the department of personnel, almost on the same day.  One of them informed me that my three year tenure as under secretary to government of India was coming to an end soon, and wanted me to apprise them whether I would like to report back to the state government of Andhra Pradesh immediately or would I like to avail of some leave before reversion. 

The other letter gave me the good news that I had been posted as deputy secretary in the department of personnel, to the same post which the secretary of the department had described as 'useless' a few months ago  - deputy secretary (Vigilance-II).  My tenure too had been extend by one year. 
When I joined the department of personnel, the secretary had changed.  Later, through a fortuitous coincidence, I happened to see the file relating to my posting in the department of personnel and found that my benefactor had already signed the file approving the proposal to post me as deputy secretary (Vigilance-II), even when he was describing the post as 'useless' and promising to get me a 'good' posting.