Taking the road less travelled

During a career in civil services there are opportunities and threats based on your 'recognised' strengths and weakness.  But on the day of reckoning, it is just a matter of perception. By Vivek K. Agnihotri, former secretary-general, Rajya Sabha

Vivek K. AgnihotriDuring a career in civil services there are opportunities and threats based on your 'recognised' strengths and weakness.  But on the day of reckoning, it is just a matter of perception or, as they say, 'a state of mind'. 

There are stories in the media, from time to time, about officers who have been transferred 40 times in 20 years (actually the officer concerned was my trainee at Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration, Dehra Dun); and another who was transferred 60 times in 30 years.  The average, however, is the same: two posting every year. 

Then, according to a study quite some time back, in a particular Indian state the average tenure of a district collector / magistrate was about six months.  By those high standards, I am a below par transferee.  My average works out to a miserable three long years on every post; and that too because of a few (about four) bad-fish postings / scores.  If you take them out, the average shoots up to four years.  Actually I have fought and won against an attempt to transfer me.  More about it a little later.

The purpose of this piece is to focus on a few occasions / situations when either I refused or resisted or prevented a posting.  Whether I won the battle hands up or down, I shall leave it to the reader to decide.

It all began with a request, early in my career, for cancellation of my first posting as a collector and district magistrate (CDM) in Mahboobnagar in Andhra Pradesh because I was, at that point of time, giving final shape to my house under construction in Hyderabad.  Selfish motive, I, unabashedly, admit; but in those good old days (early 1980s) the authorities used to be much more responsive to officer's problems than they are today, especially in the south of Vindhyas.  And it worked.

I won laurels in the alternate posting - earning  the sobriquet 'Ordinance Agnihotri', for the number of ordinances I piloted with the support of the them chief minister - to make the Panchayati Raj Act of the state operational for the ensuing elections to Panchayati Raj bodies, elections to which were being held after a gap of 11 years. 

It, unexpectedly, resulted in a so-called prized posting - that of CDM, Visakhapatnam - which I gladly accepted, though it did not last very long though.

On two other occasions it was not as simple as that.  I really faced a dilemma.  Actually I was not quite sure whether I did the right thing in not preferring the obvious course of action by refusing or subverting the posting.  Perhaps, my career would have taken a very different course, had I not chosen a road less travelled.  This had, of course, happened to me very early in my life when I took the IAS examination rather than continue as a member of the teaching faculty in the department of English Studies of Allahabad University.

My first dilemma  was when I was additional development commissioner, in the office of the development commissioner (handlooms).  It was a director level post, in between the more familiar designations of deputy secretary and joint secretary. 

After about two years of being in the post, I was 'empanelled' for promotion.  In such a situation, firstly, the officer has no choice.  Secondly, in the normal course, the officer is promoted in the same organization where he happens to be working, if a vacancy is available there. 

As it happened, there was a problem of plenty.  My boss (secretary, ministry of textiles) told me that there were four posts available in the ministry; and very graciously offered me a choice of any one of them.  The posts were: development commissioner (handlooms), which my immediate boss had just vacated on promotion; development commissioner (handicrafts); joint secretary (exports) in the ministry of textiles; and the director general, Apparel Export Promotion Council (DG, AEPC). 

Of these four, the last two were considered 'prized postings' (in that order) in the ministry because they offered plenty of opportunities to travel abroad.  While the post of DG, AEPC scored over the other in this regard, the post of JS (exports) offered the real possibility of a posting abroad, in due course.  I, therefore, intuitively thought that the secretary would expect me to plumb for it. 

In any case, out of the four, in his heart of hearts he would have liked me to opt for the post of DC (handicrafts), because he had occupied it before becoming secretary, ministry of textiles.  He was taken aback when I preferred to take my promotion as development commissioner (handlooms). 

I chose it for two (to me) obvious, reasons.  It would be a smooth transition for me and I would not have to start 'learning on the job' all over again.  Secondly because, thanks to the handloom diva, the Late Mrs. Pupul Jayakar, I had developed a liking for the sector and was in a position to push through certain reforms on which I had been working for the past two years (they call it job satisfaction). 

I had been a party to setting up of two institutions (National Handloom Development Corporation [NHDC] and National Institute of Fashion Technology [NIFT]] and I wanted to see them take shape.  I had also conceptualised a composite handloom marketing complex to be set up in different cities for the marketing of handloom products of different States of India.  I had also worked on two hard measures, namely abolition of the much touted handloom rebate and the leaky Janata Cloth Scheme, which had been the source several malpractices.

The second dilemma arose about 18 years later.  Before my turn for promotion as secretary to government of India could arrive, I had completed my extended 7-year tenure with the central government and was due to revert back to my state.  A helpful cabinet secretary arranged a temporary assignment for me as officer on special duty (OSD) to the Twelfth Finance Commission to keep me off the regular channel and thus allow me to continue in Delhi to fill up the gap of a few months when the need to revert would recede permanently.  I was shifted to the post of chairman, Tariff Commission, after a few months on promotion.  But before I could settle down there, I received orders to take over as secretary, ministry of parliamentary affairs.  These two short postings, in succession, were inter alia responsible for bringing down my average tenure of postings from four years to three years.

Be that as it may; I settled down in the new post and was coming to like the new assignment.  It used to give me a heady feeling when ministers would talk to me about scheduling or rescheduling their item in the government's List of Business in the two houses of Parliament. 

My reach extended to all ministries and departments.  I used to have quarterly meetings with their representatives to review pending items of Parliamentary Committees, etc. 

After about a year, the government changed.  The NDA went out of power and the UPA moved in.  It was June 2004 and the new Lok Sabha had just had its first session to perform the ritual swearing in of the newly-elected member of the Lok Sabha.  We were busy preparing for the first proper session of Parliament after the change of guard. The session was to begin in the first week of July, and, and as has been the practice during the general election years, it was the monsoon and the Budget sessions rolled into one.  On a hot, summer afternoon an officious looking retired senior bureaucrat, with whom I had a nodding acquaintance, walked into my room with a sheaf of papers in his hand.  He started reading out my service record from one of the sheets.  At the end of it, he looked inquiringly at me and observed, ''You have a Ph. D. in textiles; you should be secretary in the ministry of textiles''. 

All this time, while I remained seated in my official chair, while he stood his 'officious' ground.  To say the least, I was a bit amused at  his dramatic entry and the pompous announcement.  But I kept quiet and waited for his next move.  He turned around and walked away.  I thought he had surely gone wonky.  I put the interlude away from mind and got busy with making preparations for first regular Parliament session of the new government.

It was end of June.  I had already made a detailed PowerPoint presentation on the working of my ministry to my ministers (one of cabinet rank and the other two ministers of state), which had been appreciated by them, including the fact I did it all by myself.  A few days later, one of the ministers of state, who was also the minister for the department of personnel and training (which deals with the postings and transfers of bureaucrats in central government), came to my room and said: ''Congratulations''.

I was surprised and asked him: ''Why, Sir''?

''You are being posted as secretary in the ministry of textiles'', he said taking hold of my hands and shaking them vigorously.  I was aghast.  The details of the brief encounter with the retired bureaucrat I had had a few days ago flashed through my mind. 'What the hell?'  While still allowing him to hold my hand, I composed myself and requested him to have a seat.  We had some discussion on the arrangement for the ensuing Parliament session, while I tried to organise my thoughts on the news he had just broken.

After some time I said, ''Sir, if you permit me I would like to say something about my transfer at this juncture.''

The minister had a puzzled look but did not react. I continued after a pause, ''Sir, the first Parliament session of the new government is less than a week away.  All the ministers have been newly appointed.  In the ministry of parliamentary affairs, the lone post of joint secretary has been lying vacant for quite some time.  Even if a new secretary is posted immediately, he may take a couple of days to join and even then may not be able to advise you adequately.  Would you like to deal with the three deputy secretaries in the ministry directly during the forthcoming session of Parliament?  The new government is perfectly justified in making changes in the bureaucracy; but one post that need not undergo any change, at this point of time at least, is my post.''

The minister apparently understood the logic of my argument and left post haste.  The next day when we met he told me that he had been to the PM's office and got my impending posting nipped in the bud, as they say.  I continued on the post for over a year thereafter till my retirement.  I got a brief pat on the  back by way of being posted as a member of the Central Administrative Tribunal, about eight months after my retirement. 

A year or so later I got a big hug when the minister for personnel asked me to call on the newly elected vice president of India and chairman of the Rajya Sabha.  The rest, as they say, is history.

Several years later, when, after my retirement from the post of secretary-general, Rajya Sabha, I met (now former) minister of state for personnel at a function, he introduced me to a third person as 'the man who wouldn't be secretary, textiles'.

It is a different matter that had I chosen, on both occasions, to take the 'textile' route [joint secretary (exports) and secretary (textiles)] I would have had a very different career progression.  I have no regrets, though.