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Radical Views
Dilip Cherian
The tyranny of transfer 02 November, 2012
The Ashok Khemka episode in Haryana has, once again, exposed the symbiotic nature of the relationship between politicians and bureaucracy, which works along the lines of the 'patronage' system and all that it entails. Khemka has become a 'victim' of the system because he chose not to play by the accepted rules of engagement by bending to his political masters, but took an independent stance by initiating an investigation into Robert Vadra's land deals in Haryana where many lesser mortals would have shied away.

HE IS already being seen as having joined the company of babus such as Sanjiv Bhatt, Arun Bhatia or G.R. Khairnar and many others who took on the political class and stood up for probity in public life. They ploughed a lonely furrow and paid a heavy price – either forced to leave the service or left to defend themselves in court against allegations of assorted crimes and misdemeanors. While in service, many attempts were made to muzzle Messrs Bhatia and Khainar, mostly through that favourite weapon in the hands of the political authorities – transfer.

‘Transfer’ is a dreaded word in the lexicon of the honest bureaucrat, whether in the Central or state service. It is the sword of Damocles that hangs over the head of every person who chooses to work for Bharat Sarkar, especially those who are determined to traverse their career without kowtowing to the wishes of the netas above them. It is an axiomatic truth that transfer is wielded as a weapon by politicians; it is an instrument both for reward as well as punishment. In the case of babus like Khemka, it is obviously the latter. The senior IAS officer has been transferred 43 times in 21 years, surely a record of sorts even in the hyperbolized world of Indian bureaucracy!

Khemka is presently the national symbol of the victimized honest babu. But barely a few months earlier, yet another all India service officer suffered the same plight as the Haryana IAS officer. You may recall that the Kolkata police crime wing's first woman chief Damayanti Sen, the IPS officer who cracked the Park Street rape case, was transferred to a relatively low profile posting, because in solving the crime she punctured Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s claims that the crime was ‘fabricated’.

With reference to Khemka’s latest transfer when the Haryana government clarified, under duress of course, that removal of officials is its “prerogative”, it was, strictly speaking, going by the book. But while transfer policies of government prescribe tenures for most posts, as we know only too well, this is observed more in breach. While transfers happen all the time, the phenomenon is best observed when power changes hands. Early this year, soon after becoming chief minister of Uttar Pradesh Akhilesh Yadav reshuffled the bureaucrats who served in the Chief Minister’s secretariat. In the first month alone after becoming CM, Yadav transferred more than 1,000 officers of the state’s administrative and police services to new positions.  Obviously, those who were perceived to be ‘loyalists’ of his predecessor Mayawati were shunted off to less prestigious posts. But this may pale in comparison to the the record set by his predecessor, who had transferred 1,350 babus during her six-month reign as chief minister in 2007.

This has actually become routine practice and no eyebrows are raised when “reshuffles” take place. A recent study by Harvard professor Laksmi Iyer and University of Warwick’s Anandi Mani on transfer of bureaucrats has some interesting revelations. One of the findings is that a change of government in a state “leads to a 10 per cent increase in the transfer probability of an Indian Administrative Service officer”. As is fairly obvious, the main reason for frequent transfers in India is politics. Politicians want to appoint their “favourites” to specific posts so that the babus do as they are bid, either oblivious to or not bothered about the long-term impact of this on policy formulation and implementation.

Most agree that having fixed tenure for bureaucrats would solve many of the problems. Unfortunately, like most matters of policy it has lingered at the discussion stage for long. More than a decade ago, former cabinet secretary T.S.R. Subramaniam had recommended giving fixed tenures to all cadre officers. Several committees on administrative reforms too have recommended having fixed tenures for all civil service positions, ostensibly to reduce political meddling. That may perhaps be the reason why the issue has not gone beyond this stage. Now, we hear that a Group of Ministers (GoM) headed by Defence minister A.K. Antony will take a call on fixing tenures for each government post. Hopefully, Khemka controversy will provide the push required to make it happen.

Editorial NOTE: This article is categorized under Opinion Section. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of In case you have a opposing view, please click here to share the same in the comments section.
About The Author
Dilip Cherian, a former editor of Business India and widely syndicated columnist, is a seasoned bureaucracy watcher and policy specialist. Tweet him at
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