Transfers as a control mechanism

Ambrose Pinto SJ

Transfers are a control mechanism and they increase when there is a new chief minister. Most of these transfers take place in the first few months after a new CM takes over. A CM who comes to power with a new party is likely to transfer more officers for control. The majority of such transfers are ‘lateral’ transfers, not accompanied by promotion or rewards. They merely coincide with a new CM coming into the office.

Bureaucrats and officers with high-skills face less frequent political transfers. Politicians need expertise for administration. To succeed, bureaucrats invest in the development of skills. They undergo longer durations of training in the course of their career. These officers are also recommended for senior positions in the central government. Merit thus plays a role. Good politicians need good bureaucrats.

Loyalty pays

Another way of obtaining important positions is by being ‘loyal’ to specific politicians. Some politicians frequently get elected. Even if they do not, they still control the bureaucracy through their party or kith and kin in governance. Given the nature of politics in India, it is mostly the same politicians that rotate from one election to the other. The opposition party becomes the ruling party and the ruling party becomes the opposition. There are officials and bureaucrats who remain loyal to individual politicians and since parties are managed by these politicians, loyalty pays.

However that is not the full story. There are bureaucrats, who have succeeded without expertise and loyalty. There is another path for mobility for state officials and bureaucrats and that is the caste affinity.  A change in the caste identity of a state’s chief minister has always resulted in a significant increase in the important bureaucratic reassignments for people of his caste. Officers are appointed to important positions when they belong to the same caste as the chief minister’s caste. This is equally true for other ministers. Ministers prefer people of their caste to be their secretaries than people of other castes with some exceptions.

It is true that politicians generally do not have control over the recruitment and wage, promotion and demotion of the bureaucrats. That is how we have come to believe that ‘neutrality’ in governance is maintained. Are the officials really ‘neutral’ or can they remain neutral? Then what good is the official to the chief minister or the party in power?

Politicians want their pet projects to be implemented and legally protected on scams by the bureaucrats. They do offer the bureaucrats hidden incentives or they pick somebody who shares their ‘worldview.’ Several officials do not mind doing the biddings of their political bosses for a reward.  

This is the real picture of administration in the state of Karnataka. While some politicians have gone to jail, there are some bureaucrats who may be waiting to go who have obliged the ministers in the mining scams, police officials who have helped out in the communal agenda of the party in power and officials who have toed the political line in land deals and other scandals. There are very few who have stood up and refused to be a party to politicians and served the state. They are the ones who are constantly transferred for performing their duties honestly and efficiently.

What we can conclude from all this is that bureaucratic transfers are not driven by any norms. They are governed by interests. The average tenure of IAS Officers in a given post is 16 months and only 56 per cent of district officers spend more than one year in their jobs. How can anybody do some lasting work at policy level if one is transferred according to the whims and fancies of the chief minister or other ministers?

What we need now is re-structuring of administration so that politicians are not able to impact public governance. There is a ‘Public Service Bill’ that stipulates that the bureaucrats can’t be transferred before completion of at least two years in a position. Only eleven states in India have agreed, while ten states have refused it outright. That would mean politicians desire total control over bureaucrats and in the light of the happenings in the state we know why.

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