A tough cop and graft cases against IAS officers

More than fortnight has passed since Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officers in Kerala launched an unprecedented agitation – they applied for a day’s casual leave to protest what they called relentless filing of vigilance cases against them.

The rebellion, however, ran into Pinarayi Vijayan and was called off behind closed doors.Since their meeting with the chief minister (vigilance comes under the Home Department, held by him) on January 9, the officers appear to have adopted a guarded stance on the issue; they haven’t responded to media reports on how the “leave revolt” was swatted down in a matter of hours, by an unrelenting chief minister.

The CPM-led state government has not been open about brimming discontent among the officers either. Earlier last week, Finance Minister T M Thomas Isaac acknowledged that the issue was “serious” but stated that the government would sort it all out. The opposition Congress initially called it an administrative breakdown but Vijayan’s steely defiance seems to have left its leaders indifferent.

Meanwhile, the state Vigilance and Anti-Corruption Bureau (VACB) under its director, DGP Jacob Thomas, has been lining up measures to ensure more stringent checks on corruption and greater transparency in functioning of government institutions. The chief minister’s open endorsement of Thomas – he said in a media interaction after meeting the protesting IAS officers that the government would not interfere in corruption cases filed against them – has doubled as momentum for the DGP who has, over the past few years, captured popular imagination as a crusader against corruption.

But how far would Thomas go? More critically, how long could the government keep resentment among IAS officers on check before it morphs into an administrative tussle? The officers have maintained that their intention was not to affect functioning of the government but to expose Thomas’ “vindictive” campaign against them. So far, the signals from the government have been rather clear – “Let the law take its course; now, get back to work”. Additional Chief Secretaries Tom Jose and K M Abraham are among senior IAS officers who have recently hit headlines over vigilance probes.

It was on January 7 that members of the Kerala IAS Officers Association met in Thiruvananthapuram to set on motion plans for their protest. Though earlier reports did trace growing dissent among the officials against the vigilance director, what led them to the protest was the VACB’s decision to register a FIR with Additional Chief Secretary (Industries) Paul Antony as the third accused in a case of alleged nepotism. The case is in connection with former industries minister E P Jayarajan’s appointment of a relative as managing director of the public sector Kerala State Industrial Enterprises Ltd.

“We are unable to understand how obeying the written instructions of a minister, which is not in violation of any legislation, can be deemed illegal and how such an officer can be implicated in a criminal case,” the officers said in a statement after their meeting. The idea was to take a “day off” work to express their “sadness, frustration and professional dissatisfaction”.

Thomas, according to the IAS officers, has indulged in “vindictive retaliation” against officers who have cornered his own “illegal misdoings” in the past. They also contend that the VACB director is reopening cases that were closed following departmental probes. Has the all-out backing from the government – in contrast with the snubs he took from the previous Congress-led government – led the DGP too far?

D B Binu, RTI activist and advocate, feels that the question doesn’t define the context of the officers’ rebellion. “They allege that there are vested interests behind the cases. But they can expose these interests, if there are any, in due process. They should take the cases on in the court and prove their charges. Instead, they’ve come together to virtually demand immunity from legal proceedings,” says Binu. He points out that the officers’ statement didn’t have names or a date and wonders how the officers themselves would have reacted had their subordinates announced plans for a mass leave on a two-day notice.

Political leadership

CPM leader A A Rahim opines that the manner in which the issue was “sorted” is a statement on the political leadership. In the past, Kerala’s IAS officers have rebelled against the political dispensation, at times even over pressure from ministers on furthering their interests. But the “strong intervention” of the present government could be a first. “It’s not that the chief minister failed to listen to their grievances. The officers have a right to convey their concerns and the CM is expected to address them too but the difference is that the issue was settled firmly but tactfully,” he says.

The CM’s stand has dealt a serious blow to what critics call “a powerful lobby” of bureaucrats. “These things happen only in Kerala. But it’s good that the issue has been settled with a firm hand,” says Binu. He doesn’t feel that the problems would snowball into an administrative crisis but there are signs suggesting that the tussle is far from over. A vigilance special court in Thiruvananthapuram is already hearing a petition against Chief Secretary S M Vijayan and for allegedly backing the IAS officers’ strike plans.

Thomas has had run-ins with politicians in power during the previous government’s term. Since returning to VACB under the CPM-led government, he has also faced criticism for the slow progress of cases involving ministers. He himself is facing allegations – one of them on estimated loss of Rs 35-Rs 50 crore to the government during his term as Director of Ports.

The IAS officers are not likely to drop their guard as Thomas gains in acceptance in the government. In a state known for its influential employee organisations, who decides where the IAS officers should stop? “But they were not pressing for due rights; they were lobbying for exemptions,” reasons Rahim.

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