gfiles magazine

September 8, 2011

STATESCAN-west bengal government-bureaucracy clash

Mamata vs babus

The new CM wants rapid development but the bureaucrats are bound by procedure in sanctioning funds
THE West Bengal Finance Secretary, CM Bachawat, wants to be relieved of his duties. Though Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee said on TV that he wants to be eased out because of illness, those close to him say he is physically fit but does not want to serve the State government anymore.
He is seeking an assignment at the Centre because, in Kolkata, he is expected to do what he is not supposed to do. Bachawat’s detractors call him timid. Former Finance Minister Asim Dasgupta wanted him to sign government orders even after the announcement of Assembly elections. Bachawat refused and sought Chief Secretary Samar Ghosh’s directive. The matter was referred to the Election Commission, which adjudged Bachawat right. Then the government changed.
But the new government, in its first vote-on-account placed before the Assembly, pegged the Budget at Rs 87, 646 crore without divulging details of how much revenue would emanate from where. Thereafter, the Finance Secretary was asked to sign various orders allotting money for projects. The Chief Minister is on an announcements spree and her Ministers and advisers want immediate release of money for the projects being announced. Bachawat feels he cannot sign as the government has no authority to allot money like this without placing a Budget detailing the allotments of each department. Once more, the “timid officer” has become a thorn in the path of the “dynamic” government which wants to act fast to solve developmental problems. Is this a classic example of the clash between a super-active political authority and a rule-abiding bureaucracy?
There are other equations also. In the initial days after assuming power, the government got an ordinance acquiring the entire land of the Nano project in Singur signed by the Governor. It was grossly improper as the Assembly was in session. When this was pointed out by the Left, the government was forced to withdraw the ordinance. Banerjee proffered an excuse for the gaffe by claiming that, while she is well-acquainted with the rules and procedures of Parliament, she is unfamiliar with those of the Assembly. However, in this particular case, there is no procedural difference between Parliament and an Assembly. It is said that when the Governor later queried the Chief Secretary on the faux pas, Ghosh confessed that he had been in the dark about the move.
It is also rumoured that the kingpin behind all major moves by the government is a non-IAS officer in the Chief Minister’s Office – Gautam Sanyal. He is a Secretariat staffer who was with Banerjee when she was Railways Minister. Though he runs the CMO, he has no official designation. He cannot be given a designation that puts him on a par with senior IAS officers nor can he be given a lesser position because he is, after all, the “boss”. The IAS lobby is peeved and has no qualms about leaking out tales of how Sanyal ignores even the Chief Secretary.
Sanyal is said to have blocked Sanjoy Mitra’s heading of the CMO. Mitra has worked in the PMO and is far more experienced than Sanyal but was apparently done in by a rumour that he is on good terms with the CPI (M) leadership. The story was credible because he had been in the PMO when the CPI (M) supported the government from 2004 to 2008. So Mitra was shunted to the unenviable post of Health Secretary.
Home Secretary DD Goutama is another officer who finds himself out of the loop. His absence at meetings where Home-related matters are taken up is conspicuous. All this indicates that something has gone wrong in West Bengal. There are some extraneous factors such as the new government not having enough faith in the old bureaucrats, who have served the Left for almost their entire careers in the State. And, sometimes, personal equations do not gel. Yet, the argument of a stand-off between an over-active government and a slow-moving bureaucracy holds water.
The Chief Minister is on an announcements spree and her Ministers and advisers want immediate release of money for the projects being announced.
IT is likely that the Singur ordinance was not discussed with the Chief Secretary out of apprehension that the seasoned bureaucrat would bring forth objections that would delay it. And maybe the Home Secretary is being sidelined because the CM wants some quick measures to change the functioning of the police. No doubt good governance often calls for quick decisions, and Banerjee is trying to go about it in an unconventional way. But IAS officers are still bound by the rules.
On the bigger canvas of the entire country, the consequences of bureaucracy-dependent governance are more visible. Those without any vision calmly occupy the chairs of Ministers, knowing the government is run by the bureaucracy. At the same time, it is said that many a first-time Minister learns the art of corruption from the bureaucrats. Again, the Ministers do not bother to oversee the implementation of the projects they announce. Instead, they read out reports about the success of their governments. So these sets of people have patted each other on the back regarding magical reduction of the number of those below the poverty line in the past 20 years, ie since liberalization of the economy. The reality was far from the claims. Banerjee does not want a repeat of this. But, for rapid development she needs money and inter-departmental mobilization of funds. She has fought with the Centre over money and the Union Finance Minister grudgingly acquiesced – not due to unwillingness to help West Bengal but due to the State government’s unreadiness to observe financial discipline. Finally, the Centre sanctioned a package of Rs 21,614 crore, including a grant-in-aid of Rs 9,240 crore. This came after the State agreed to make efforts to generate revenue.
AND then the State government passed a finance Bill increasing allotment of development by 183.30%, school education by 104.97%, Sunderbans development by 70.99%, transport by 238.10% and so on. Finance Minister Amit Mitra has promised to reduce the salary-pension and interest payment burden from 93% to 74% of the Budget. He has promised to increase the State’s revenue by 31.39%, from Rs 21,300 crore to Rs 27, 690 crore. But this is far too ambitious.
The kingpin behind major moves by the government is non- IAS officer Sanyal (above with bouquet). He is a Secretariat staffer who was with Banerjee when she was Railways Minister. He runs the CMO but has no official designation.
Though there is no doubt that Banerjee is setting about doing what the State needs, the bureaucrats remain sceptical. They know that ultimately they will be questioned on whether they followed procedure. If not, the channels of aid will dry up and then they will face the wrath of their political bosses. Already, on July 26, Union Home Secretary Raj Kumar Singh warned the Chief Secretary that the State government had not provided utilization certificates for Rs 40 crore given by the Centre for infrastructure development in extremism-affected Bankura, West Midnapore and Purulia.
So, basic changes are needed in the process of governance so that such confrontation between the political leadership and the bureaucracy can be avoided. But no effort has been made to find the contours of such changes. The opposition to “red tapism” in the past decade was aimed at serving the interests of industrialists and businessmen. Now, there is an alarming rift between the common classes and the middle and upper classes that has spawned the growth of the Maoists.
Yet none is prepared to review the process to ensure speedy functioning shorn of corruption so that the interests of the common man are served. g

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