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Transferring the 'problems'

The abrupt transfer of 17 senior police officers in Bihar has the media worked up to a frenzy, that was fed further by the State Chief Secretary's greatly publicised gesture of 'proceeding on leave' as an expression of 'displeasure' at not having been consulted.

As an aside, I am always suspicious of bureaucrats who suddenly, dramatically and publicly acquire a 'conscience' at the fag end of their careers. Such trumpeted righteousness sits ill with extended records of complicity and acquiescence across their lengthy tenures of service.

Of course, by advertising their orchestrated ire, such individuals do succeed in becoming darlings of an uncritical Press for a few weeks or months before they fade into the oblivion of unremarkable retirement - but in doing so they also undermine the reputation of their service and the cadres they have worked with all their professional lives.

There are other and powerful instruments of correction available 'in-house' to the higher echelons of the administration; and if these fail, a media campaign certainly will not succeed, though it will push partisan political agendas further into the administrative process.

The administration works within a given - deeply corrupt, intensely prejudiced and polarised - political system, and must accept these limitations. Having operated, and risen to his present eminence, within this system, and presumably reinforced it through his entire career, the Bihar Chief Secretary's belated heroism strikes a particularly false chord.

Worse, what is so strongly being protested in Bihar today is a matter of utter routine in an administrative system that is now rotten to the core. To take up this single instance and pretend that it is some kind of radical departure from past practice is to falsify the record, to ignore the deep and pervasive nature of the problem, and to play into the hands of irresponsible and opportunistic politicians.

The truth of the matter is, everyone wants a say in the transfer of all policemen, right from the humble constable and going up to the DGP. Unfortunately, all administrations, without exception, have refused to address the larger question of political interference in such decisions, and the enormous and detrimental impact this has, not only on police morale, but on law and order management, and on the security of citizens.

The magnitude of the problem can be assessed by the fact that, nearly three years ago, the Department for Personnel Affairs of the Government of India, had noted that, in several districts of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, District Magistrates and Superintendents of Police (SPs) - the cutting edge of the administration - are often transferred within just three to four months of assuming office.

Indeed, even the all India average tenure for an SP is less than a year, and in States like Bihar and UP, it is barely six months. Over the period 1995-2000, for which some data is available, the average tenure of a SP in one of UP's more troubled districts was less than three months.

This, of course, was not always the case. The British left behind a fairly robust system of administration with well entrenched norms dictating transfers and postings, especially of the higher administration, and - unless extraordinary circumstances prevailed - such officers could expect a fixed tenure of roughly three years at a particular post.

These norms, however, began to be diluted after Independence, though the 1950s and the 1960s were marked by a fair measure of adherence to these inherited conventions.

The real problem at the national level (State-wise exceptions were visible from the very outset) emerged when the Central political leadership began to push the idea of a 'committed administration' and one senior politician of the Congress party openly advocated the notion that 'the so-called neutral administrative machinery is a hindrance, not a help' and that the concept of a neutral administration was 'hardly relevant to Indian conditions'.

Over the years, the system has spiralled out of control, with the idea of 'commitment' becoming increasingly narrow and partisan. An accelerated decline commenced as coalition politics and unstable minority governments increasingly becoming the norm. Now, multiple factions exert continuous pressure to secure preferred postings for their loyalists, and every shift in the political power equation brings a landslide of transfers. Every change of Government is, as a matter of course, followed by transfers en masse, as the new incumbents pack prize posts with their own 'stalwarts'.

Loyalty, however, is not the only issue at stake. Money is an overwhelming consideration. Former Home Secretary Madhav Godbole once spoke of the 'transfer mela' and how it had been converted into a wholesale market, where posts often go to the highest bidder. Others have written about the 'transfer industry', and there is talk of key posts in the police effectively being 'auctioned' for crores of rupees.

Needless to say, those who purchase such 'lucrative' posts do so for motives other than public service, and work hard to secure a maximal return on what they regard as their 'investment'. A particular Chief Minister in UP is said to have secured over Rs 500 crore in this manner in a single year of transfers and postings.

Sometimes the wrong man gets into one of the prize positions, and this is ordinarily inconvenient for the political leadership. I am personally aware of one recent case where a senior police officer was shunted out of his post because he refused to recruit candidates who failed to meet recruitment norms, despite specific (of course, verbal) instructions from a corrupt Home Minister in one of the States.

Failure to do the bidding of political masters is one of the most frequent reasons for abrupt postings, and the worse-managed a State, the more frequent such actions are. I recall a chance meeting with a DIG in Saharanpur some years ago, where I found that he was living in his bungalow without having unpacked his luggage. This, he told me, had become the norm for Police officers in the State, since transfers came unexpectedly and too frequently to justify the bother of 'settling in'.

The rot is so deep that the National Police Commission found several cases in which corrupt or politically connected junior officers had their more honest seniors transferred, and a case in which one State's Inspector General of Police was demoted to an insignificant post when he refused to make large numbers of politically motivated transfers.

In 2001, the Supreme Court found it necessary to note that transfers of senior IAS and IPS officers could not be made "at the instance of politicians whose work is not done by the concerned officials" and demanded that a uniform transfer policy be formulated for these services. This, indeed, has been the theme of numerous State and National Police commissions, and of observations of various courts in different cases.

Unfortunately, a hue and cry is raised only when partisan political issues get wrapped up with particular decisions. In the meanwhile, the general orientation towards the police - particularly in political circles - remains tied to feudal attitudes that see this force, not as a central pillar of governance within an increasingly complex national scenario, but as a convenient instrument to push personal and partisan agendas.

It is useful to remind ourselves that the conditions of service for these cadres are defined under provisions of the Constitution.

The Founding Fathers had recognised the importance, indeed the centrality, of these services in the administrative order, and we have systematically undermined the constitutional intent by increasingly arbitrary administrative practices.

If good policing is to be restored, these trends will have to be reversed, not erratically and selectively in a few 'high profile' cases, but single-mindedly, over extended periods of time, and across the entire country.

(Published in The Pioneer, August 6, 2005)





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