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PM has opportunity to improve quality of governance

By A K Bhattacharya
May 26, 2009 09:10 IST
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It may sound a little ironic. But the first surprise sprung by Manmohan Singh in his second stint as the head of the United Progressive Alliance government was that there was no big surprise in the names of the 19 Cabinet ministers he chose in the first round of ministry formation last Friday.

Barring S M Krishna and Veerappa Moily, all the other names selected in the first round showed that Manmohan Singh had opted for the safety of maintaining continuity in his top ministerial team. His critics would, however, point out that by not inducting younger names in the Cabinet in the first round, he lost an opportunity to herald the much-needed change and improvement in governance that most people expected from Manmohan Singh's new Cabinet.

Expectations from the Prime Minister on the kind of new bureaucratic appointments he should be making in the next few weeks are, therefore, not very high. Yet, the opportunities to make a difference to the quality of governance by effecting an appropriate bureaucratic reshuffle are huge. For, unlike in the case of ministers, the tenure of bureaucrats in most cases is determined by the retirement age fixed by the government and a change of guard is not left to anyone's discretion in most cases.

For instance, of the 70-odd secretary-level officials heading different central ministries and departments at present, as many as 21 will reach their retirement age by the end of December 2009. In other words, the Manmohan Singh government will have to look for new secretaries for about a third of its ministries during the next seven months. And a few of them are quite critical in terms of furthering the new government's new agenda for inclusive growth.

By the end of May and June, four secretaries (information technology, information and broadcasting, ex-servicemen welfare in the defence ministry, and the prime minister's office) would have reached their age of superannuation. Between July and September, six more in the ministries and departments of telecommunications, defence production, health and family welfare, personnel, consumer affairs and north-eastern region development are scheduled to retire from service.

Another four secretaries in the ministries and departments of human resource development, shipping, road transport and highways, steel, official language (in the home ministry) will retire by the end of October. The months of November and December will see the exit of five secretaries in key ministries and departments of administrative reforms and public grievances, commerce, industrial policy and promotion, border management in home ministry and corporate affairs. Two more secretaries -- heading the ministries of home and defence -- will also complete their tenure in the next few months.

More importantly, the new government will have to take a quick decision on appointing its next Cabinet Secretary. The two-year tenure of the current incumbent, K M Chandrasekhar will be over by the end of June. A strong contender for the job is the current commerce secretary, Gopal Krishna Pillai, who retires at the end of November. But if he is chosen to succeed Chandrasekhar, he will get a two-year term in keeping with the current convention.

The finance ministry will not require any major secretarial reshuffle as many of its key secretaries have a reasonable tenure left before their retirement. Revenue Secretary P V Bhide will retire by the end of January 2010. But both Finance Secretary Ashok Chawla and Expenditure Secretary Sushma Nath have more than a year to go before their superannuation. There will, however, be a need to look for a new petroleum and natural gas secretary by January 2010 as the current incumbent. R S Pandey, will retire by then. The new government will also have to look for new secretaries to head the ministries of home, defence and external affairs in the next few months.

The task of filling such a large number of secretarial vacancies in such a short time is rare. But it can be converted into an opportunity if the Manmohan Singh government decides that for all future appointments of secretaries to key economic ministries, the new incumbent will be given a minimum tenure of two years. The principle of a minimum fixed tenure for top government jobs is now applied to only a few positions like the cabinet secretary, the home secretary and the defence secretary. It is time the same principle was extended to other key ministries to ensure continuity in administration and also insulate the administration against political pressure.

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A K Bhattacharya