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State faces Delhi IAS vacuum

Calcutta, May 14: Several senior IAS officers in Bengal have stopped seeking central deputation because of the chief minister’s stated inability to spare them, a trend that could leave the state without any secretary-rank officer in Delhi after two years.

If such a situation does develop by mid-2014, it will probably be the first time since Independence that no Bengal cadre official figures among secretaries in Delhi. The state will then lose out on lobbying power as administrative contacts are key to unravelling red tape that often outmanoeuvres political muscle.

According to Writers’ sources, animal resource development secretary Anil Agarwal, consumer affairs secretary Trilochan Singh and power secretary Moloy De had applied for clearance from the state government to be able to opt for central duty last year, months after Mamata Banerjee had assumed charge as chief minister.

But the chief minister, who had been repeatedly complaining about the paucity of good officers and blaming the Left for driving away talent, “did not allow the three of them to leave and their applications never received sanction from the personnel and administrative reforms department”, an official said.

“Seeing this, at least seven others did not apply, though they were eligible,” the official added.

Out of the total sanctioned strength of 359 Bengal cadre IAS officers — the pool was expanded by 45 earlier this year at Mamata’s behest — the state has only 215 at present.

This deficit has compelled the chief minister to hold back all efficient officers. The state can send around 75 officers on central deputation but the shortage has ensured that the actual number now is 36.

At least six of them — Gopal Krishna, P. Ramesh Kumar, S. Suresh Kumar, Atri Bhattacharya, Vivek Kumar and Roshni Sen — are expected to return to state duty within the next two to six months. Their return will reduce the Bengal cadre strength at the Centre to 30.

Their return is expected to tide the chief minister over the shortage of officers that has forced veterans like home secretary Basudeb Banerjee to look after departments such as commerce and industries and IT.

But the state could pay a long-term price. “If officers can’t go on central deputation, they are deprived of career growth and exposure. Bengal will also lose out because there will be fewer representatives there to lobby for funding for state projects and schemes,” said a senior official now on central deputation.

Only one Bengal cadre officer now holds the post of secretary in Delhi. P.K. Pradhan — a 1977-batch officer — is the health and family welfare secretary and played a crucial role recently in getting the state’s health sector project proposals approved for allocation of Rs 2,200 crore under the Backward Regions Grants Fund. Pradhan is scheduled to retire in January next year.

The next officer from the state cadre eligible for a secretary rank at the Centre is Shyamal Sarkar, now posted as additional secretary in the department of personnel and training. A 1979-batch officer, Sarkar is likely to become a secretary in July.

“After Shyamal’s retirement in 2014, there would be a phase — perhaps for the first time since Independence — without a single Bengal cadre secretary in Delhi,” said a senior colleague.

According to a state cadre officer on central deputation, around a fifth of secretaries at the Centre used to be from the Bengal cadre till the 1960s. Despite a decline from the 1970s, Bengal used to have six to seven secretaries in the capital till a few years ago.

“In recent years, we have been losing out to states like Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar, which have maintained substantial representation at the Centre,” he said.

“In order to prevent the foreseeable lull, chief secretary Samar Ghosh had tried to send Agarwal on central deputation last year so that the 1981-batch officer could attain the post of secretary by mid-2014. But the chief minister’s refusal spoilt that chance,” said a senior official.