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Empire strikes back, engineered by IAS
- Ah! Pleasure of departmental conquest

Calcutta, Oct. 25: Sir Humphrey Appleby should be arching his bushy eyebrows towards Bengal and beaming with pride.

The biggest club in India is about to plant flags of suzerainty on two captured beachheads. Translated, it means IAS officers are set to helm Bengal’s irrigation and waterways and housing departments.

What’s the big deal about such a sterile game of snakes and ladders in officialdom? Plenty.

The proposed takeover is the equivalent of the empire of bureaucrats striking back to conquer one of the many administrative frontlines that they believe are ordained to be run only by card-carrying IAS officers.

Till now, the two departments dealing with the unglamorous but life-altering water, bricks and mortar were headed by engineers.

The baton had gone to technocrats, not blue-blooded bureaucrats, because the two departments were carved out of the public works department (PWD) around two decades ago. The government, presumably unaided by IAS officers, decided that engineers, who had risen through the ranks and handled matters technical, were best suited to handle such assignments.

Such sacrilege is neither forgiven nor forgotten by the chummy clan whose high priest will always be the timeless Sir Humphrey, the civil servant and master of obfuscation in Yes Minister who baffles opponents with jargon and thwarts them by strategically placing allies at seemingly innocuous posts.

The babus of Bengal have now successfully convinced the chief minister of the need to let IAS officers run housing and irrigation. The last plays a crucial role in flood management — an issue that has been the subject of much debate in Bengal of late.

“During a meeting with the senior engineers of the state government, the chief minister said that she wanted senior IAS officers in charge of these departments,” a state government official said.

The route chosen for “cadre-posting”, officialese for placing IAS officers, is also vintage Sir Humphrey. The chief minister, at the meeting with the engineers, said engineers would be retained as the secretaries of the two departments. But the departments will have IAS officers as principal secretaries.

A notification is expected soon, sources said.

“IAS officers always wanted these two departments to be run by them. But the Left government had declined to give in as it thought engineers would be better suited to head these departments. The present government seems to have buckled under the pressure,” said a retired IAS officer.

The Left stand was an irony of sorts — considering how it had allowed cadres to infiltrate every sphere of day-to-day life. The IAS fraternity has much in common with that cadre system — an assumption in jest is that an IAS officer cannot sleep in peace unless every post is “cadre-posted”.

“The collective bargaining by the IAS lobby can easily be compared with that by the trade unions,” said another retired IAS officer.

In this context, old-timers recalled how an IAS veteran used to publicly claim that an IAS officer should be made the commissioner of police in Calcutta, a post reserved for IPS officers.

Taking a cue from the trade unions on how to press their demands, the IAS fraternity apparently convinced the chief minister that the untimely floods in Bengal — which inundated East and West Midnapore, Howrah and Hooghly — could have been avoided had an IAS officer headed the irrigation department.

The logic presented before the chief minister was that an IAS officer could have communicated “efficiently and firmly” with all concerned and minimised the impact of “irresponsible water release” from two dams in Jharkhand.

No connection need be read but three engineers were suspended today on the charge of failure to repair an embankment of the Kangsabati at Panskura in East Midnapore.

As in the age-old battle for brownie points between artillery and infantry, engineers are not convinced of the “communication” case.

A senior PWD engineer wondered whether familiarity with the communication chain or with the nuts and bolts of the departments should be the priority of the principal official.

No prizes for guessing the answer he himself offered: technical knowledge is much more important while dealing with waterways, irrigation and housing.

Besides, it is a bit fallacious to assume that engineers cannot communicate, he pointed out.

A case in point is R.V. Shahi, the longest serving power secretary of India, who was an engineer. During his five-year tenure between 2002 and 2007, the Indian electricity sector underwent dramatic changes aimed at creating a competitive market structure.

Over to the IAS officers.

No prizes again for guessing that they think the chief minister has taken the right decision as the heads of both departments would have to co-ordinate with several agencies and the Centre in the coming years when the state is expected to give a big push to irrigation and housing.

“If the state wants to secure central funds and settle critical issues, IAS officers should be allowed to handle all important posts as only they can make headway with the Delhi bureaucracy from where the funds flow,” explained an officer.

No prizes for guessing which group badly needs a Sir Humphrey.


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