Minister Amit Mitra and several senior officials look on as chief minister Mamata Banerjee arrives to take part in a Writers’ Buildings programme to pay tribute to painter and cartoonist Gaganendranath Tagore on his 146th birth anniversary on September 18, 2013. The file picture is being used for illustrative purposes and not to suggest that any of the officials in the photograph are associated with any event mentioned in the accompanying article
Sir Humphrey Appleby, cabinet secretary: I see, what do you advise, Bernard?
Bernard Woolley, principal private secretary to the Prime Minister: I advise you to consider your position carefully, perhaps adopting a more flexible posture, while keeping your ear to the ground, covering your retreat and watching your rear.
Sir Humphrey: Thank you, Bernard. You’ve been a great help.
Woolley: Actually, Sir Humphrey, I haven’t told you anything.
Sir Humphrey: I should hope not, Bernard. That would have been most improper.
From A Real Partnership, the fifth episode of Yes, Prime Minister, 1986
If Bengal’s finest seek such advice now, the answer will probably be uncharacteristically direct and brief: “Whatever you do, make sure you don’t have to visit the CGO Complex.”
“The CGO Complex” is the sprawling property in Salt Lake that houses the offices of the CBI and the Enforcement Directorate, both of which are probing the Saradha scandal and generally robbing the state’s high and mighty of sleep.
Bureaucrats who used to confine themselves to “Yes, Minister” are now declining to sign on the dotted line and are sending files back to ministers if the content is controversial, multiple sources have told this newspaper.
The refusal to toe the line is not a show of defiance or rebellion but is born out of an eagerness to remain on the right side of the law.
“It is very clear that I do not want to visit the CGO Complex,” a senior IAS officer was quoted as telling a subordinate after refusing to sign a file that a minister had wanted him to clear.
The display of extreme caution by the officials marks a change. In the past few years when chief minister Mamata Banerjee appeared unassailable, officials had complied with the whims of the political leadership. Two of the most infamous instances were the arrest of a professor for circulating a joke on the chief minister, and the who’s who of the state bureaucracy being made to stand on a dais behind a politician who has been accused of murder.
But the uproar over the Saradha scandal and other controversies appears to have emboldened some bureaucrats to cite the rulebook when faced with unpalatable demands.
“Bureaucrats are like weather cocks…. Realising that the government is no longer what it used to be, they are unlikely to go overboard to please the ministers and they will play it by the book. I am not surprised,” said a senior minister.
One swallow does not a summer make, but the following are four instances where officials have refused to swallow the rules:
Sorry, no advance
The information and cultural affairs department — the chief minister is in charge of it — recently refused to clear a proposal given by a minister and a ruling party MP to pay an advance to 11 theatre teams that will take part in Natya Utsav, scheduled next month.
“The financial norms do not allow the department to make advance payments to the participants of any government programmes. But the minister and the MP had proposed to pay in advance 50 per cent of the remuneration the teams are supposed to get,” said an official.
The teams will be paid between Rs 2 lakh and Rs 12 lakh.
“Following pressure from the minister and the MP, the department had sent the proposal to the finance department seeking an approval. The finance department chose to play it safe. It did not give any clear view in writing or reject the proposal but verbally communicated that the rules did not allow such an advance,” said a finance department official.
“The I&CA department could have overlooked the rule and cleared it. But the file was sent to the chief minister who has the right to clear it as the minister in charge of the department,” said a source.
No order, no cash
The officials of the information and cultural affairs department resisted pressure to clear bills of over Rs 30 lakh in favour of an event management agency that had helped the government organise Mati Utsav and Sangeet Mela last year.
“The bills were not cleared as no work order was issued in favour of the agency. The financial norms don’t allow the officials to clear bills in the absence of a work order,” said an official.
According to sources, the agency was backed by a singer close to a powerful politician. “Initially, officials used to clear bills by using an emergency provision. But now the officials refuse to clear the bills,” a source said.
This newspaper had reported on November 11 how the finance department had declined to clear splitting a 60-year deal into two 30-year terms for reconstructing Lake Mall. A clearance will help Srikant Mohta, the investor and a filmmaker, save over Rs 15 crore and cause a loss to the state exchequer.
Now it has come to light that finance minister Amit Mitra made another attempt to see whether the deal can be cleared.
But the effort has again drawn a blank, said a source. No government officer wants to be a party to the decision that would affect the state exchequer, the source said.
“Soon after the finance secretary refused to sign it, the minister had sent back the file to the law department once again though the state legal remembrancer had earlier put the ball in the finance department’s court. This time too, the law department has pointed out that the decision to give relief has to be taken by the finance department,” said a source.
Since the law department has not suggested a way out and the finance secretary did not change his stand, the minister has two options: reject the deal or send it up to the chief minister to take the final call.
Mitra could not be contacted for comment.
The public works department (PWD) recently made it clear that it would not implement an instruction to allow a company to lay optical fibre cables for a 4G network along the roads maintained by it against a licence fee of Re 1 per square metre.
Sources said instructions were sent to the Calcutta Municipal Corporation (CMC) and the PWD to levy Re 1. “The CMC is charging the company Re 1 as it has no notified fee. But the PWD said it would not be able to waive the licence fee as it has specific rates as per a government notification issued on August 29, 2013,” said an official.
For PWD roads, the notification has fixed Rs 300 a sqm in rural areas, Rs 575 in municipal areas, Rs 2,300 in CMC areas and Rs 1,150 in non-CMC municipal corporation areas.
“The licence fee is for 15 years…. As the agencies use the PWD land, they are supposed to pay the amount. We cannot waive it until we get a written order from the department minister or top brass of the government,” said a PWD engineer.