It was on a flight in the early 1970s that the then minister of foreign trade Lalit Narayan Mishra met a young Indian economist, Manmohan Singh, who was working with the United Nations. Impressed by the interaction, Mishra hired him as an adviser in his ministry in 1972. That was one of the better-known examples of lateral entry into the government. Singh went on to become the deputy chairman of the Planning Commission, the Reserve Bank governor and, by a stroke of luck, the prime minister in 2004.
Governments have for long been looking for specialists in different fields to overcome the talent deficit in their ranks. The current Narendra Modi government is no different. Last June, Modi appointed Rajesh Kotecha, an ayurveda doctor and former vice chancellor of Gujarat Ayurved University, as a secretary in the AYUSH ministry. Current Prasar Bharati CEO Shashi Shekhar Vempati, who earlier worked with Infosys, is another example of lateral entry to a post usually held by a bureaucrat.
A few months before Kotecha’s appointment, the prime minister’s office had asked the NITI Aayog to create a policy for hiring specialists as lateral entry to middle-rung posts. Economist Arvind Panagariya, who was vice chairman of NITI Aayog, came out with a policy document, India—Three-year Action Agenda 2017-20, which first articulated the lateral entry policy at the joint-secretary level. In April 2017, the document was cleared after a NITI Aayog meeting.
But, more than a year later, when the government came out with an advertisement seeking applicants for 10 joint-secretary posts, curiously on a Sunday, it opened a Pandora’s box.
The ad asked for expertise in specific areas of revenue, financial services, economic affairs, agriculture, road transport and highways, shipping, environment, renewable energy, civil aviation and commerce. The choice of ministries indicated that the government was looking at expertise that the generalist IAS officers might not have. According to the ad, the applicant should be at least 40, and a graduate from a recognised university. Officers of any state or Union Territory government, with relevant experience, can apply. Persons working in non-government companies with at least 15 years of experience can also apply. The pay would be between Rs 1,44,200 to Rs 2,18,200 a month.
Said NITI Aayog CEO and former IAS officer Amitabh Kant: “The NITI Aayog experience with lateral entry has been extremely good. They bring in a vast number of fresh and vibrant ideas. This move was long overdue. It will catalyse Union Public Service Commission entrants to specialise. The government must also allow deputation of its officers to the private sector as well.”
However, unlike advisers and subject experts hired by various ministries, a joint secretary is a senior post. It is usually handled by an IAS officer, who has the responsibility of running a specific department of the ministry. According to statistics, the Union government has 391 joint secretaries. But, the dearth of subject experts compelled the government to fill the vacancies with specialists.
There was sharp criticism from political parties, which said the move was aimed at doing away with the elaborate UPSC selection process and to fill the government with people from a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh background.
The opposition parties’ main grouse was that, under this process, the policy of reservation was being done way, albeit covertly. And, as reservation is a sensitive topic, the government would find it difficult to defend itself, especially in the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
Former finance minister P. Chidambaram said there were “serious misgivings” about the government ad and that more clarity was needed on the development.
The powerful IAS community has also reacted strongly. “It is a disruptive idea that will challenge the IAS officers who often become complacent after years of service, till they become joint secretary,” a retired IAS officer said on the condition of anonymity. “In the past, we had imminent lateral entries like [economist] Montek Singh [Ahluwalia]. So, care should be taken in the selection. It is a good move to get good people. Most of my retired colleagues are roiled at the idea, saying it will undermine their services. But, I say why not try this idea for five years as the government says.”
Said former IAS officer P.S. Krishnan: “Due recruitment process should be followed so as not to undermine anything that will hamper the rights of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes.”
Another criticism is that the hiring procedure has not been explained, which has led to people to believe that selections could be based on personal preference. Moreover, bringing a new policy at the fag end of the government’s tenure casts doubts about proper implementation.
Government sources, however, said that in days when expectations are more, it helps when there are people who can deliver. “The rising complexity of the economy has meant that policy making is a specialised activity,” NITI Aayog’s action agenda said. “Therefore, it is essential that specialists be inducted into the system through lateral entry. Such entry will also have the beneficial side effect of bringing competition to the established career bureaucracy.”
Currently, when an IAS officer is promoted to the secretary level, he has only two to three years of service left. “One possible solution is early promotion to the secretary position. Introduction of lateral entry will facilitate this change,” said sources. Specialists could be brought in with three- to five-year contracts.
Former home secretary G.K. Pillai said, “It is a good move, but one has to be sure if it is for a short time or permanent. Also, there is no clarity whether a person hired as an expert in health, say allopathy, will be moved to ayurveda. Then, it will not work. Moreover, a person should be inducted for a longer period, as it takes time for a person to understand it. It will need commitment from a person who wants to join.”
Sanat Kaul, a retired IAS officer who has held several government positions, welcomed the move, but said that the selection procedure has to be impeccable. “Otherwise, it would mean filling the posts with people [associated with political] parties. What was known as a steel frame has been reduced to rubber frame, as loyalty to a minister matters more to an officer than actual work. They prosper more than the officer who stands up against them.”
The government had earlier created a pool that had officers who could be called in for specific roles. This, said many officers, could be a better way to deal with the talent deficit. They also pointed out that, at one stage, Modi had done away with interviews for the lower posts to curb favouritism.
Ironically, this latest move could fall prey to the same problem.