Babus may get 3-4 times the salaries of their private sector counterparts, especially at the lower-to-medium levels, but the security of tenure that they enjoyed is now under threat—a study for the 7th Pay Commission found a fresh government nurse earned 3.4 times her private sector counterpart, a teacher 2.7 times and a driver 2.3 times. While there was always a rule to compulsorily retire bureaucrats —sadly, the rule applies to only those who are at least 50 years old—on grounds of either corruption or inefficiency, this has rarely been used. According to The Economic Times that reported the use of an obscure Rule 56(j) to sack 15 customs and central excise officials —including two at the level of commissioners—this was last invoked three decades ago. Indeed, a few months before it demitted office in 2014, the UPA government reiterated the rule, but it did precious little about it. The NDA reissued the order last September, but made its intentions clear since, while doing so, the order excerpted various Supreme Court judgments on this—in other words, babus were warned that the highest court in the land had ruled in favour of this in the past.
In the case of State of Gujarat vs Umedbhai M Patel, the SC had ruled that “whenever the services of a public servant are no longer useful to the general administration, the officer can be compulsorily retired for the sake of public interest”. It then went on to say, according to the DoPT circular, “For better administration, it is necessary to chop off dead wood, but the order of compulsory retirement can be passed after having due regard to the entire service record of the officer.” In another case—State of UP vs Vijay Kumar Jain—the court had said the government could compulsorily retire an employee “if conduct of a government employee becomes unbecoming … or obstructs the efficiency in public services”. There is the danger that the circular can be misused and, in the case of S Ramachandra Raju vs State of Orissa, the Court had said while “there may not be sufficient evidence to take punitive disciplinary action … but his conduct and reputation is such that his continuance in service would be a menace to public service and injurious to public interest”.
While the possibility of abuse applies to every provision in the law, there are enough checks since there will be review panels before the compulsory retirement and then there is the process of appeal to the tribunal as well as to the courts. Since the exercise is believed to have been kicked off at the instance of the Prime Minister’s Office, chances are that several more babus may be shown the door. While some of those sacked in the first purge are reported to have been of doubtful integrity, inefficiency is an even bigger danger—if government teachers get paid 2.7 times what their private sector counterparts do and are still found missing in class or not delivering good results, they need to be sacked. The chalta hai attitude of the bureaucracy has to go, and this may be just what was required—if the rule could be modified to tackle bureaucrats who are younger, that would be even better.