MADHYA Pradesh’s bureaucracy is baffled at an apparently Janus-faced Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan. Like the Roman god Janus that is depicted with two opposite faces, Chouhan too has revealed two opposite faces. In the company of IAS officers he talked like Dr Hide and among BJP workers, months later, he played Mr Jekyll vis-a-vis bureaucracy.
“I will hang collectors upside down if I find that the disputed revenue cases are pending for more than a month. They will be rendered incapable of collectorship,” roared an angry Chouhan while addressing BJP state executive meeting in Bhopal on July 22. The Chief Minister’s uncharacteristic aggression pleasantly surprised the party office bearers present in the meeting. Provocation for the unsavoury remark came in response to a query of an office bearer from Damoh district, who lamented inordinate delay in resolution of revenue land-related cases.
While the BJP workers cheered the CM’s remark, it left bureaucrats bitter and baffled. They recalled how the Chief Minister had described Madhya Pradesh’s bureaucracy best in India only a few months ago.
On December 15, while addressing Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officers at a service meet in Bhopal, the Chief Minister was all praise for bureaucrats. He exhorted them to work fearlessly without bothering for “some dirty people” among Right to Information (RTI) activists.
“Too much should not be read in the warning as the Chief Minister was just playing to the gallery at the BJP meet,” says a senior IAS officer who has closely worked with Chouhan over the years. However, a large number of bureaucrats suspect growing desperation in the Chief Minister over governance deficit which, they think, manifested itself in his unusual rant against collectors. “His fulmination over the delay in disposal of land related disputes was not only indecent but also misplaced. He is pretty well aware that the delay is due to faulty web-based geographical information system (GIS) meant to digitise the land revenue records”.
THE Chief Minister had assured the revenue officers to get the problem in the Madhya Pradesh web geographical information system (MPWEBGIS) fixed in the past during video conferencing, but he has not done so yet.
Collectors are scared of using the MPWEBGIS as scores of complaints have surfaced that unscrupulous people have accessed login IDs and passwords of the web-based portals. These unidentified scammers are abusing the access to temper with the land records.
In fact, the digitisation of land records—hailed by the Centre as a ‘game changer’ for farmers—could turn out to be just another can of worms in Madhya Pradesh, where scammers have allegedly converted government land into private by hacking the security code of the land record management software, minting hundreds of crores.
In some cases, the scamsters falsified records of non-existing land through the portal and availed loans from different banks. Farmers often have no clue that loans had been taken by mortgaging their land. In one of the most recent cases, Morena collector wrote to the commissioner-land records (CLR), expressing serious concern over “misuse of the MPWEBGIS portal”. “We are getting regular complaints on this portal, which shows working on it without adequate security measures is risky,” collector Vinod Sharma wrote in his letter on June 12 to CLR.
Sources say around 225 acres of government land, worth Rs. 116 crore, was transferred to private people in Gwalior district. It’s under investigation by local police, according to then Gwalior collector Sanjay Goyal. Collectors of Narsinghpur, Harda and several other districts have also written about possible hacking of the portal and fraudulent land transfer for procuring loans by unidentified persons.
ON February 19, 2013, Madhya Pradesh land records and settlement department had signed an agreement with a lesser-known Haryana-based firm—Bhopal E-Governance Company Ltd—in association with IL&FS Technologies Ltd, Gurgaon, for “development of an enterprise web-based GIS Solution for managing land records in-bound schedule”. It was implemented in PPP mode in 342 tehsils across 31 districts.
Bureaucrats are divided in opinions over the Chief Minister’s threat held out to collectors. One section feels it was just a posturing to assuage ruffled sentiments of BJP leaders who always have a chip on their shoulders against bureaucrats, particularly the ones at field level
Fear of abuse of the web-based portal has dissuaded collectors from carrying out settlement of land records in their districts. “Instead of fixing the problem at the government end, the Chief Minister chose to blame us and that too in such a foul language,” a collector lamented.
Many collectors had hoped that the Madhya Pradesh IAS officers association would at least register a formal protest over the Chief Minister’s remark. But the association president, Radheshyam Julania, bailed out the Chief Minister. “I don’t believe that the CM could have used such a filthy language. He always speaksin a civilised manner,” Julania told a local newspaper. Former chief secretary KS Sharma says that even if the Chief Minister wanted to rebuke the officials, his remark was not civilised. “Such remarks only widen rifts between bureaucracy and political leadership”.
Revenue minister Umshanakar Gupta, however, defends the CM’s remark, saying instead of reading its literal meaning, “people should appreciate the sentiments behind it”.
Congress sees in the Chief Minister’s remark a sign of his loosening grip over the administration. Guna MP Jyotiraditya Scindia said, “Farmers are in trouble because of the wrong policies of the BJP government. But the CM is shifting the blame on bureaucrats in a bid to escape his own responsibility.” Leader of Opposition in the Assembly, Ajay Singh, said the warning was a reflection of Chouhan’s incompetence.
Social media was a buzz with myriad jocular remarks and funny photographs as response to the CM’s remark. One photograph suggesting collectors hanging on the shoulder of the Chief Minister like the mythological character Vikram carried Betal evoked widespread mirth in the social media. It was shared by many collectors too, though with cautious comments.
IN private, both bureaucrats and ruling party leaders admit growing trust deficit between the executive and political class. In the last two years, hardly a BJP meeting went without party workers and office bearers not decrying ‘arbitrariness’of bureaucrats, particularly at the district and lower levels. The disgruntled include MLAs, MPs and RSS cadre. The state BJP leadership does not deny this as it suits the party. A narrative is being sought to be established in the State that while the Chief Minister is diligently working through his policy initiatives to improve the lot of the people, the bureaucracy is not as cooperative as it is expected to be. All the blames for poor governance, whether in agriculture, education, law and order or women and child development are laid on bureaucracy’s doorsteps.
Bureaucrats, on the other hand, counter this narrative with their own defence. They admit that a section of bureaucracy from top to bottom has indeed lost the zeal for proactive innovations, but it is primarily due to the Chief Minister’s reluctance to engage all stakeholders in administration with frankness and without bias. They feel that Chouhan has allowed himself to be surrounded with a coterie of advisers. The coterie takes decisions for the Chief Minister and all others in the bureaucracy are expected to follow without questions being asked.
“For instance,” a senior bureaucrat points out, “the farmers unrest could have been handled amicably had the Chief Minister not heeded to the coterie around him and struck a deal with just one of the farmers unions—the Bhartiya Kisan Sangh.” This thoroughly avoidable decision cost him and the State dear as angry farmers hit the street in defiance.
The Chief Minister suffered a huge loss of face nationwide as farmers stir turned violent after police firing in Mandsaur, which killed five farmers on June 6. The drama that accompanied his 38-hour fast only added to the State government and ruling party’s embarrassment.
The fiasco over the farmers’ stir was further compounded when the Chief Minister unilaterally announced to buy onion at Rs. 8 per kg as minimum support price. He did not factor in the acute shortage of storage for the procured onion. As a result, a large quantity of onion rotted for want of storing capacity. This short-sighted decision spawned massive corruption as traders profited hugely. They bought onion cheap from farmers and sold to the government at MSP. The corruption in purchase, coupled with rotting of onion, caused damage to the government to the tune of Rs. 800 crore.
“This is one latest glaring example of gross fiscal imprudence for which bureaucracy is being wrongly blamed,” a bureaucrat associated with the process of procurement lamented. However, the Chief Minister is unfazed. “I don’t mind the loss to the government on this count so long as it helps assuage suffering of the onion growers,” he avers.
This public posturing notwithstanding, the Chief Minister seems to have realised that his decade-long rhetoric about making agriculture a profitable business has badly floundered. He tacitly admitted this when he exhorted youth in a function to promote skill development in ITIs at Bhopal on June 28. “I appeal to youth to focus on training for skills in industries for jobs as agriculture is no longer a profitable business,” he told the participating youth. Coming as it did in the wake of the shoddy handling of the farmers stir and acute agrarian crisis in the state, Chouhan’s remark took everyone by surprise.
ANOTHER bureaucrat cites the 144-day long Narmada Sewa Yatra as another example of mindless and wasteful extravaganza that the Chief Minister undertook with an eye on consolidating his vote bank along the bank of the holy river in the State’s 16 districts. “The exercise was the Chief Minister’s brainchild which his advisers blindly supported, unmindful of the fact that it will distract the boss from pressing issues of governance for a long time on one hand and cause drain of the State exchequer on the other,” the officer said.
According to Congress leader Ajay Singh, the Narmada Sewa Yatra that involved participation of a large number of BJP activists and assorted groups of sadhus and celebrities from film and sports, cost the government Rs. 2,000 crore. “Its publicity alone incurred the government huge cost as ads were liberally granted to publications from Bhopal to London,” he alleges.
The Narmada Sewa Yatra kept the entire bureaucracy engaged for mobilising crowds at the river banks along the pilgrimage even as the farmers were seething in anger due to government’s inaction in ensuring fair price to their excessive produce. But the Chief Minister disdainfully dismissed the criticism of the Yatra and the cost it entailed. Earlier, he had vehemently defended expenditure of Rs. 5,000 crore on organising Simhastha-2016 in Ujjain, citing deference to religious sentiments of devout Hindus.
According to many bureaucrats, the Chief Minister is unwilling to even acknowledge grim fiscal condition of the State, let alone address the problem effectively. He has a penchant to make reckless announcements ranging from few crores to several hundred crores in meetings of assorted communities—be it of farmers, students, employees or women.
Having announced schemes, he expects bureaucrats to pool in resources for implementing them. But the problem is that concerned departments have no means to implement the announcements as they are not provided for in the budget. But the Chief Minister brooks no objections. In video conferencing with officers as well as in cabinet meetings, Chouhan is on record having warned officers to ensure that his promises are fulfilled, come what may.
The Finance Department is in a quandary as to where to pool in funds to meet the Chief Minister’s expectations. Every citizen of Madhya Pradesh bears a ‘debt’ of Rs. 13,853 as the State government has a liability of Rs. 1.11 lakh crore at the beginning of current fiscal (2016-17), according to the State government statement in the State assembly. “The debt of the state government increased to Rs. 1,11,101.10 crore in March last year from Rs. 77,413 crore in March 2014,” Finance Minister Jayant Mallayya told the assembly in the last session.
The Finance Department sources say the financial condition will only deteriorate after promulgation of the GST as the State government will have little leeway for imposing further tax to generate additional revenue. In the liquor and petroleum products, which are exempt from the GST, the State government has already reached near saturation point in taxation. Petrol and diesel has 27 per cent VAT in Madhya Pradesh, which is highest in India. Also, Indian Made Foreign Liquor (IMFL) is costliest in the State in entire country.
What is worse, say the department sources, is that the Chouhan government has no courage to exert pressure on the Modi-led government at the Centre to seek additional funds whether it is as relief package for farmers or for health service in the National Rural Health Mission (NHRM). Additional Central aid for nutritional meals for children through mid-day meal and anganwaris is also in jeopardy in the wake of multi-crore scam in distribution and manufacturing of nutrition food.
Despite the Supreme Court order and the Chief Minister’s assurance to do away with contract system in nutrition food supply, the old system is still retained due to powerful nexus of officers-politicians and contractors. Since bureaucrats responsible for continuance of the system are close to the Chief Minister, nobody has courage to raise questions on the scam.
Proximity with the Chief Minister has emboldened a section of the bureaucrats to feel so privileged that they don’t listen to their respective ministers. Principal Secretary to the chief minister, SK Mishra, is, of course, the most powerful bureaucrat. But there are others too who leverage their closeness to the Chief Minister to push their own agendas in their respective departments, much to the chagrin of their ministers.
FOR instance, Principal Secretary in the Public Works Department, Pramod Agrawal, is staying put despite protest from minister Rampal Singh. Likewise, Panchayat and Rural Development minister Gopal Bhargava is reportedly uncomfortable with the working of Additional Chief Secretary Radheshyam Julania, but cannot do anything about it. Woman and Child Development minister Archana Chitnis is reported to have requested more than once the Chief Minister to shift her department’s Principal Secretary JN Kansotia, but to no avail. In the higher education department, Principal Secretary Ashish Upadhyay is said to calls the shot at the expense of minister, Jaibhan Singh Pavaiya.
Suspended IAS officer Shashi Karnavat had in December last year written a formal complaint to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, alleging that Chief Minister’s favourite officers possess ‘benami’ properties worth billions of rupees. “While the Chief Minister is protecting such officers, the Dalit officers are being mistreated,” she alleged, citing example of Dalit IAS officer Ramesh Thete.
Bureaucrats fear they will have to put up with a more aggressive and profligate Chouhan in months to come as election approaches near. While they seem resigned to bear the politicking of their political master with fortitude, governance is going to be a major collateral damage.