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Missing links in finance ministry

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October 21, 2003 11:18 IST

Finance Minister Jaswant Singh may soon name a new finance secretary. How soon is a matter of speculation. Officials close to current Finance Secretary D C Gupta believe that it is too late to make changes in the finance ministry's "A" team.

They argue that the Budget preparation exercise has begun and it makes no sense to appoint a new bureaucrat to head the finance ministry now.

But there are others in government who say that Singh has almost made up his mind and his choice may fall on an officer outside the finance ministry. More enquiries suggest that the new finance secretary may even be a non-IAS officer and Gupta may have to settle for a regulator's job in the financial sector.

Jaswant Singh has made no secret of his disenchantment with the current crop of IAS officers at the Centre. He began his search for a finance secretary soon after the previous incumbent, S Narayan, retired in June this year.

At one point, Commerce Secretary Dipak Chatterjee, was considered. Chatterjee, however, preferred to stay back in commerce because he found the challenges of leading the government's negotiations at the World Trade Organisation meeting at Cancun more exciting.

Moreover, Chatterjee might not have been too sure if he would be made the finance secretary with charge of the department of economic affairs, which he was keen to have. (Of the three departments in the finance ministry -- revenue, expenditure and DEA -- it is the DEA that has traditionally been considered the most powerful because it is in charge of budget-making.)

Also, working with Arun Jaitley as commerce minister was a more enjoyable option. So much so that Chatterjee would have even preferred to stay on in the commerce ministry if the uncertainty over the formal constitution of the Competition Commission of India were to continue a little longer.

In any case, Jaitley would have liked Chatterjee to continue at least till the WTO meeting at Geneva in December. But now that the uncertainty over the CCI has been removed, Chatterjee will move in to his new assignment.

Usually, the secretary in charge of the economic affairs department is also appointed finance secretary. But this time, Singh decided to make D C Gupta finance secretary with charge of the expenditure department. Worse, he has so far kept the post of the DEA secretary vacant.

Indeed, Jaswant Singh has dealt DEA a blow that none of his predecessors can ever take credit for. Not only has he kept it secretary-less for well over three months, he has not filled several other senior vacancies in the department for some time.

Prodipto Ghosh, additional secretary, has moved on as environment secretary. Ghosh was eagerly looking forward to the opportunity to head the DEA, but in vain. Perhaps he paid the price for having spent too many years on foreign assignments.

B P Mishra, another influential additional secretary, has been appointed India's representative on the board of the International Monetary Fund. D Swarup, the only additional secretary in charge of the budget division left in the DEA, is now holding concurrent charge as additional secretary in the expenditure department.

If you exclude the banking and insurance division, which is now headed by financial sector secretary N S Sisodia, there are now no additional secretaries in the DEA. Ashok Lahiri, as the chief economic advisor, is the only other secretary-level officer in that department.

But how correct is Jaswant Singh's notion that there aren't enough capable IAS officers to head the finance ministry?

It it partly true that there is a lack of good senior bureaucrats largely because of the paltry salaries that are paid to the secretaries in the government. But if you look around, there are still some competent officers surviving in the system.

Many of them are hiding themselves in state capitals. As chief secretaries and finance secretaries, they are doing a fine job steering the state administration. Many of them are not even interested in coming to the Centre because they are very happy and satisfied with the way they are running the state administration.

But it is important to identify such officers and use their skills in important ministries at the Centre. It is, therefore, a pity that nobody in the government seems to care to widen the search for capable officers in the finance ministry by looking at the various IAS officers serving the states.

In the good old days, secretaries in Central ministries would often get picked up directly from the states. B G Deshmukh, who was one of the finest IAS officers, was posted in Maharashtra before he was pick for Cabinet secretary-ship. Who knows, Jaswant Singh's new finance secretary may also be hiding in some state capital!

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A K Bhattacharya