How PM Modi pulled up IAS officers 3 times in 3 weeks for slow pace of work, lacking ‘courage’

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s very public dressing down of the Indian civil service during his motion of thanks address in the Lok Sabha on 10 February isn’t the only instance of him rebuking civil servants, ThePrint has learnt.   

Multiple sources in the government have told ThePrint that on at least three other occasions in the past month the prime minister has lashed out at civil servants.  

The latest such instance came on 24 February, when the PM Modi attended a webinar on asset monetisation and disinvestment organised by the Department of Disinvestment. The meeting was held to work on suggestions for monetisation of over 100 public sector assets valued at over Rs 2.5 lakh crore. 

Modi, speaking at the meeting, said that the government does not have to keep running public sector enterprises just because they have been running for decades or because they were the “pet projects of somebody”. 

The prime minister said the private sector brings in investment, best global practices that modernise and expand a sector and also job opportunities. He also reiterated that the government has no business being in business before slamming civil services officials in different departments. 

“The prime minister said government officials are unable to take courageous decisions fearing allegations and the courts,” a source said. “He cautioned babus that it is not just the responsibility of DIPAM (Department of Investment and Public Asset Management) to monetise these assets and that the departments, to which the assets belong, should also pitch in.”

On the same day, 24 February, a second source said the prime minister attended a Pragati meeting, in which he reviewed the status of infrastructure projects, where again he is said to have made his frustration with civil servants quite plain. 

According to the second source, Modi was irked by the lack of progress on the 41.5 km-long railway line between Darjeeling and Rango in East Sikkim, a project sanctioned in 2009-10. 

“The prime minister asked the railways ministry to fix responsibility of babus and the department that wasted national taxpayer money,” the source said. “Everybody heard the PM in silence.”

About 10 days earlier, on 16 February, the prime minister is said to have had another outburst aimed at civil servants. 

An official present in a meeting that Modi had with infrastructure ministries and private sector heads, said that he highlighted that projects were being implemented at a slow pace and warned the civil servants that there should not be loss to the nation due to this.

Just a week before that, on 10 February, the prime minister made a very public stinging observation of the civil service on the floor of the Lok Sabha. 

While lauding the private sector for its contribution to the growth and development of the country, Modi questioned the “power centre we have created in the country by handing over everything to babus”. 

“Sab kuch babu hi karenge. IAS ban gaye matlab woh fertiliser ka kaarkhana bhi chalayega, chemical ka kaarkhana bhi chalayega, IAS ho gaya toh woh hawai jahaz bhi chalayega. Yeh kaunsi badi taakat bana kar rakh di hai humne? Babuon ke haath mein desh de karke hum kya karne waale hain? Humare babu bhi toh desh ke hain, toh desh ka naujawan bhi toh desh ka hai,” Modi had said.

(Babus will do everything. By dint of becoming IAS officers, they’ll operate fertiliser warehouses and also chemical warehouses, even fly aeroplanes. What is this big power we have created? What are we going to achieve by handing the reins of the nation to babus. Our babus are also citizens, and so are the youth of India.)

For most officers, the PM’s statement was a rare and emphatic public denouncement of the whole IAS community by the highest office of the country.  

A change in stance

The prime minister’s utterances against the civil services are a far cry from his Gujarat days, when as chief minister he relied on IAS officers to get his work done. 

But several officers and sources that ThePrint spoke to said Modi’s change in stance is primarily due to his belief that civil servants are not taking a proactive approach in the government’s monetisation plans. 

The first source quoted above told ThePrint that the prime minister’s outburst in Parliament was because Modi feels officers hold a pessimistic view about the PSU monetisation efforts. 

“He (Modi) wants deliverables at a fast pace but infrastructure projects take time. There are also many issues with investment and monetisation of assets but he wants quick solutions,” said one of the secretaries present at the 24 February asset monetisation meeting.

“Somehow he has formed an opinion that disinvestment targets have not been achieved in the last few years as bureaucrats have adopted a less aggressive approach. 

“Maybe industry leaders have briefed the PM about bureaucratic attitudes… but the fact is the government targets have not been achieved due to global recession. There are not enough buyers to match our valuation. It may take 10 years to sell all those assets.”

A NITI Aayog official, who is regularly present in several of the meetings chaired by the prime minister said, “Earlier, the Prime Minister was very forthcoming but now, often he doesn’t want to listen about problems. Maybe he knows the problems.” 

The Aayog official added that until Nripendra Mishra was at helm of affairs there was clarity in instruction and implementation. Mishra had been the principal secretary to the prime minister until his exit in September 2019. 

“After his exit, there is a lack of clarity and prompt decision-making,” the Niti Aayog official said. “His (Modi’s) outburst is also aimed at PMO officials who monitor implementation and frame policy guidelines.” 

Another officer told ThePrint that Modi may be weighed down by the current state of the economy. 

“The prime minister’s priority right now is to provide momentum to the economy after the Covid year. For that to happen, spending is required and the PM is convinced that without industry and people who have expertise in asset monetisation, it can’t happen,” the officer said.

“Bureaucrats can’t monetise 100 public properties, which is why in the 2021 budget, there is an announcement for a special purpose vehicle (SPV) for monetisation and disinvestment. A lot of industry people will be roped in to make this government process efficient.”

The officer added that other members of the Union cabinet are also taking a similar view. 

The officer said Infrastructure Minister Nitin Gadkari had, in a webinar on 28 February, aired his frustration with civil servants because in many of the review meetings with the prime minister, projects of his ministry were being flagged. 

“He said that after six years, he had found that in this system, people won’t change,” the officer said. “Gadkari said that he was coming to the conclusion that it is very difficult to change them. He also said that a committee of experts will be appointed to give direction to new technology in highway construction and that he would bring ‘good people from the states’ to give infra a push.”

A retired civil servant who was shunted out of the government told ThePrint that Modi may be guided by his desire to sell PSUs. 

“The PM has always had a very cordial relationship with the bureaucracy. He has promoted so many bureaucrats on loyalty and performance and even rewarded them after retirement,” the former officer said.

“Some of his officers have been working with him for the last two decades. So at what point have they become inefficient? Maybe the reason behind his outbursts is that the PM is creating a perception that the private sector is a wealth creator to avoid future criticism on the sale of so many PSUs.” 

By Ayush Kashyap

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