Prabhu’s long battle with red-tapism finally made him NIC head days before retirement
Pratap Vikram Singh | June 3, 2014
On May 28, Chivukula Sree Rama Prabhu, a scientist-G rank official at the national informatics centre (NIC), became its director general. Heading NIC should be quite an achievement worth celebration, except that he retired just three days later.
Even this appointment for three days came after a long struggle with the red tape. Prabhu had to fight with his own employer department– the department of electronics and information technology, or DeitY—in the central administrative tribunal (CAT) and in court. This despite the fact that Prabhu had the approval of the appointments committee of the cabinet (ACC) headed by the prime minister. Prabhu’s story showcases the extent of political and bureaucratic highhandedness, even if it amounts to the contempt of court.
On October 31, Prabhu’s immediate senior A Mohan, then director general (DG) of NIC, retired. As promotion to the top post in NIC has been on the basis of seniority, it was natural for Prabhu to expect elevation. The department, instead, chose to appoint Shefali Dash, who was fifth in the seniority list.
According to some NIC officials Governance Now spoke to, Prabhu has the image of an arrogant officer, though they all consider him a technology expert and honest administrator. He worked as a deputy director general (DDG) at NIC, Hyderabad for over two decades. He was transferred to Delhi in April 2013.
I met Prabhu in July-September, 2013 when he said he was soon expected to become the DG. But when a junior was appointed as DG, Prabhu was not even officially informed. “I got to know about this on October 28 through my juniors. I wrote a letter to the PM the same day, marking a copy to Kapil Sibal, minister for communications and IT and to the department’s secretary,” says Prabhu.
Two days later, he took his case to the CAT. “The tribunal stayed the handing over of additional charge of DG to Dash,” he says. Then Rajiv Gauba, the additional secretary with department of electronics and IT (DeitY), took charge of NIC.
For CAT hearings, the government deputed KV Vishwanathan, additional solicitor general – the representation by an official of the rank of ASG in Prabhu’s case was unusual. During the hearings, prabhu says that Vishwanathan argued, “We don’t want seniority. We want juniority.” The government wanted the DG to have a longer tenure. The appointment of DG, however, has been on the basis of seniority in the past. And the last three DGs served less than six months. YK Sharma was the NIC head for six months, between November 2012 and April 2013. Mohan held the position for five months, from June 2013 to October 2013. M Moni for just 1 month – May 2013!
Still, Vishwanathan managed to convince the CAT, which ruled against Prabhu on May 29. In November, Prabhu took his case to the Delhi high court.
Meanwhile, the department had sent a file for the accentuation of Dash to the office of DG. Prabhu had even presented his case to the cabinet secretary. Considering the eligibility and seniority, the ACC instructed the department to anoint Prabhu as DG, or to the second most senior official in NIC who has vigilance clearance or to a senior official with DeitY. This was done through an order issued on December 11, 2013. On February 5, the court asked the government to comply with the ACC order. On February 18, the court instructed the government again to act immediately.
The DeitY didn’t comply, stating that it had requested the ACC to review its order. On February 25, the department produced to the court an ACC order which made Dash as DG till April 30. This ACC order wasn’t a modified or a review order. It didn’t make a single reference to its order which approved Prabhu’s appointment to the top post.
The government told the court that the ACC order was in response to a communication sent to the ACC by DeitY on December 7, 2013. But how can there be a review if there is no ACC order before December 11 (when ACC approved Prabhu as DG)? Realising the goof-up, the government issued a corrigendum stating that the same communication could be read as a note from ‘minister of communications and information technology’ (instead of DeitY) dated December 19. When the court heard the matter this May, it again pulled up the government for non-compliance. This time Dash’s term had ended as per the ACC order (which lasted till April 30 though Das continued as DG). On May 27, the court ruled: “We may note the angst of the senior officer as the petitioner (CSR Prabhu) who is due to superannuate on the May 31, 2014 who is being denied the appointment despite seniority, eligibility and approval of his appointment by the ACC.”
The court asked the government to place compliance of the order (passed on February 18, 2014 wherein court instructed the government to appoint Prabhu as DG) by May 29. On May 28, the department eventually asked Prabhu to join as DG before he retired on May 31. Finally, Prabhu moved from his office of DDG of energy division to the DG office.
The NIC scientists Governance Now spoke to hint at vested interests at top levels that prevented Prabhu’s accentuation to the DG office. There is no reason why the top administration will go out of way to install as DG somebody who initially didn’t have the ACC approval. Prabhu alleges that the parallel ACC order was issued under pressure from the PMO. Usually, the ACC communications have the signatures of home minister and the cabinet secretary. The prime minister, however, has special powers, and can ask the ACC to issue orders, says Prabhu.
The NIC is an information technology wing of the government, managing websites, email and software related requirements of all ministries and departments, be it PMO or a collector’s office in a remote district. Of late, NIC has been criticised for becoming a procurement agency than actually playing the larger role of domain expert. A government appointed committee on human resource for e-governance in its report suggested that NIC should play role of a strategic advisor to the government. The new DeitY secretary, RS Sharma, has stated his willingness to restructure NIC and enable it to become a strategic advisor to the government.
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