An IAS officer, once in the eye of a mammoth corruption scandal, now heads bureaucracy in Himachal Pradesh
Pankaj Kumar | February 13, 2018 | Delhi
Within a couple of days of assuming charge, Jai Ram Thakur made his first trip to Delhi as Himachal Pradesh chief minister. After meeting the BJP leadership, returning on December 30 – a Saturday, he wasted no time in changing the bureaucratic leadership of the state. After winning the elections primarily on the promise of fighting corruption, the BJP regime’s first move was to appoint as chief secretary of the state Vineet Chawdhry, an officer who is not exactly known for battling graft.
Chawdhry, a 1982 batch IAS officer of HP cadre, has been at the centre of controversies. His elevation recalls a legend from the early 1990s, when a group of IAS officers in Uttar Pradesh held a secret ballot to pick the ‘most corrupt’ IAS officers. Two of the four who emerged on the top, Neera Yadav and Akhand Pratap Singh, went on to become chief secretaries of the state.
Of course, both were later booked for corruption. Singh was indicted by the supreme court in 2003 and had to resign from his post. He was charged by the CBI in 2007 with fraud, forgery and acquisition of wealth disproportionate to his known sources of income. Yadav was found guilty by a CBI court in a Noida land allotment scam of 1993-95. She was sentenced in 2008 to three years in jail.
Switch to 2018, and the trend seems to be far from coming to an end. Political patronage still allows some officers with dubious track records to get coveted postings. Though it claims to be a party with a difference, the BJP seems no different in this regard. Prime minister Narendra Modi has repeatedly spoken of his resolve to wipe out corruption, but specific instances make one doubt the narrative.
Chawdhry, who is from Jalandhar, hails from a family of civil servants. His father, DS Chaudhary, was a civil servant. His wife, Upma Dada Chawdhry, is also an IAS officer of HP cadre, serving as the head of the prestigious Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration, Mussoorie. He has served in various capacities in the state and at the centre – notably as joint secretary in the union health ministry and deputy director of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS).
He hit the headlines in 2012 when a complaint turned up against him with the AIIMS vigilance office. The allegation: corruption in the engineering wing of the premier institute – especially irregularities in infrastructure development or construction work in the premises of AIIMS and a cancer hospital at Jhajjar in Haryana. The amount: Rs 7,000 crore.
An investigation by the chief vigilance officer of the AIIMS found that substance in the allegation of irregularities in construction – there were instances of collapse of parts of building structures, sometimes claiming the life of labourers too. A part of an underground parking facility, for example, caved in within two months of construction. Among the accused was the then chief of engineering department AIIMS, BS Anand. And he had been granted a two-year extension, breaking the norms – ensured by Chawdhry as he allegedly misled the health minister. When the vigilance report reached the health ministry, Anand was removed from the post.
Later, on the basis of the vigilance report, the UPA government asked the CBI in January 2014 to probe further. The agency in its investigation found Chawdhry, among others, guilty of corruption and recommended departmental action against him.
Meanwhile, there was a regime change at the centre, and soon a change in the nature of investigation too. After the initial probe, the CBI alleged the relevant departments were not cooperating in the investigation. The matter was to be slowly allowed to be forgotten.
By then, however, the case had received enough publicity to be ignored. In 2014 Udit Raj, BJP MP from North-west Delhi, sought action against Chawdhry after an NGO named Janhit Abhiyan lodged a complaint against him regarding “gross misuse of position and wasteful expenditure of public funds for personal ends”. The parliamentary committee on health was looking into the matter too, and in its 2015 report it said a big scam had taken place in the biggest medical institute of the country.
Though the alleged irregularities took place during the UPA regime, the Congress, now in opposition, raised the issue and forced the then health minister Dr Harsh Vardhan to recommend high-level investigation and action against Chawdhry on the basis of the charge sheet filed agained him. That was when Modi went for his first cabinet reshuffle, in which Dr Harsha Vardhan was shifted out, and JP Nadda took his place. (Nadda, a political heavyweight, was once the health minister of Himachal Pradesh – when Chawdhry was the health secretary there.) In May 2015, Nadda promised probe and action into the scam. But, in June 2016, the CBI charge sheet was closed on the recommendation of the minister of state in health ministry, though the DoPT rules clearly state that the PM, heading DoPT, is the disciplinary authority for IAS officers on central deputation. In the Delhi high court, which has been hearing a petition against him, the health ministry in its affidavit in May 2017, and gave a clean chit to Chawdhry.
This is not all. There are two more matters from the officer’s track record. Way back in August 2009, the Hyderabad unit of the CBI had recommended major penalty proceedings against Chawdhry in a case of illegal gratification. The health ministry, in May 2012, cautioned him on the charge, but without sending any file to DoPT.
Again in April 2016, he was issued a second caution after a departmental charge sheet was approved against him in May 2014 by the then health minister Ghulam Nabi Azad. There were serious charges against Chawdhry in the purchase of uniforms for the hospital staff without following the due procedure of tendering. Again, Chawdhry was merely cautioned, despite charges against him being found true by the CVC. The all-India service rules recommends major penalty in such cases.
Challenge to selection procedure
Chawdhry’s elevation is surprising also from another angle. In 2016, the prime minister’s office (PMO) introduced a “360-degree feedback mechanism” for the empanelment of secretaries from the 1982 batch of civil servants. This was in tune with the idea of introducing best practices of the corporate sector to improve government functioning and maximise efficiency.
Under the new mechanism, the views of peers and subordinates of an officer are also taken into account before considering him or her for elevation. Leadership quality and honesty are also among the criteria. The final decision is based on an independent committee’s report.
After this thorough filtering, Chawdhry was not found fit for empanelment as secretary to the government of India, though most of his batch-mates were empaneled from 2015 and some have even retired.
In response, Chawdhry made repeated representations to the cabinet secretary – in vain. Finally, in October 2017, he went to the extent of challenging the ‘360-degree’ method through a petition before the Chandigarh bench of the Central Administrative Tribunal (CAT), arguing that this system was unconstitutional, arbitrary and discriminatory. The CAT then directed the cabinet secretary to pass a ‘speaking order’ on his representation on the empanelment issue within three months. It is not clear whether the cabinet secretary has passed any order or not, but the fact remains that Chawdhry has still not been empaneled as secretary to the government of India.
Meanwhile, the Delhi high court has been hearing a PIL, filed by Prashant Bhushan, seeking an impartial investigation of the scam. The jury, in other words, is still out.