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  Opinion   Columnists  18 Oct 2023  Dilip Cherian | Two decades on, India plans to strengthen diplomatic corps

Dilip Cherian | Two decades on, India plans to strengthen diplomatic corps

Love them, hate them ignore them at national peril, is the babu guarantee and Dilip’s belief. Share significant babu escapades dilipcherian@hotmail.com
Published : Oct 19, 2023, 12:10 am IST
Updated : Oct 19, 2023, 12:10 am IST

This view was endorsed earlier by the parliamentary standing committee on external affairs.

The IFS currently constitutes only 22.5 per cent of the ministry of external affairs (MEA) workforce.. (PTI File Image)
 The IFS currently constitutes only 22.5 per cent of the ministry of external affairs (MEA) workforce.. (PTI File Image)

After nearly two decades since the last major restructuring of the Indian Foreign Service (IFS) cadre, the Modi Sarkar has approved a proposal to increase the cadre’s strength by 215 officers over the next five years. This significant decision stems from India’s growing influence and a desire to play a more prominent international role. It comes close on the heels of the success of India’s hosting of the G-20 summit apart from several India-led international initiatives.

Sources have informed DKB that the cadre review and restructuring must be seen in the context of India’s rising influence and the government’s plans to open nine new Indian missions in the coming years. Veteran observers say that the move is reminiscent of the Indian Revenue Service (IRS) cadre’s expansion during the 1990s, coinciding with India’s economic growth.

The ministry of external affairs (MEA) has disclosed that the average number of senior government functionaries’ visits to countries with Indian missions has increased from around 9-10 per year to nearly 35-40 visits in 2023. This has necessitated the need for more specialised personnel both in New Delhi and at India’s missions abroad.

This view was endorsed earlier by the parliamentary standing committee on external affairs, which also recommended expanding India’s diplomatic corps to match its global aspirations, highlighting the understaffing of the IFS compared to other countries. The IFS currently constitutes only 22.5 per cent of the ministry of external affairs (MEA) workforce.

Interestingly, the move has provoked commentators to argue that all services need more officers, not just the IFS. Apparently, by some calculations, India’s babu strength peaked in 1986, with 19,000 officers per million people. Since then, the ratio has fallen to around two per cent, well below the Asian average of 2.6 per cent. Some may recall Modi’s call for maximum governance and minimum government.  Clearly, that viewpoint is being jettisoned in the light of new realities.

Transfers raise questions: Will auditing stay honest?

The recent transfers of Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) officers who were closely involved with key audit reports presented recently in Parliament have raised concerns about the integrity of auditing processes. These reports unveiled corruption and irregularities in Central ministries and departments.

Of particular concern are the transfers of three Indian audit and accounts service officers, two of whom were responsible for audits revealing corruption in the Dwarka Expressway project and Ayushman Bharat. Another officer, who initiated the Ayushman Bharat audit, was also relocated. In the case of Atoorva Sinha, principal director of audit for infrastructure, overseeing the CAG report on highway projects, his report exposed irregularities and massive cost overruns in the Dwarka Expressway project.

The timing and circumstances of these transfers, combined with the sensitivity of the reports involved, have raised questions about the auditing process. The public hasn’t forgotten the tumultuous period during the UPA government when the CAG reports on the 2G scam and coal block allocation scam played a pivotal role in questioning the government’s credibility.

The CAG Girish Chandra Murmu has argued that transfers and postings are administrative matters, but it is equally important to maintain public trust in the auditing process. Mr Murmu, who assumed office in 2020, emphasises that reading ulterior motives into these transfers is presumptuous, but the concerns remain. And in the absence of a credible explanation, the public is likely to wonder: Will anyone audit honestly?

RTI anniversary shadowed by challenges

Implemented 18 years ago, the Right to Information Act, once celebrated for empowering citizens to seek information from government bodies, now stands at a crossroads. Recent data sheds light on a concerning backlog of appeals and complaints under the RTI Act, creating a major roadblock to transparency and accountability. In June this year, a staggering 3.2 lakh appeals and complaints languished unresolved in 27 information commissions across the country.

One of the primary reasons for the backlogs is the failure of Central and state governments to take timely action to appoint information commissioners to the Central Information Commission (CIC) and state information commissioners. A study also found that six commissions, including the CIC and state ICs of Manipur, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra, Bihar, and Punjab are currently without a chief. The CIC is reportedly working with only four commissioners, even though seven posts are vacant. In fact, chief information commissioner Y.K. Sinha’s tenure ended earlier this month. During his tenure, Sinha managed to reduce the number of pending cases before the commission by more than 50 per cent.

However, four commissions in Jharkhand, Telangana, Mizoram and Tripura are defunct as no new commissioners have been appointed after the incumbents demitted office.

Usually, the anniversaries of such historic legislation should be marked by progress and rejuvenation. But unless these serious challenges are addressed, the age of transparency and accountability may be ending in India.

Tags: dilip cherian, ministry of external affairs (mea), right to information (rti)