J S Saharia, IAS officer of the 1978 batch, took over as chief secretary on Saturday, the post being that of the head of state administration which has 8 lakh employees on its rolls and 10 lakh attached to state-aided institutions including rural and urban bodies, schools and colleges and so forth.

In our democratic set-up, the administration plays an important part as it is vested with powers to implement the decisions of the government. The chief secretary is an important link between the centre and the state. He enjoys powers to regulate and control law-enforcing agencies. Maharashtra, once known as the best-administered state has a great tradition of some illustrious officers as the chief secretaries.

Before it became the norm for chief ministers to appoint chief secretaries of their choice, older generations say that during the tenures of Y B Chavan and Vasantrao Naik, chief secretaries enjoyed the greatest freedom at work. Rarely did they have to bow down to political pressures while making appointments of departmental secretaries and district collectors. They offered advice fearlessly to state cabinets.

Things have changed now. Most bureaucrats prefer to leave the big decisions — and any ensuing blame — to their political masters. Especially after the Adarsh housing society case senior officials at Mantralaya have been leaving decision-making matters up to the ministers. The RTI Act has become another reason to refuse undue pressure to make politically favourable decisions. Earlier, ministers used to convince senior babus to give their files favourable remarks and recommendations.

There have been a number of instances when honest IAS and IPS officers have virtually accomplished miracles because they were offered complete freedom at work. They ensured discipline in districts and cities known for complete chaos and misrule. That happens when a chief secretary grows a spine and takes charge to protect the officers genuinely trying to serve the country.

Today, the chief secretary heads roughly 150 committees that keep him engaged in meetings. His job has become cumbersome and the workload is divided between his immediate subordinates in the general administration department. These days, the state cabinet entrusts a new committee to him almost every month, largely because ministers want to avoid controversies and allegations of high-handedness.

This has rendered his job mechanical in nature. He is unable to conduct field visits to take stock of development projects, which has affected efficiency of his subordinates on the field. This could be one of the reasons why field officers rarely take his diktats seriously and leave it to the local MLA or minister to take care of their service tenures, transfers and appointments. Meanwhile, the projects undertaken by the government — such as roads, dams, government schools — has drawn flak. While taking over the reins of the state administration, Saharia has two important issues to face. One, the Mantralaya employees have refused to shift to the three redesigned floors of the state headquarters, citing poor facilities and working atmosphere. Even Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan has put off moving to his refurbished sixth-floor office. Officers, in fact, have threatened to go on strike on December 16 for various demands. Due to the inflating state loan, which stands beyond Rs 2.50 lakh crore and the meager amounts available for development, there is little or no scope for reconstruction of government offices and basic facilities.

Second, the administration is a divided house over the cabinet proposal to increase the number of posts available on deputation for the revenue department. Besides, the bureaucracy is simmering with discontent over the delay in filling up vacancies in state services. There are long-standing demands for regulating periodic transfers, minimal interference from ministers, allowances at par with the Centre’s officials and clarity in service rules. The bureaucracy is unhappy over the “encroachment” of their services by the revenue and state development cadres. The sales tax officials who collect substantial revenue for the government are also unhappy. The chief secretary can usher in the desired changes in these two areas.

— The writer is Political Editor, MiD DAY