NEW DELHI: For a government keen on aggressively pushing the frontiers of reservation — even urging the private sector to consider affirmative action — the number of OBC, SC and ST category officials serving on the personal staff of ministers is minuscule, an RTI inquiry has revealed.
While it would be unfair to suggest that caste considerations alone ought to matter in such appointments — it could even be argued that ministers from underprivileged backgrounds have shown a lack of bias — the profiles of staffers say a lot about how quota winds have bypassed ministerial offices.
The RTI inquiry filed by Dev Ashish Bhattacharya has shown that there are no OBC officials serving as private secretaries — posts to which incumbents are handpicked. In one case, that of the rural development ministry, where the officer belongs to a scheduled tribe, the ministry’s response was coy, stating that service details were unavailable.
At the level of private secretaries, there are four scheduled caste and one scheduled tribe officials in the offices of three Cabinet ministers and two ministers of state.
If all Cabinet ministers and ministers of state are taken together, there are seven OBC staffers at the level of first PA, six scheduled caste staffers as assistant private secretaries and one as additional PS. There are three OBC staffers as additional PS and one scheduled tribe staffer as assistant PS.
RTI responses from offices of 34 ministers and 22 ministers of state show that there are merely 23 staffers from the OBC, SC and ST category compared with 203 from the "general" category.
While much has changed since the Mandal revolution and now with OBC quotas being extended to higher education as well, the reason for the unchanged profile of ministerial staffers could be a testimony to their ability to work the system.
This is what perhaps allows the capital's large pool of personal staff to survive change of regimes with relative ease, with outgoing ministers themselves handing out generous recommendations.
This has seen staffers who were with NDA ministers, and even before that with the United Front, switch to UPA ministers without notice. So, an additional PS who was with Nitish Kumar is now with an MoS in defence, Rao Indrajit Singh. A staffer with Srikant Jena in the UF government is well placed with Priya Ranjan Dasmunsi, I&B minister.
The advantage of staffers from the general category seems to lie in their having benefited from the first mover's advantage. Their knowledge of how government works — or does not — from tracking files, keeping ministerial priorities in mind, connecting or ignoring calls, getting appointments, facilitating smooth travel, coordinating speeches and public events and above all, not losing sight of hierarchies, makes them invaluable.
While the big picture is interesting enough, responses of some ministries are indicative of how governments think. Railway minister Lalu Prasad’s office as well as the PMO itself have, instead of making the disclosure, argued that since reservation rules do not "apply" to appointments made at the "discretion of ministers from serving officers and outsiders" no data with regard to the category, general or otherwise, is maintained.
Given that whether reservation rules apply or not was not germane to the query, the reticence of the two offices may be meant to sidestep the issue, perhaps because the personal staff in both cases is largely from the upper castes.
In the office of law minister H R Bhardwaj, all staffers are in the general category, minister of social justice and empowerment Meira Kumar has two scheduled caste personnel as assistant PS and first PA, chemicals and fertilizers minister Ram Vilas Paswan has one SC staffer as assistant private secretary and one OBC staffer as first PA, while HRD minister Arjun Singh — the main proponent of OBC quotas in education — has staffers who are all drawn from the general category.
In the ministry of tribal affairs, posts of private secretary and additional private secretary are vacant. There is one assistant private secretary drawn from the ST category.