In early July, when the Supreme Court ordered the Central Bureau of Investigation to take over all the cases related to the “Vyapam scam” in Madhya Pradesh, many believed that it would mark the start of an efficient, independent probe into the sordid affair. The scam, which centres on large-scale fraud in a major examination system in the state, is believed to involve influential government officials and politicians. The public had little faith in the state police’s ability to conduct a fair investigation.
The CBI, however, was reluctant to take on the probe. As the number of cases linked to the scam grew, the agency protested to the court that it simply did not have enough officers to handle the workload. “It is humbly submitted that the CBI is finding it extremely hard and almost impossible to cope with the extent of cases already being investigated,” the agency told the court in August.
The court had little sympathy for the CBI’s troubles. Chief Justice HL Dattu told the agency in September that whether the cases were “simple, complicated, complex, super-complex,” the agency had to take on the work. In another related hearing in September, the court appeared to blame the agency for its own staff shortage, saying: “There should be a CBI probe against the CBI for not promoting staffers inside the agency.”
The CBI, often referred to as India’s foremost investigating agency, has long suffered from an acute shortage of personnel. As of 1 July, it had 1,142 unfilled posts, of a total capacity of 6,676. The central government has in the past suggested that the main reason for the CBI’s shortage is an overall dip in the numbers of individuals joining law enforcement services. But this claim elides the fact that a major cause of the shortfall is the government’s sheer mismanagement of the CBI’s workforce, through a system of inefficient, and inexplicably biased, recruitment policies.
There are broadly two routes through which an officer can enter the CBI. One is that of direct recruitment: after candidates clear the Civil Services Examination, conducted by the Union Public Services Commission, they may indicate an interest in joining the CBI. They undergo the same training as Indian Police Service candidates, after which they join the agency at the rank of deputy superintendent. (Apart from this route, the CBI also enlists staff, to the lower rank of sub-inspector, through the Combined Graduate Level Examination.)
The other route to the CBI is through deputation. This largely applies to individuals who have taken the same UPSC exam, and joined the civil services in—among other possible avenues—a state cadre under the IPS, or in a central organisation, such as the Central Board of Excise and Customs and the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence. When the CBI needs additional hands, it may advertise for officers on deputation, whom it calls “deputationists,” who typically serve for a period of a few years.
There should be no reason to treat these two categories of CBI officers differently. Yet, as in many other policing organisations in the country, such as the Border Security Force and the Central Reserve Police Force, IPS officers in the CBI are seen as elite. And as in these organisations, direct recruits to the CBI suffer, not only from this perception but also from differing rules that govern them, which put them at a severe disadvantage.
For example, a deputationist, with seven years of experience in her parent cadre, is governed by the All India Service Rules. By these rules, this length of service makes her eligible for appointment to the CBI as a superintendent of police, two ranks above a deputy superintendent. A direct recruit who joins the agency as a deputy superintendent of police, however, is governed by the CBI (Senior Police Posts) Recruitment Rules. By these rules, this officer would need to put in ten years of service before she is eligible for appointment as a superintendent of police.
The promotion structure is also skewed against the direct recruits. A deputationist will be promoted from the rank of superintendent of police directly to that of deputy inspector general, two ranks higher. A direct recruit in the CBI, however, will have to first rise to the position of senior superintendent of police, and will only then be eligible for the post of deputy inspector general. Further, a deputationist becomes eligible for the post of deputy inspector general after 14 years in service, whereas a direct recruit must put in 17 years to be considered for the same position.
The CBI also follows remarkably biased policies of quotas that stunt a direct recruit’s chances of rising to seniority. The top three ranks—director, special director and additional director—are reserved for deputationists. The next set of positions at least opens up to direct recruits, but retains a heavy bias—80 percent of joint director positions, and 85 percent of deputy inspector general positions, are reserved for deputationists.
Not only have these systemic disadvantages hampered the careers of direct recruits, in practice, too, the government has actively blocked this route of staffing the CBI. Between 1999 and 2013, not a single deputy superintendent of police was inducted into the CBI via the direct route, even when vacancies for the post climbed to as high as 137, in December 2012. Going a step further, the UPA government, in 2013, formalised this bias, by issuing a policy that stopped the recruitment of CBI officers at this level of the organisation.
Ironically, then, the lopsided rules have not hampered any new senior direct recruits recently—simply because the government has not appointed any such officers at the rank of deputy superintendent for 14 years. The careers of those who were recruited prior to this, however, have suffered. Many believe the government choked off the direct recruit stream because deputation gives politicians greater control over appointments and transfers. A group of aggrieved CBI cadre officers filed a PIL in 2013 before the Supreme Court, claiming that the direct recruitment for senior-level officers was put to an end by the government with the “sole intention of preventing building of a dedicated cadre of CBI.”
The grievances of directly recruited officers have not gone unrecognised. Multiple parliamentary committees have noted, not just that directly recruited officers are equally deserving of opportunities as deputationists, but that, in some respects, they are even more deserving. In 2008, the 24th Report on the Working of the Central Bureau of Investigation said, “while departmental officers have acquired commendable professional competence, even expertise in niche areas like securities and finance transactions, defence purchase-related transactions, abuse of official position-related decisions, custodial death-related cases, fake encounter-related matters, most of the officers on deputation, to some extent, lag behind in dealing with such matters. It has also come to the notice of the Committee that officers without sufficient experience of service and knowledge are inducted on deputation for complicated jobs in CBI.” The report also said that officers who come in on deputation from state cadres are not familiar with the “nuances of specialized investigation” that CBI personnel deal with, and end up causing “logjams in decision making.”
The centre has repeatedly defended its policy on deputations before committees. It has argued, for instance, that when deputationists are repatriated to their state cadres after a stint with the CBI, they take back the “best practices” and “rich experience” of working with the agency, which benefits the states. This argument is entirely beside the point. There may indeed be some benefits of having a deputation system, but that hardly justifies thwarting the careers of directly recruited officers, or simply not appointing such officers at all. Further, this argument loses all substance when one considers that packing the CBI with only deputationists from other organisations would gradually erode the very specialised institutional wisdom that deputationists are supposed to take back to their parent cadres.
Deputationists may also not be as accountable as permanent officers. There have been instances where officials with little specialised investigative experience have been deputed to the CBI from bodies such as the Railway Police Force to handle complex cases of financial fraud. By the time these poorly investigated cases come up in court, these officers’ terms at the CBI may well have ended.
A cursory look at some of the present government’s deputations to the CBI suggests that political masters do, indeed, use the system to bring in favoured officers, possibly to the detriment of the organisation. In April, the senior IPS officer YC Modi was appointed as an additional director in the CBI, via deputation. Modi had previously served as a member of the CBI team that investigated the 2003 murder of the senior BJP leader Haren Pandya, once a political rival to Narendra Modi. Though 12 men were arrested for the murder, in 2011, the Gujarat High Court threw out the case, and acquitted all of them.
In its judgement, the court came down heavily on the CBI probe team. It said the investigation had “throughout been botched up and blinkered,” and that the “investigating officers concerned ought to be held accountable for their ineptitude resulting into injustice, huge harassment of many persons concerned and enormous waste of public resources and public time of the courts.” Despite these concerns, the will of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who stood to gain from the elimination of a rival, prevailed in YC Modi’s appointment this year.
Another April deputation, Arun Kumar Sharma, has had his own share of controversies. He has been questioned, by the CBI, in the fake-encounter case of the Mumbai college student Ishrat Jahan. Sharma was also one of the officers who allegedly snooped on a young woman architect on the orders of Narendra Modi’s long-time confident and current BJP president Amit Shah. Once again, these allegations of serious wrongdoing have not hampered Sharma’s elevation within the CBI.
An organisation thrives when it has a strong internal culture of excellence and expertise. The CBI needs officers with specialised investigative skills, different from those of state police officers, many of whom deal primarily with wider issues of law and order. Easing the entry and rise of direct recruits would strengthen the agency’s ability to tackle complex cases. It would open the door for candidates who are willing to commit their careers to the agency, secure in the knowledge that years of good service will be rewarded. Continuing to rely solely on deputations will weaken the possibility of such a culture developing in the CBI—although that may be exactly what the government wants.