Sanjiv Chaturvedi: zero tolerance for honesty in the Narendra Modi government

Ever since the  Ramon Magsaysay Foundation gave the whistleblower-civil servant Sanjiv Chaturvedi its prestigious ‘Emergent Leadership’ award, the politicians and bureaucrats who hounded him for uncovering corruption in high places  have been stunned into silence.  Chaturvedi, who was removed as Chief Vigilance Officer (CVO) of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) last August, moved the Central Administrative Tribunal (CAT) last month, alleging victimisation by the Union Health Ministry for taking lawful action in corruption cases involving politically influential officials.

The Magsaysay Foundation has honoured him for “exemplary  integrity, courage and tenacity in uncompromisingly exposing and painstakingly investigating corruption in public office, and his resolute crafting of programme and system improvements to ensure that government honorably serves the people of India.”  In this interview with Chander Suta Dogra, he explains why he believes that there is zero tolerance for honesty in the Narendra Modi government.
This is a great achievement. Has life changed in any way for you after the international recognition of your work?
On a personal level there is no change in the attitude of officialdom towards me.  No officer from AIIMS congratulated me, not even the Director or anyone  from the health ministry. The only two prominent persons who did call me are Haryana minister Anil Vij, and Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal.  But my staff at AIIMS and many ordinary people who I do not even know more than made up by their enthusiastic celebration of the award.  My married life was disrupted by the Hooda government when I took up cudgels against them and it has not mended. But, I  have the support of my family in all that I do.

You have been  without work for  almost a  year now, after you were removed as the Chief Vigilance Officer of AIIMS in August last. Many say the award is an embarrassment for the Narendra Modi government which has been hounding you on several fronts, after you initiated several investigations into corruption in AIIMS.
Like many people I took the Prime Minister’s election slogan of ‘Na khaoonga, na khaane doonga’ (‘I won’t make money and I won’t let others either’) at face value and actually believed that he is the anti-corruption messiah we were waiting for. I am hugely disappointed. There is zero tolerance for honesty [in the cases I have uncovered] in this government.

Why do you say that?
Last August, when I was removed as CVO for initiating investigation and action against powerful vested interests there was a hue and a cry in the media.  I later learnt through RTI that the PM had on 23rd August asked for a report about my removal from the Union Health Ministry. I also procured a copy of the same report and was shocked  to find that it contained blatant lies about my appointment. The Health Secretary had written on the file that I was removed because my appointment did not have the approval from the governing body or the Institute body of AIIMS. This is not true because I have with me the minutes of the meetings of these bodies when they approved my appointment.

On seeing this, I sent the Prime Minister a counter report with full documents detailing the nexus in AIIMS, with motives and facts, [identifying] who are the politicians and bureaucrats involved and requested a fair investigation. In October, the PMO asked the health secretary for comments on my communication to him, and when these did not come, in February there was a reminder. When the PM had personally intervened in a matter to learn what has happened, it is my legitimate expectation that it should have been brought to its logical conclusion by now. Either I am wrong or that nexus that I have tried to expose is guilty.

What happened after that?
I had also informed the Prime Minister officially about the manner in which I was harassed and in September had sent him all letters written by present health minister JP Nadda before he became health minister, asking for my removal and to stop the investigations I had initiated. Instead, Mr. Nadda was made my minister, in which capacity he not only supervises my ACRs but is the disciplinary authority in all those cases which he was demanding be closed. While I have full respect for the honourable minister, this is a perverted sense of justice. Under the circumstances, what is happening to me now was inevitable.

What is happening to you now? The Haryana government gave you a promotion after you won the award.
I was not given the promotion because of the award, but because I moved the Central Administrative Tribunal (CAT) for a time scale promotion that is routinely given at 13 years. The rest of my batchmates got it in January, but I was not even considered in the Departmental Promotion Committee (DPC) meeting held in January. I met Haryana chief minister Manohar Lal Khattar and showed him my outstanding reports and represented to him. He heard me out and said that my name will be considered next time. Can you imagine my disappointment when they did not consider my name, even in the June DPC.  I was forced to go to CAT on June 29th and the promotion has been given because they do not have any answer for the next CAT hearing.  Khattar has been demanding my repatriation to Haryana, even though he knows that there is  a threat to me there.  Am I wrong in concluding that the combined harassment by the Haryana government and the Health ministry has the  blessings of the highest quarter?

What then is the secret of your success in getting the better of your more powerful opponents in government?
I have come to believe that if your intentions are good, divine power comes to your rescue. I have received help from the most unexpected of places and people when I was fighting several battles with the government. Many anonymous people in high and low places have helped me out over the years. All it takes is one honest and angry person toiling away at his desk to tip me off about an impending action from the powers that be, or help out with well meaning advice. Deep down, even the corrupt want a corruption free environment. I have never done any of what I did for awards. I also knew the implications that I could face, whenever I opened a file of a powerful person.

You are a deputy secretary in the AIIMS with no major duties. In February, the Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal had asked for your services as his OSD. What is holding it up?
When they wanted to remove me as CVO, it took just 24 hours for the government to get 20 signatures on the file. Now, even though I fulfil all the conditions for going on deputation, and ministry officials have informed the government of this, six months have passed. Both the minister and secretary are putting several queries that have delayed a decision. File notings show that for 40 days it lay with the Forest Minister Prakash Javadekar. It then went for a legal opinion. For the last two months it is lying with the AIIMS director. Oddly, when I was appointed in AIIMS, the director was not consulted, but when I am to be relieved, he is. This is a classic case of how files are handled when the government does not want to take a decision.

What according to you is the biggest challenge in fighting corruption nowadays?
The biggest problem for officers like us is that if we come into conflict with the higher ups in the political establishment, all the disciplinary powers – to transfer, write our ACRs or chargesheet us – are with them. The All India Services still provide some protection, but subordinate services like state civil services, are very vulnerable. In the states, two things have collapsed in recent times. One is fairness in appointments, as exemplified by the irregularities in the Vyapam scam. It breeds extreme discontent among the youth. Secondly, the anti corruption machinery in the states has become completely defunct. The aam admi is most affected by lower level corruption and only will power is required to tackle it.

Do you have a message for juniors who might want to follow your example?
It is a tough road to follow but I believe that the battle against corruption has to be fought like the freedom movement. Many more people will have to make sacrifices to end it. It is not just limited to bribery and speed money but has begun to hit at the dignity of the aam aadmi, his hopes and dreams.  There is heart wrenching frustration among the young when they find undeserving candidates getting jobs by bribing top officials.  It is a dangerous situation.

If we keep the award aside for a moment, you seem to be at a dead end. Do you have a plan for the future? What is next on your agenda?
After fighting so many cases, facing vigilance enquiries, false FIRs and more, I have become stronger in fighting corruption and have acquired new skills to deal with situations. I am presently consulting like minded people to create something that works within the system to improve it. It may involve working with probationers and school children. I take strength from a Supreme Court judgement which says that though a civil servant is bound by service conditions, he/she does not forfeit her rights as a citizen and can intervene in matters of public interest, independent of what she may be required to do as an official.

Can we ever have a corruption free India?
Sometimes I lose hope, but then think that this a journey that other developed countries have already made. The manner in which honest politicians are getting support across caste and communal divides is telling us something. Nowadays, even a corrupt person wants a clean candidate. But the corrupt outnumber the honest officials in government.  If we somehow manage to reach a critical number like say 30 per cent or so, then it will become difficult for government to stifle our voice.

What is corruption?

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