The Merchiston estate scandal has exposed the lack of effective communication within the administration. Ministers often appear to be unaware of what officials working under them are doing.
The Council of Ministers headed by VS Achuthanandan, which took office last year, was notable for the inexperience of its members. The chief minister and 16 of his 19 colleagues were first-time ministers. However, they all had considerable political experience and the expectation was that they would quickly grasp the essentials of administration.
The most experienced minister, PJ Joseph, of the Kerala Congress (J), had to bow out of the government within a few months following an allegation of sexual harassment of a woman passenger on a flight from Kochi to Chennai.
Some members of the cabinet like Devaswom and Co-operation Minister G. Sudhakaran and Education Minister MA Baby ran into problems with senior officials of their departments quite early. They sought to extricate themselves by throwing the blame on officials.
When officers belonging to the Indian Administrative Service and Indian Police Service encounter problems in the State they generally seek deputation to the Centre. The first to take this route after the present government came to power was Devaswom Secretary EK Bharat Bhushan. Later some other officials, too, migrated to the Centre.
When the Merchiston scandal broke, the State government found it difficult to provide a satisfactory explanation. Although it had supposedly taken over the estate, declaring it an ecologically fragile area, the Birlas were able to sell it to Xavi Mano Mathew, a local businessman. He, in turn, negotiated a sale agreement with the Indian Space Research Organisation, which was looking for a suitable site to locate the Space Institute.
The chief minister claimed that ISRO had not approached the State government for land. This was not true. It had written to Revenue Minister KP Rajendran seeking land, and he had forwarded the letter to the Collector of Thiruvananthapuram.
Apparently no one told the chief minister about it.
The district collector asked his deputy to attend to the matter. The deputy collector wrote to ISRO saying no suitable land was available. The revenue minister did not come to know of this until much later.
Forest Minister Benoy Viswom was present at a meeting where a decision was taken to ask Xavi Mano Mathew to file a formal application to regularise his title to the estate. He was the first to blame officials for the scandal.
The blame game peaked when the chief minister told the media that Chief Secretary Lizzie Jacob had erred in not informing him about the construction of a helipad at the estate for the use of the prime minister.
Lizzie Jacob had convened an inter-departmental meeting and issued orders for the construction of the helipad after the General Administration department, which is directly under the chief minister, received a communication from the Centre indicating that the prime minister will lay the foundation stone for the Space Institute.
According to Babu Paul, a retired IAS officer, the Chief Secretary had only taken such action as she was required to take under the protocol governing prime ministerial visits.
Finance Minister TM Thomas Isaac has stated that the chief secretary had obtained his department's clearance before sanctioning Rs10 million for the construction of the helipad.
Feeling offended by the chief minister's public disapproval of her conduct, Lizzie Jacob, who had five more months of service left, sought voluntary retirement. She also went on leave immediately.
The Opposition raised the issue of the chief secretary's resignation in the State Assembly. It alleged that the morale of the civil servants was now very low.
In a gracious gesture, Achuthanandan told the Assembly that Lizzie Jacob was a good officer and the government was satisfied with her. He also personally appealed to her to reconsider the decision to seek voluntary retirement.
However, she did not change her mind. Lizzie Jacob is the first IAS officer of the State who has opted to quit rather than serve under unacceptable conditions.
In doing so, she has drawn public attention to the lack of internal communication that is hampering the smooth working of the government.
S. Krishnakumar and KJ Alphons Kannanthanam, two senior IAS officers who had taken voluntary retirement previously, did so to enter politics. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, September 17, 2007.