Ashok Lavasa, the man who prefers proper procedure in the working of govt

Ashok Lavasa, Election Commissioner
One of the first things Ashok Lavasa did when he walked in as secretary expenditure in April 2016 was to bring transparency in the way the government presents its numbers. During his term, the National Democratic Alliance government advanced the date for the presentation of the Budget from end of February to the end of January. It was also during his term that the Railway Budget was abolished as a separate financial statement and merged with the Union budget and the distinction between Plan and non-Plan expenditure done away with. 

But Lavasa is most pleased that he was able to bring more transparency in the Budget numbers. 

He worked out a statement format under which every department of the Government of India had to show its expenditure on running its establishment separate from the development heads. The Budget papers read much more easily now, thanks to his effort. 

Lavasa loves proper procedure in the working of the government. He feels this improves the quality of the outcome. At a dinner with him (and he is a generous host), he insisted on the importance of going through the courses in a buffet or at a sit-down dinner in the right order. 

It is this sense of propriety of his that was disturbed in this general election, and caused his headline-attracting dissent with his two Election Commission colleagues.

The 61-year-old IAS officer from the Haryana cadre brought the same sense of process when he was appointed Election Commissioner in January 2018. And this sense of process has got disturbed, according to him in the recent controversy. The controversy is about the nine cases of alleged violation of model code of conduct made by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Bharatiya Janata Party President Amit Shah in the course of their election campaign. The three-member Election Commission of India, which includes Chief Election Commissioner, Sunil Arora, Lavasa, and the other Election Commissioner, Sushil Chandra decided by a 2-1 majority that the complaints against the two were not upheld. 

In almost all of the cases, Lavasa’s was the dissent note. What riles him is not that he was overruled, but they were not made public. Lavasa apparently wrote three times to Arora, noting that he will stay away from the proceedings related to the model code of conduct if dissenting views were not incorporated in the orders. He feels if the differences were made public those would have brought credit to the poll panel. There are analogies here. The Competition Commission of India, the Securities and Exchange Board of India, and even the Reserve Bank of India’s monetary policy committee record dissent and there is no reason the Election Commission could not have done the same. It does seem as though Lavasa’s outburst is likely to change things. Lavasa himself is scheduled to succeed current Chief Election Commissioner Sunil Arora by 2021, though he would have left office by the time the next general elections come around in 2024.

Lavasa has an interesting take on why it makes sense to allow the rules to play out. As environment secretary, he had worked out detailed rules for how environment clearances should be given for projects. “I have handled resources, both financial and natural, and I know how they can be squandered and how they can be saved. By saving I don’t mean preserved or kept unused, but how we can do more with less,” he said. 

Similarly, as finance secretary, Lavasa issued instruction to all departments to terminate all schemes that had a sunset date on them. For other schemes, the ministries and departments were asked to negotiate with the finance ministry to make a case to continue them. 

“The approval for continuation of the scheme may be sought if the outcome review for the scheme has been positive and shows that though the scheme has been effective in achieving its objectives, still, there is a need to continue the scheme in view of its mandate and performance,” the letter issued by his department noted. 

He particularly pointed out that the Department of Expenditure will merge or drop any schemes that do not meet the standards. The government was actually able to meet its fiscal deficit target for 2018-19 due to some of these efforts.

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