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Health min gives PMO half story on AIIMS anti-graft official’s transfer

Prime Minister Narendra Modi called up Health Minister Harsh Vardhan to inquire into the controversial transfer of the AIIMS chief vigilance officer (CVO), Sanjiv Chaturvedi. But the health ministry subsequently concealed facts from the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) in an internal report meant to explain the sudden mid-term transfer of the official.

Vardhan has removed Chaturvedi, who had unearthed a record number of corruption and financial scams in his two years at the country’s premier hospital. The Haryana cadre forest service officer’s tenure would otherwise have lasted till June 2016.

Business Standard reviewed the internal report sent by the health secretary on August 23 to the principal secretaries of the prime minister and the cabinet secretary. The report was sent within two days of media reporting for the first time the sudden removal of the officer who had been called an exemplary anti-graft official by the same health ministry mandarins.

The report hid several key sets of facts. It did not inform the PMO the action to remove Chaturvedi had been triggered by Vardhan on the repeated requests of a Bharatiya Janata Party MP from Himachal Pradesh, J P Nadda. It did not utter a word about Nadda’s requests that not only should Chaturvedi be removed from the post but also that he be repatriated mid-tenure to his parent cadre, Haryana, and all investigations into corruption cases at AIIMS be put on hold.

The health ministry also did not inform the PMO that the ministry had, only a few months ago, closed the issue raised by repeated letters of Nadda with the health secretary recording that Chaturvedi’s appointment was legally and technically sound and that the matter should not be raised again. In fact, at that point, Chaturvedi’s role in exposing corruption in AIIMS had been termed “instrumental”. The report to the PMO sent by the same health secretary, Lov Verma, is silent on these facts.

The internal report of the health ministry may have remained quiet on these facts, but they later tumbled out as media reports, including those by Business Standard, revealed the demands Nadda had made to Vardhan. These reports also showed how Vardhan acted on Nadda’s request and the ministry took a U-turn to remove Chaturvedi. As each set of new reports came out, the minister as well as the ministry preferred not to answer specific queries but several times shifted their stance to justify their decision. At last count, Vardhan had claimed the ministry had “immutable” powers to transfer officials any time during their tenure.

When contacted with detailed queries on this internal report sent to the PMO, the health secretary refused to comment. The PMO was also sent queries, to which it did not respond.

The internal report sent to the PMO also hides the fact that the statutory bodies under the AIIMS Act, 1956, called the Governing Body and the Institute Body, had formally decided to entrust the charge of CVO to the newly created position of deputy secretary in AIIMS – the post to which Chaturvedi was appointed. The report, in contrast, informs the PMO that the decision was an illegal move of AIIMS authorities. The report did not mention that even Vardhan, as health minister, had acted upon the advice of Chaturvedi as the anti-graft official of AIIMS.

The internal note concludes that Chaturvedi had been removed to “avoid continued objections of the Central Vigilance Officer and to protect vigilance proceedings and the vigilance set-up at AIIMS, New Delhi”. It conceals that initially, the health ministry had protested the Central Vigilance Committee’s (CVC) intervention in the appointment of the CVO at AIIMS, noting it was unprecedented and against the AIIMS Act. It had gone along with the CVC under protest and proposed Chaturvedi and two other officers’ names for the post of CVO but was itself unable to complete the process. For more than two years the CVC processed and acted upon all recommendations of Chaturvedi as CVO, including instituting CBI inquiries. Later, in May 2014, with the approval of the health secretary, it was concluded that AIIMS was not on the list of institutions requiring CVC approval for the post of anti-graft officer and that all legal requirements of the AIIMS Act had been conclusively met while posting Chaturvedi.

The five-page internal report of the ministry to the Prime Minister, justifying the decisions taken under Vardhan, also justifies similar but unsuccessful attempts to remove Chaturvedi made during the United Progressive Alliance regime, with Ghulam Nabi Azad as the health minister.

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