The Indian government has brought in new rules that allow it to cancel pensions of retired bureaucrats who have served as high-ranking officers in some of the most coveted government jobs.

In the first week of July, the federal government amended the All India Services (Death-cum-Retirement Benefits) Rules, 1958, giving itself more power to withhold or withdraw the pension of retired Indian Administrative Service (IAS), Indian Police Service (IPS) and Indian Forest Service (IFS) officers convicted of a "serious crime" or found guilty of "grave misconduct".

These three services are among the most sought-after jobs in the country, partly due to their pay security and pension. IAS, IPS and IFS officers are posted to different states – referred to as their cadre – where they spend a considerable amount of time. (Officers are routinely also sent on assignment to work for the federal government.)

Earlier, the federal government had to wait for a reference from the state government where the retired officer served to initiate action against them. It could then decide to withhold the officer's pension for as long as it deemed fit.

However, after the amendment, the federal government can take action against the officer even without a reference from the state government. The new rules have been criticised by several retired bureaucrats, who often question the government on its actions and policies.

On 25 July, 94 former bureaucrats from Constitutional Conduct Group – a civil rights organisation – signed a public statement urging the government to scrap the amendment. They said it was vaguely worded and could be used to impose "a complete ban on the right of retired civil servants to comment on public matters" by keeping officers under the threat of losing their pension.

What are the new rules?

Some would say it's reasonable if an officer who has been convicted of a "serious crime" by a court loses his pension.

But the new rules add that even if an officer has not been convicted, but the federal government "considers" that the officer is "prima facie guilty of grave misconduct", it can withdraw their pension after giving a notice and a right to respond. The government's decision will be considered final in these cases.

NEW DELHI, INDIA - JANUARY 7: Candidates leave the examination centre after appearing for the UPSC Exam at UPSC office Shahjaha Road on January 7,2022 in New Delhi, India. The Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) decided to go ahead with the UPSC Civil Services Main exams as per schedule. The UPSC CSE Main exams will be held on January 7, 8, 9, 15, and 16. (Photo by Sonu Mehta/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)Image source, Getty ImagesImage caption, Civil services jobs are among the most sought after in India

What kind of offences are prosecuted?

The rules do not fully explain what kind of crimes can be used to withhold pension. They mention that a serious crime includes offences under the Official Secrets Act, 1923 – a law that deals with protecting sensitive government information. But it can include other crimes as well.

Grave misconduct includes disclosing official information that could affect India's public interest or security.

The amendment also puts additional responsibility on bureaucrats who have retired from an "intelligence or security-related organisation" such as the Intelligence Bureau, Enforcement Directorate and others.

They cannot make publish anything related to their organisation's domain or disclose information that could threaten India's security without the clearance of the organisation's head. Doing so will also be considered "grave misconduct".

What do bureaucrats say?

Several retired bureaucrats have questioned the timing and need for this change. "Why now? civil services have been there for 75 years," asked Harsh Mander, retired IAS officer and activist.

"This will lead to a chilling effect on civil servants criticising [the government]," he said.

PV Ramesh, former special chief secretary and development commissioner to the Andhra Pradesh government said the amendment would be justified only if the states were trying to protect retired officers – but that is not the case.

Julio Ribeiro, a retired police officer said the new rules send the message that an officer should "not speak up and be pliant".

"They are asking people to fall in line. They do not want retired bureaucrats speaking against them," he said.

GURUGRAM, INDIA APRIL 22: Police deployment at sector-29 ground during the Muslim community offers Namaz on the occasion of Eid-ul-Fitr near Leisure Valley Park, on April 22, 2023 in Gurugram, India. Muslims around the world are getting into the festive Eid spirit as the holy month of Ramadan concludes. The festival is marked by feasting, praying, and engaging in humanitarian activities. The celebrations marked the end of the holy month of Ramzan. (Photo by Parveen Kumar/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)Image source, Getty ImagesImage caption, IAS, IPS, IFS officers are posted to different states

The Constitution Conduct Group wrote that the amendment was "deliberately vague" and "the government has armed itself with unlimited powers to harass and persecute any pensioner whose action is not to its liking, whether it be an article, an interview, participation in a protest march or seminar, or any form of criticism".

According to Mr Ramesh, this amendment will also "send a message" to serving officers to be "careful since you could be deprived of your pension [after you retire]".

Several officers said they had not heard of a retired bureaucrat's pension being withheld under the original rules. "But we could see that change if the government uses these amendments to withhold pension," added Mr Ribeiro.

Can the new rules affect bureaucrats' rights?

Some retired bureaucrats say that this amendment affects their fundamental right to speech. Others say that they should be allowed to freely express their views on governmental matters because of their expertise.

"You have people who have been part of the government at its highest level and understand its functioning," Mr Mander said.

Mr Ramesh said that pension was a right for services given during an officer's tenure and thus cannot be withheld at the government's discretion.

But this is not the first time the government has taken such a decision.

In 2021, the government passed a similar set of pension rules which affected officers from the Indian Revenue Services and Customs and Central Excise services, among others. These rules were also criticised for affecting retired bureaucrat's right to free speech.

In 2008, the then Congress-led UPA government had also tried to bring in a similar amendment but had dropped the plan after opposition from bureaucrats, says Constitution Conduct Group.

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