What will Ashok Khemka find next?

Ashok Khemka, the senior IAS officer famous for having exposed numerous instances of government corruption, perhaps most prominently the DLF land-grab scam, has been transferred again. This time, he had voiced concerns over the Haryana government’s plans to ‘develop’ the Aravalli hills through what it called ‘consolidation projects’. That is just a sanitised way to say “destroy the local ecosystem and build things”.

According to the Indian Express, the government had his transfer order ready in a few hours. It was his sixth since 2014, when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) assumed power at the Centre, and 52nd in his 27 years of service. It is clear that the multiple transfers haven’t fazed him and that he has remained true to his beliefs at every station (although one can’t claim to know or fully understand the effect of these transfers on his personal life).

It is unadvisable – perhaps even unwise – to make demands of someone in trying circumstances that are likely to exact a bigger and bigger toll. You give them brownie points if they fight the fight you’d like them to. At the same time, you don’t penalise them if and when they choose not to.

I say this because Khemka’s latest transfer brings him to Haryana’s science and technology department, where the fight could be of a different kind.

It is not clear if this is supposed to be some kind of ‘punishment posting’. It is also not clear what the department itself is up to. Then again, Raman Malik, the Haryana BJP spokesperson, calling Khemka a “good man” and hoping he brings “new dimensions to science and technology in the state” suggests the move is intended to be some kind of snub.

However, if Khemka intends to continue exposing irregularities, we should be interested to know what he might find next.

Science under the BJP government – both at the Centre and in various states, including Haryana – has too often been pressed into manufacturing reasons excuses for the state or, of course, to serve “national priorities”, many of which have turned out to be bogus pursuits. It has also frequently disfavoured research, cutting funds for exploratory work and mooting support programmes that place blue-sky endeavours at a disadvantage (examples herehereand here).

For all his promises of ‘clean’ governance, Prime Minister Narendra Modi delivered a government that simply didn’t do enough to deliver on the anti-corruption and anti-cronyism wave it rode to power in 2014. However, anyone you ask is likelier than not to provide examples centred on financial gains – overlooking Modi-and-party’s moral abdication of the scientific enterprise.

Perhaps there is no money exchanging hands when it comes to science. However, that doesn’t have to mean there is no problem just because the gains are intangible. In fact, such failures are even harder to hold and retain in the imagination, and by that measure are also more harmful in the longer term.

It is to this mix that Khemka has now been added. And should he be able to condense just one physical dollop of misgivings out of it, he might just be transferred again and it might just be another problem to deal with on a long list of them. But it will also serve to uncover what remains to many an invisible – perhaps even nonexistent – illness.

The Wire
March 5, 2019