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The Search Is On

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As we enter 2012, the search for a chairman for the National Highway Authority of India (NHAI) promises to set a new record in slow government decision making.

Brijeshwar Singh, the last full-time chairman, retired in December 2010. The search for his successor had begun six months prior to his retirement, but to no avail. Now, road secretary A.K. Upadhyay holds the charge of chairman.

When C.P. Joshi took charge as road transport and highways minister in January 2011, he decided to include private sector professionals. In July 2011, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh set a three-month deadline for selection of a new chairman. In August, Joshi's ministry moved a proposal to include CEOs of top infrastructure firms with a turnover of Rs 3,000-Rs 5,000 crore. Prior to this, the eligibility was restricted to heads of PSUs and officials of additional secretary level or above.

Sources say that the ministry had written to the Appointments Committee of the Cabinet seeking approval for this, which has been given.

The rules and criteria for selection are yet to be notified. According to NHAI sources, the latest tussle has arisen because the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT) is doing "everything in its power to block this proposal".  Says one NHAI source: "You underestimate the tenacity of the bureaucracy when it comes to preserving their own interests. Even if they don't benefit directly, they will try to keep such assignments limited to themselves." In his view, it will take more than just one minister's will to break this cosy nexus, because it is like "opening the floodgates". Once this kind of widening of criteria is permitted in one area, it could easily spread to other coveted posts such as chairman of Trai or Competition Commission.

The roads ministry has now turned the tables and sent a reminder to the DoPT, while expressing displeasure at the non- responsiveness of the personnel department but to no avail. Unless the department approves and notifies the rules and criteria for selection, applications for the post cannot be invited.

The post of NHAI chairman remains a coveted one for most since it is a secretary-level post; during Kamal Nath's regime, the term of the post was extended from three to five years. Typically, when most IAS officers become secretary-level, they have two-three years of service left. The chairmanship gives them the opportunity to enjoy secretary-level benefits for five years.

Will NHAI have a full-time chairman before the end of 2012? It is anybody's guess, say companies in the highway sector.

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 09-01-2012)