GUWAHATI, April 23 - The State government�s alleged ultra vires decision to appoint two secretaries has resulted in an impasse in the Public Health Engineering (PHE) Department, which out of its 8,700 piped water supply schemes has got around 3,800 schemes totally defunct with another 3,200 schemes partially functioning.
It needs mention here that fluoride contamination of groundwater has been found to be affecting a population of around five lakh in the rural areas of the State, while arsenic contamination of groundwater has been found affecting around 30 lakh rural population. The sources from which water samples of such contamination were collected mostly belong to the PHE Department.
Worse is the fact that the rate of fluoride and arsenic contamination of groundwater in the State is shooting up due to over extraction of groundwater that resulted from the failure of the authorities, including the PHE Department, to exploit the water resources of the Brahmaputra and Barak rivers and their tributaries for drinking purposes.
Against this harsh backdrop, the appointment of two secretaries has badly affected functioning of the department with a mismatch of duties assigned to them. While the secretary with technical background has allegedly been made to do �ministerial works� and even deprived of any place to sit, on the contrary, the secretary from the non-technical cadre, who is an IAS officer, has been authorised to look after technical matters of the department.
The �Office Order� dated April 4, 2018 (with number PHED-171/2001/Pt-I/53), which specified the assignments of the two secretaries, said the secretary from the IAS background will look after all schemes and fund-related matters of water sector, including the World Bank Project, NITI Aayog, Water and Sanitation Support Organisation, etc., and all matters related to sanitation under the Swachh Bharat Mission (Gramin).
The order further said that the secretary appointed from the technical cadre of the department will look after all establishment matters, including RTI-related issues, court cases and Assembly matters, besides all schemes related to the Non-Lapsable Central Pool of Resources/North Eastern Council, trade and commerce and inter-departmental coordination.
The extent of resentment over this development in the department may be gauged from that fact that even the secretary general of the Indian Engineers� Federation (INDEF) has requested Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal�s interference �to give justice� to the PHED secretary belonging to the engineering cadre. INDEF secretary general in his memorandum said that the federation considers the act of appointing an IAS officer as the secretary of the PHED as �a bureaucratic interference in a Technical Department.�
PHE engineers are of the view that the secretary with technical background cannot do anything even on the matters related to RTI, Assembly questions and other legal issues, as the files on such issues are in the custody of the secretary from the IAS cadre.
The official order to this effect has been issued by the Additional Chief Secretary (PHED), allegedly despite the repeated requests from the engineers of the department not to do any injustice to the technical cadres of the department. Significantly, the order was not issued by the Personnel Department of the State, contrary to the set rules.
But the State government maintains that the �lone post� of Secretary, PHE Department has been filled up by promotion form their feeder cadre as per rule; and there is no dilution of the Assam Public Health Engineering Service Rules, 1996. It further asserts that the State government �is empowered to appoint one or more Secretaries in a Department for administrative convenience and in public interest.�