Missing files could be traced to section officers

Written by Gireesh Chandra Prasad | Gireesh Chandra Prasad | New Delhi | Updated: Aug 23 2013, 11:20am hrs
The mystery of missing files on coal block allocations, over which the government was put on the mat by the Opposition in Parliament during this week, is bound to unravel soon. This is because the responsibility of the disappearance could soon be traced to the junior officers in charge of receiving applications, initiating files and safekeeping them after decision-making by the seniors.

Officials privy to the matter say that files on allocation of coal blocks turn out to be huge consisting of applications, documents about the ownership structure, technical and financial capabilities of the applicant firms, bank guarantees, state governments recommendations and a host of other records. So it is virtually impossible to misplace or transport close to 200 such files (which are reported to be missing) without the knowledge of these junior officers known as dealing hands, generally section officers. In case of sensitive matters like natural resources (like coal), under secretaries or directors may be responsible for safekeeping of files. So it is clearly impossible that files can go missing, without the knowledge of at least a few officers.

According to sources, it might not even require an investigating agency to find out from whom the files went missing as the coal ministry had been using an electronic file tracking system implemented by National Informatics Centre (NIC) for a long time. It shows where a file was left at a particular point in time, although it has no capability to store contents of the file, except a small excerpt.

Coal minister Sriprakash Jaiswal promised on Tuesday that all efforts will be made to trace the missing files relating to the allocation of coal blocks dating back to 2004 and on Thursday, parliamentary affairs minister Kamal Nath assured the Opposition that Prime minister would intervene in the discussion on the matter, as and when it happens.

The question before an investigating agency may be whether the files are missing or have been destroyed. Missing so many large files does not seem unintentional, said a government official, asking not to be identified. Lawyers said that custodians of missing files may face disciplinary action either for causing disappearance of evidence or for negligence. Bureaucrats who headed the ministry are covered by the scope of executive accountability and may have to face probe for any alleged complicity. The minister in charge, of course, is accountable only to Parliament, and may become personally liable only if it is proven that he or she had conspired in a wrongful act.

Reconstructing the missing files may be an extremely tedious task. It would involve seeking copies of files or documents from agencies like the CAG, state governments, the Prime Ministers Office or even the companies themselves.

That, however, may no longer be the case if files generated after 2006 go missing from 18 other departments, especially, the departments of revenue, financial services and chemicals and petrochemicals, that have installed a highly sophisticated less paper e-office rolled out by the department of administrative reforms and public grievances (DARPG). The e-office is likely to change the face of Indian bureaucracy by saving decision making time substantially and by curbing corruption through reduced human interaction.

The moment a director puts up a file, the joint secretary or the secretary gets an alert on his mobile phone as well as on his computer. He then logs into the e-office using a secure id and password and accesses the file through a pen drive that authenticates his digital signature, explained a person privy to the system rolled out by the DARPG with the help of NIC. All the files are stored at three different locations, making it impossible to lose them. The system also maintains a log of who all have seen and have downloaded files. Besides, it also tells the heads of departments and ministries how many files are pending with a particular officer at any point in time, a feature that may put pressure on officers to clear files as quickly as they can. Officials in the 12 departments that installed e-office carry a pen drive along with their ID cards. At the moment, it is possible to share files among offices at different locations that are under the same department. The plan is to eventually have the facility to send files from one ministry to another through e-office itself.

The files that went missing from the coal ministry were of 2004, two years before the e-office project took off. Ministry of coal is still not a part of e-office and follows its own file tracking module but officials say it is easy to integrate both, if it is decided so.