The Central Board of Direct Taxes (CBDT), apex body for levy and collection of income tax, might soon be reduced to a two-member body, to manage the affairs of its 75,000-strong department.
A delay in filling vacancies, some over several months, is slowing decision-making and diminishing the promotion chances of officers. The seven-member Board is managing with only three officers, including Chairman K V Chowdary, who is himself to retire next month.
Two positions are also vacant in the six-member Central Board of Excise & Customs (CBEC). Another vacancy will arise next month upon the retirement of its head, J M Shanti Sundharam.
"Things have slowed. Though important files are being cleared on priority, several small issues have been put on the backburner," said an official in the revenue boards, asking not to be named.
The reasons for this delay in filling such high-level vacancies are unclear, with even department officials seemingly ignorant. A few who know term it a "top secret" matter that cannot be discussed till the file is cleared by the Prime Minister's Office (PMO). "Some procedural changes have been made. That's why there is a delay in the appointments," another senior finance ministry official told Business Standard, on condition of anonymity.
Though this official added the issue has been resolved and new members would be appointed soon, the first one said it might take some time since the PMO had not yet cleared it.
"Delay in appointments is affecting the morale of chief commissioners, who waited for their entire life to become a Member but might retire by the time a decision is taken or become eligible for the post, as a minimum of one year's residual service is required at the time of appointment," added this official.
Officials said the delay was also affecting the officers, as the head and members were working overtime to handle the additional portfolios they were handling.
The vacancies have not been filled since November 2013, when CBDT Member Parvinder Sohi Behuria left the department. In February 2014, Chairperson Sudha Sharma retired, followed by the superannuation of R K Tiwari and Deepa Krishnan, who were serving as the chairman and as a member, respectively. In the CBEC, members Lipika Majumdar Roy Choudhary and Shobha L Chary retired in April and May, respectively.
The problem apparently began last year when a committee of secretaries (CoS), headed by the cabinet secretary, suggested changing the criteria for selection of members. The weightage for certain selection parameters was proposed to be changed.
"Then Finance Minister P Chidambaram was not in agreement with the changes. The matter was again referred to the CoS and, ultimately, a middle path was agreed upon," said another official.
One key change was to form a panel for filling the vacancies as and when those emerged. Earlier, the government would make a panel for one year and make appointments from it. So, if the panel was made in March, when a bureaucrat still had over a year of service, but the vacancy cames up in August, he would become ineligible for selection as by then his retirement would be less than a year away.
It is learnt that after Finance Minister Arun Jaitley assumed office in May, the matter was again referred to him. Though Jaitley cleared the file after some initial delay, the matter is now beyond the finance ministry. Once the new criterion gets final approval, a panel will be formed to select eligible candidates and appoint new Members.