Explained: How chief ministers’ overseas travel is authorized and by whom

Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal asked why the Center had delayed permission for his trip to Singaporewhere he was invited to attend a World Cities Summit scheduled for July 31-August 3. “I don’t understand why I am being prevented from attending the World Cities Summit,” Kejriwal said on Monday.

In October 2019, the Center had not allowed him to attend another conference abroad, to which he finally responded by videoconference.

What authorization do chief ministers need to travel abroad?

They must inform the Cabinet Secretariat, which stated in a circular dated May 6, 2015: “The Cabinet Secretariat and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs must be kept informed of the planned visit abroad, official or private, of ministers in Head and Ministers of State/Union Territory Governments. However, prior political clearance and FCRA (Foreign Contribution Regulation Act) clearance are required. In the case of Chief Ministers and Ministers of State Governments, a copy of the request should also be sent to the Secretary of the Department of Economic Affairs (DEA).

What is political authorization?

This comes from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MEA). This is required not only for civil servants but any government official for overseas travel. The MEA receives hundreds of requests for political clearance every month from ministries, secretaries, bureaucrats and other civil servants.

The decision is made based on multiple factors such as the nature of the event, the level of participation from other countries, the type of invitation that has been issued, as well as India’s relationship with the host country.

Since 2016, electronic clearance applications can be submitted through the epolclearance.gov.in portal. These are processed and the authorization is issued after coordination between the different divisions of the ministry, which is done through a dedicated “coordinating division”. Sources indicate that the relevant ministry and the Department of Economic Affairs (DEA) will only accept a request if political clearance from the MEA is attached to the request. Without this authorization, no civil servant can go abroad.

How many times have requests for political authorization from CMs been refused?

On October 11, 2019, Kejriwal had to address a conference in Denmark via videoconference, as the Center refused permission to travel there. Under the previous UPA regime, the MEA had withheld political clearance for travel by then chief ministers Tarun Gogoi (Assam, Congress) to the United States and Israel, and Arjun Munda (Jharkhand, BJP ) in Thailand. Gogoi had wanted to go to New York for a “high-level meeting” on April 2, 2012; a memo from the ministry stated that “…direct correspondence of a diplomatic mission with a state government is inappropriate”. About its plans to travel to Israel for an event on water and environmental technologies, the ministry said: “Relevant agencies would find it difficult to give special attention to CM, Assam, both both substantive and protocol”.

Has the question of political authorization been discussed within the government?

When Narendra Modi was sworn in as Prime Minister, he held meetings with secretaries of several Union departments and solicited their suggestions. On June 14, 2014, then Civil Aviation Secretary Ashok Lavasa (who later resigned as Election Commissioner) wrote to Cabinet Secretary Ajit Seth that the MEA’s “delaying system” allowing all foreign travel proposals by officials should be amended. Seth forwarded the letter to the MEA; then Foreign Minister Sujatha Singh responded to him on August 13, 2014, stressing that it was the prerogative of the MEA to decide on the adequacy, timeliness and level of involvement of Indian officials commitments abroad. This practice continues.

Are other permissions required?

Different agents require different additional permissions. As mentioned earlier, chief ministers, ministers of state governments and other state officials must also obtain permission from the Department of Economic Affairs. For Union Ministers, after obtaining political clearance from the MEA, further clearance is required from the Prime Minister whether the trip is official or personal. Lok Sabha MPs must obtain permission from the President and Rajya Sabha members from the President (Vice President of India). For the agents of the various ministries up to the level of co-secretary, authorization is given by the minister concerned, after political authorization. For those above this rank, the proposal must be approved by a selection committee composed of secretaries.

The rules vary depending on the duration of the visit, the country to be visited and the number of members of a delegation. If overseas travel involves hospitality at organizations other than the UN, FCRA authorization is required from the Department of the Interior. Ministries often issue circulars that overseas travel requests should be submitted early and ministries do not accept such requests unless political clearance is attached.

For MPs, it is not compulsory to inform the Lok Sabha/Rajya Sabha secretariat if the trip is private. However, several MPs inform the Office of the Speaker (Lok Sabha) or Speaker (Rajya Sabha). For government employees, all overseas travel, official or personal, must be approved.

On May 9, 2019, the Union Expenditure Department issued a circular directing Ministries/Departments to: “ensure that the stipulated time period for the submission of the proposal for overseas visits requiring the approval of ScoS (selection committee of secretaries) and the Prime Minister is received 15 days before the departure date of the delegation but at the latest 5 days before the departure date”.

Do judges need authorization for travel abroad?

For official trips abroad, the proposal of a Supreme Court or High Court Justice is sent to the Ministry of Justice (DoJ) after obtaining clearance from the Chief Justice of India. The DoJ, after obtaining political clearance from the MEA and, in some cases, the Department of the Interior (where the FCRA is involved), issues the approval. MEA political clearance was required even for personal travel until February 11, 2010, when the DoJ decided to waive this requirement in the case of private visits.

On February 15, 2011, the DoJ issued new guidelines, including restrictions on the personal travel of senior judges. These guidelines were challenged in the Delhi High Court, which invalidated them on May 25, 2012. Thus, judges no longer need permission for personal trips abroad.

On July 13 last year, the Center released a memorandum from the office stating that “in such cases, where Notes Verbales of Visa Support are requested from the CPV Division, MEA by the Honorable Justices of the Supreme Court and Honorable Justices of the High Courts of India, prior policy clearance from the MEA must be submitted for intended private or official visits abroad.” But on April 1 this year, the Delhi High Court struck down the memorandum saying “it is unjustified, given the high office they (judges) hold”.

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