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Book Review

From behind the steel frame

Three recent books written by distinguished retired members of the “steel frame” have delved into various aspects of the evolution of the IAS and provided valuable insights. The authors have also provided suggestions for making IAS attuned to the changing times

book review

THE British East India Company came to this subcontinent to trade and provide lucrative returns to its shareholders in London. In the process, the company came to be known as “Company Bahadur”; it assumed the role of governance, ultimately making way for the establishment of the British Empire. The development and role of the Indian Civil Service (ICS) was one of the dominant features of the period of history dominated by the East India Company. The evolution of the ICS, which transformed into the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) post 1947, is an extraordinary saga: how people employed by a trading company in a foreign land transformed into the most powerful civil service in the world. ICS was the first civil service in the modern world where recruitment was on the basis of open competition and not through patronage.

Three recent books written by distinguished retired members of the “steel frame” have delved into various aspects of the evolution of the IAS and provided valuable insights. The authors have also provided suggestions for making IAS attuned to the changing times. At the same time, some of the recent aberrations have been openly commented upon and the need to provide an overriding role to the Union Public Service Commission in management of the service has been underscored.

Ravindra S Mathur’s Craft of Politics—Power and Patronage (Manas Publications); Anil Swarup’s Not Just a Civil Servant(Unicorn Books); and Deepak Gupta’s The Steel Frame—A History of the IAS (Roli Books) are recommended reading for those who are in the service as well as for those who aspire to be members of the IAS.

As a former chairman of UPSC, Deepak Gupta had pioneered the documentation of the history of the ICS and its successor IAS, and the insights he picked up in the process find space in his tome. Gupta has provided in the Appendices, inter alia, “The Governor General’s notes with respect to the foundation of a college at Fort William (Calcutta), July 10, 1800”; “Extract from letter written in November 1937 by CW Gwynne, chief secretary of UP, to District Magistrates regarding cordial relations with local Congress functionaries”; “Extract from letter written by WB Brett, chief Secretary Bihar, in December 1937 to field officers regarding not obeying oral orders from ministers”; “Extract from Jawaharlal Nehru’s letter to the Government of India in 1946 giving his views about the ICS”; and quoted extensively from Nehru’s views on the service, governance and administration dated May 1948 till May 1957. The appendices provide unadulterated source material on the evolution of the administrative service in India.

Gupta has dedicated his book to India’s first Home Minister, Deputy Premier Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. “As I went through the material and historical documents, it was inspiring to see the vision and determination of Sardar Patel who was almost single-handedly responsible for the setting up of the all-India services in independent India. He believed strongly that ‘you will not have a united India, if you do not have a good all-India service which has the independence to speak out its mind’. His ideas about the role of the IAS , how the political executive should deal with it and the obligations and responsibilities of the civil servants are more relevant today than ever before,” he writes.

The book traces the transformation of the ICS to IAS; draws from the author’s own experience to define the role of a district officer, examines the scheme of examination for selection to the IAS and the training of the officers and calls for reinventing the IAS.

Gupta advocates further strengthening the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC). He wants UPSC’s role to encompass the promotion/ empanelment of all-India service officers and even making panels for names of officers to be considered for posting as DG Police, as ordered by the Supreme Court, and for state chief secretaries too. “A strong UPSC only strengthens the foundations of democracy and good governance,” he emphasizes.

The fly cover of Anil Swarup’s book describes him as “a civil servant who survived despite being politically incorrect”. The book chronicles his career in the IAS spanning 38 years—tackling myriad issues that ranged from dealing with corruption in Uttar Pradesh to coal mafias, witnessing the aftermath of the Babri demolition in December 1992, and handling the department of education at the centre and realising that mafias exist not only in coal mines but in the hallowed precincts of education as well.

Swarup, who had held the post of Union Coal Secretary before dealing with school education as Secretary in the HRD ministry, said during the launch of his book that civil servants need not fear transfers for being upright and once they rid themselves of the fear, politicians cannot harm them.

“For a civil servant, transfer is like death. It is inevitable. What is there to be worried about? Like in Hindu philosophy, you are born again. What is the problem? If you can develop this attitude, there is nothing like it. He (the politician) will transfer me? Let him transfer me. Then gradually politicians start realising they cannot harm the bureaucrat beyond a point. He (politician), in fact, cannot do much. That is how I survived,” Swarup said at Calcutta’s high brow Bengal Club, a vestige of the original ICS culture, while launching his book.

“My experience suggests a corrupt politician finds it difficult to break a civil servant who does not fear transfers,” Swarup reiterated. He, however, said that it is wrong to blame only politicians for the mess in the system—“at times civil servants contribute to the malfunctioning of the system and they need to introspect,” he said. “We civil servants do not have control over politicians, but we certainly do have control over ourselves. We must introspect”.

DWELLING on his stint as Union School Education Secretary, he said the budgetary allocation in school education had bothered him. “No government wants to spend enough on education as this does not fetch them immediate electoral gains,” Swarup, who worked in HRD from 2016-18, said.

Having worked as Secretary to Chief Minister under two leaders and as Chief Secretary, Uttar Pradesh, with another two chief ministers, Ravindra S Mathur provides rare insights laced with tongue-in-cheek humour in his book which is useful source material for the political class, policy-makers, administrators and students of public administration.

Power, patronage and privilege have been amongst the defining traits of the governance system and polity since Independence, says Mathur, and provides a peep into the interplay of different players in the process, structures and institutions of governance as seen by him in his 37 years as a key official in Lucknow and in New Delhi.

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