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Cover Story : Is IAS self-destructing?

Without analysing and understanding the reasons for the shortage of IAS officers, which is mainly due to the archaic recruitment system and chaotic cadre management, PMO has opted to abandon the constitutional scheme of things and run to the market


WRITING in the March 2011 issue of gfiles I had raised a poser whether there is hope for civil services to survive and had responded thus: “Yes, if civil servants revert back to the constitutional scheme of things from which they have drifted and reinvent themselves to become a fearless, independent, honest and efficient entity bound by an esprit de corps which is awfully absent now…” The message and the choice were obvious—resurgence or swansong! This message has gone unheeded and all indications are that elite IAS is heading towards self-destruction.

Niti Aayog, His Majesty’s Think Tank, without much knowledge of India and its governance system, wants to hasten this process. The Aayog has virtually become a corporate consultant urging the privatisation of all infrastructure and services, raising a serious public finance issue as to where the ‘vastly enhanced’ revenue coming to the government due to expanded tax base and compliance through demonetisation, Aadhaar linkage, GST and IT raids would go! Now they want to privatise the IAS, which is the most potent instrument of democratic governance covenanted in the Constitution by the Founding Fathers of India’s Republic (Article 312).

Recently this Aayog recommended to the Government of India to employ persons from the private sector at all levels of the government—including Secretary and Joint Secretary. Accordingly, instructions have gone from the Prime Minister’s Office to the Department of Personnel & Training to prepare a broad outline of modalities for selecting private individuals for appointment in the ranks of Deputy Secretary, Director and Joint Secretary.

Numbers are being put out to justify this serious move of ‘lateral entry’ into the IAS. According to recent statistics given to Parliament, there are 4,926 IAS officers as against their total authorised strength of 6,396, leaving a shortage of over 1,400. The government has increased annual intake of IAS officers to 180 during the last four years. Without analysing and understanding the reasons for this shortage, which is mainly due to the archaic recruitment system and chaotic cadre management, PMO has opted to abandon the constitutional scheme of things and run to the market!

What is the constitutional scheme of things? Responding to the grave crisis created by partition and post-British administrative vacuum, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel wrote to Prime Minister Nehru in April 1948 advocating the formation of independent civil service in the functioning of which “political considerations, either in its recruitment or in its discipline and control, are reduced to the minimum, if not eliminated altogether.” This was strongly opposed by the Chief Ministers of the States and many members of the Constituent Assembly. In his speech to this Assembly in October 1949, the Sardar thundered: “The Indian Union will go. You will not have a united India if you do not have a good All India Services which has independence to speak out its advice….” Sardar Patel had his way and IAS was established to be the bulwark of post-independence governance.

union-public-service-commissionIn fact, the Constituent Assembly resolved to establish IAS for “attracting to the highest service the best material available in the country transgressing political boundaries”. If the public perception that came out of two surveys held in 2010 is to be believed, this “highest service” is now sub-serving lowest political interests rather than performing public service for which they were recruited and covenanted. Survey results clearly indicated an administrative collapse leading to appalling corruption and compromise. This is just the opposite of what the Founding Fathers had envisaged.

Self-destruction of IAS started during Emergency when bulk of civil servants chose to crawl when asked to bend by the minions who desecrated the Constitution and democratic governance enshrined therein. On the morning after the nocturnal declaration of Emergency on June 25-26 night, 1975, IAS bureaucrats of the Union Home Ministry ran like headless chickens issuing panic-ridden directions and drafting draconian laws/rules to bring India under autocracy instead of questioning the death of democracy and the destructive role played by an extra-constitutional power-centre. District magistrates signed detention orders under MISA in bulk without applying their mind, ushering in a police raj. Soon thereafter, police commissioners became district magistrates themselves and the self-destruction of IAS got apace.

Since then it has been downslide with senior IAS officers pandering to every wish of the political masters. I have known Chief Secretaries and Principal Secretaries in States seeking the ‘mind of the Chief Minister’ on decisions to be made before writing their notes. Appointments to coveted positions depended on IAS officers’ capacity to ‘read the mind’ properly and not based on performance, merit or independent thinking. This disease then spread to the Centre.

Self-destruction of IAS started during Emergency when bulk of civil servants chose to crawl when asked to bend by the minions who desecrated the Constitution and democratic governance enshrined therein

LIBERALISATION, globalisation, privatisation (LPG) reforms in the early nineties brought in a further slide in the IAS. The FDI-GDP model of development exhorted civil servants thus: “Investors are coming with lots of money. Our main job is to receive and facilitate them”. In the event, ‘pandering’ the amir aadmi coming with moneybags became a higher priority for an IAS official than basic governance of serving the aam aadmi to lead a dignified life. These conflicting agendas have led to the IAS acquiring a split face. As a result, an administrative instrument conceived, designed and structured as permanent civil service has virtually descended into ‘spoils system’, absorbing the negative aspects of both—corrupt gets the best and cannot be fired!

Lateral entry is the product of spoils system. Before we dwell into its spread in India let us look at USA, the home of this system in governance. Because of the privilege of a directly elected President to form his own team to run the government, he has the right to choose his top bureaucrats from anywhere, along with their confidential assistants, without any competitive procedures. But there are limits and checks and balances in which the career civil servants predominate and are safeguarded from arbitrary dismissals and adverse actions from political appointees. In fact, political appointees cannot, willy-nilly, occupy positions traditionally served by career federal employees. There are 1,212 senior leaders chosen by the President, including cabinet secretaries and their deputies, heads of most independent agencies and ambassadors, who must be confirmed by the Senate. A ‘Schedule C’ is a type of political appointment in the US who serves in confidential or policy roles immediately subordinate to other appointees. As of 2016, there were 1,403 ‘Schedule C’ appointees. This category does not need Senate confirmation.

THE agency responsible for monitoring and implementing the civil service system is the Office of Personnel Management, America’s version of our Union Public Service Commission (UPSC). As US government expert and analyst David Cohen puts it: “While the political appointees at the top cannot be blamed for all the ills of the federal government, they are a large part of the problem. They make the job of the career civil servant harder, draining his energy and dampening his creativity and initiative. They comprise whole layers of unnecessary bureaucracy and impede communications and work flow. They often have fish other than their management duties to fry, and some of those fish have a bad smell. They also cost a lot of money.”

This sum up the spoils system in USA and the shenanigans of Trump presidency bears testimony! Apprehension about lateral entry in India is that such appointments will not be made by merit. Currently IAS officers are selected through a fiercely competitive and largely fair examination conducted by the UPSC. In the Indian context, lateral appointments will be made at the wishes of the political masters and their corporate sponsors and will mostly induct loyalists, hampering the neutrality of the civil services. It will lead to exponential growth of favouritism and nepotism.

Yet this option is being pushed with vigour. Though groundwork has been going on for quite some time, the real ‘privatisation of IAS’ agenda gathered steam in the last three years. First thing that happened was the strange apparition of IAS probationers starting their training from the top as Assistant Secretaries to the Government of India at Delhi instead of at the bottom as Assistant Commissioner/Collector in a far-off district, giving a clear signal that desk work is more important than field exposure. This is significant because the USP of IAS is the valuable village/grassroots experience they gain, their wide contacts with the public and political leadership right from the stage of their first posting in the block/tehsil/district, and their variegated exposure in different assignments which are boon for people-centered policy making, conceiving and designing development-cum-welfare projects/programmes and their effective and expeditious implementation. This was sought to be neutralised.

Then came the steep reduction of the role of IAS at the decision-making level of Joint Secretaries in Central Government departments and replacing them with personnel from other services who have no grassroots experience or exposure. For the first time, over 30 per cent of Joint Secretaries in central government are from services outside IAS. It is getting worse as would be seen from the recent appointment of Joint Secretaries. Out of 21 officers only seven (one-third) are from the IAS and the rest are from Indian Foreign Service (IFS), Indian Revenue Service (IRS) and other Central Services. Another disturbing trend is that several IAS Joint Secretaries have sought and obtained pre-mature repatriation to their respective State cadres and very few empanelled IAS officers are seeking deputation to the Centre.

Equally disturbing is the empanelment of Secretaries wherein even the limited practices and conventions evolved over a period of time to reduce arbitrariness was thrown to the wind and there was complete overhaul of the way assessments were made. This led to almost 35 per cent of the officers who were due to be empanelled being left out for no rhyme or reason. The new process was supposed to be merit-based with the confidential report (CR) dossier being loaded with diverse inputs drawn from a variety of sources. No one knows what these inputs were. There are no explanations as to why some people have been left out or what criteria have been followed, what kind of inputs were obtained to make the assessment or where they were obtained from. There was also no redress for an officer who felt unfairly treated. Introducing such uncertainty in career advancement at the end of a career is not just inexplicable, it is whimsical and arbitrary.

All these seem to be part of an orchestrated move to ease-out the IAS from the central government and bring in ‘experts with domain knowledge’. In their support, proponents of this move are quoting the observations of the Chairman of the Seventh Pay Commission, Justice AK Mathur, and its Member, Dr Rathin Roy: “Senior management and administrative positions in government have evolved considerably and are growing more technical, requiring specific domain knowledge.”

The Niti Aayog has virtually become a corporate consultant urging the privatisation of all infrastructure and services, raising a serious public finance issue as to where the ‘vastly enhanced’ revenue coming to the government due to expanded tax base and compliance through demonetisation, Aadhaar linkage, GST and IT raids would go!

But they need to answer one moot question—In the Indian context what is the needed ‘domain expertise’ for those who run the government? Is it corporate-pandering and pushing predatory ‘development’ models thrust by rich ‘movers and shakers’? Or, is it basic governance delivered through effective and just governments that could uplift the miserable millions and keep the country united? If it is the former, the IAS is certainly dispensable. Not so, if it is the latter.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi takes great pride in building The Statue of Unity for the indefatigable Sardar Patel located in his home State of Gujarat. At 182 metres, it would be world’s tallest statue bearing testimony to the stellar role played by the ‘Iron Man of India’ in uniting and holding together a diverse and disparate India soon after Independence. IAS was the instrument he created to unite the country and hold it united. Dismembering this service would be a negation of all that the Sardar stood for and could be detrimental to the country’s future.

WHY blame the three-year old Prime Minister and his ‘corporate’ advisors for attempting to dismember the IAS? For long, many incumbents of this service—past and present—have been self-destructing IAS from within by willingly playing to every masters’ tune. The once tall and stately oak tree, which withstood storms and will break but not bend, has at many places become riverside reed that bows to every wind that blows by!

‘Insights IAS’, a website devoted exclusively to UPSC and civil service matters, has this to say: “Largescale lateral induction would, in fact, amount to a vote of no-confidence in the government personnel management system, rather than in the highly dedicated, motivated and talented officers who have chosen to join the civil services…. Lateral entry cannot be a panacea for everything. It has been an exception in the Indian civil service system and should continue to be so”.

Indeed true. IAS is permanent civil service and not spoils system and must remain so. It should also behave and perform so. For this the service must go through fundamental and holistic reconfiguring to transform itself into a vibrant, transparent management cadre so that the unimaginative, acquiescing and egocentric civil servant can become an imaginative, unacquiescing and result-oriented manager.

What is more, IAS mandarins should get out of the idiosyncratic and inbreeding mindset that is atrophying the service. Only this can halt the self-destruction of IAS. The sooner the better!

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