INDIA’S essential feature of democratic set-up includes a permanent bureaucracy which has come to be known as the Steel Frame. This Steel Frame is essentially a colonial bureaucratic set up of Imperial Civil Service (ICS), later renamed as Indian Administrative Service. The elite group of bureaucracy that was ICS transformed into the Indian Administrative Service with a change in mandate aimed at development of the nascent nation. Later, the continuity of permanent bureaucracy helped the democratically elected political governments in continuing the development agenda and taking the struggling nation to self-reliance and self-sustenance in many fields. The role of the permanent bureaucracy was so critical that in States where political governments changed quickly within five years, it enabled continuity in the development agenda and ensured rule of law. Yet the IAS changed with changing times…
The initial changes happened during the Nehruvian era when the colonial bureaucracy turned into a development bureaucracy. Then came the greatest change—the diminishing of the powers of the collector, for which, in a way, he himself was responsible, following the abolishment of land revenue during the Indira Gandhi era. The further abolition of zamindari and land ceiling were policies implemented by the IAS which actually broke the colonial mindset about the Collector among people. The IAS were the first to show the bigwigs of the land their place in the democratic setup of India. The Steel Frame was established. The IAS had a unique framework, starting from the quasi-judicial role of BDO tehsildaar on land matters to magisterial role as Sub-Divisional and District Magistrates. The wealth of the rich experience so gathered was unparalleled.
The IAS also gained experience of reality at the grassroots—experience of democracy from village panchayat secretary to village headman and the basic aspirations of rural India and growing urban India. The IAS saw democratic leadership evolving from its roots—the leadership that influences elections, democratic issues that shape political parties and working pattern of a political party. The IAS is the only service which conducts elections and observes them. The Steel Frame thus enabled sustenance of electoral systems, understanding of political systems and democratic leadership and democracy itself. IAS, thus, are at ease while interacting with political leaders at the grassroots—the MLAs, the MPs the State ministers—and later, when they move to the central government, with Parliament members and Union ministers. The Steel Frame is also the backbone of any Prime Minister and Chief Minister.
The most amazing story of the Steel Frame was the demolition of inspector raj during the days of liberalisation. The IAS cut down on its own powers by doing away with the policy and bureaucratic network that had became a hindrance to liberalised growth, enabling India to enter into the liberalised and globalised world.
SUCH was the Steel Frame before May 2014. Things changed after this. As soon as the new government took reins, the bureaucracy was reshuffled. And, the IAS was the only service to bear the reversal. Normally, the IAS, as a service, is immune to political transfers in the State and it stands up to the rule of law mostly by not acceding to political diktats that are opposed to Constitution and its tenets. The major blow to the IAS came not because of reshuffle of Secretaries, Additional Secretaries and Joint Secretaries in various ministries. It came with massive repatriation of officers back to their cadres. The system that had been developed and fine-tuned since Independence was shattered.
On whim, IAS officers posted with the Government of India were sent back. This came as a jolt since repatriation is a sort of punishment for any officer. This became a norm after May 2014. To cite two examples, an IAS Joint Secretary in Shastri Bhawan was repatriated after a complaint of sexual harassment, without enquiry. An enquiry later proved that the complaint was false. But the damage was done to the officer, who was virtually debarred for next five years. Similarly, an IAS Joint Secretary in a powerful authority of the Urban Development Ministry was sent back to his cadre for standing up to land sharks. The officer was the only one of the repatriated officers to appeal in CAT, but got no relief. In all, 60 officers were repatriated. This had a major impact on IAS, not because the insincere were repatriated but because the repatriation was on flimsy and ridiculous grounds.
The tenure system in the Government of India gives stability during postings and helps in specialisation of IAS at secretariat level. The present uncertainty has made brilliant officers, who wanted to serve the Government of India, pull back and DoPT ended up with few or no IAS officers to serve at the Centre. This made the Government of India to pull in central services, which have no experience or idea of the departments they were posted as Joint Secretaries. Every third officer as Joint Secretary in 305 Joint Secretary posts in the core ministries is not an IAS, but belonging to central services. Among all the 398 Joint Secretaries and equivalent posts, IAS officers comprise only 60 per cent. This has started impacting the performance of the new government. Men with little idea about policy and no field experience were asked to serve, placing further stress on Secretaries.
THE Steel Frame, which was already reeling under the pressure of RTI, CVC, courts, CBI and CAG and with no support for the honest and upright officers under law, has started melting. The lack of understanding of how the Government of India works has made the new government of 2014 reshuffle IAS like pack of cards every month.
The Steel Frame that withstood knocks under every regime in the Government of India and States, has now stated to wilt under the onslaught of the current regime at the Centre. Instead of protecting officers with integrity, regular updates of AIS service rules are making them vulnerable. When the Steel Frame melts, it could only be hoped that it does not impact democracy and federalism, both of which are currently under severe stress.