INDIA is commemorating the silver jubilee of the Liberalisation-Privatisation-Globalisation (LPG) reforms that commenced in July of 1991. On this occasion, the most telling comment comes from Deepak Nayyar, former Chief Economic Advisor and Delhi University Vice-chancellor: “At this juncture, 25 years later, it must be stressed that reforms are means, not ends. The essential objective is the well-being of our people. In this quest, markets and governments are complements, not substitutes. There are many things that only markets can and should do. However, there are some things that only governments can and must do. If governments perform these tasks badly, it is not possible to dispense with governments and replace them with markets. Governments must be made to perform better. Indeed, efficient markets need effective governments.” (The Hindu, July 25, 2006)
These governments at the central, state and district levels are run by civil servants mostly belonging to the IAS and not politicians, armed forces or foreign service mandarins. Therefore, it is absurd for worthies like former Army Deputy Chief, Lt Gen Satish Nambiar, an hired-hand for the Sri Lankan Army in its genocide of Tamils, to suggest that IAS is “one service which is dispensable. While the armed forces, foreign service and many others are absolutely necessary for nation-building, this (IAS) is one without which the country would certainly not come to a standstill.” Such naivety only reflects the level of ignorance of his ilk about India and
Governments are not effective because the political system, upper echelons of armed forces and civil service are decaying fast. Writing with reference to the IAS in the March 2011 issue of gfiles I had raised a poser whether there is hope for the 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 is clear and the choice was obvious—resurgence or swansong!
Five years down the line, with a new government in the saddle ‘committed’ to “minimum government, maximum governance”, it appears to be a swansong and not resurgence. Because, despite the cacophony of slogans and noises, reforms have not touched civil services and basic governance. In the last two years or so, only two things seem to have happened—the strange apparition of IAS probationers starting their field training from the top (Assistant Secretaries to the Government of India at Delhi instead of Assistant Commissioner/Collector in a far-off district) and removing IAS Joint Secretaries from the central government, replacing them with personnel from other services. As on date, 30 per cent of Joint Secretaries and equivalent officials in central government are from services outside the IAS. Another disturbing information is that over 50 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. Bleeding of this service has commenced.
As if on cue, there is 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 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 former is reported to have gone a step further and stated that the main cause of the resentment among the services is that over a period of time the IAS has arrogated itself to all power of governance. Other services, such as the IPS, are simply left out of many senior positions, including those that clearly fall within their domain expertise.
Justice Mathur has a point, but the moot question is: post-LPG Reforms, what is the needed ‘domain expertise’ for those who run the government? Is it that of efficient markets which at best serves the corporates and a small percentage of the population who have the money to spend? Or, is it basic and honest governance delivered through effective and just governments that could uplift the miserable millions. If it is the former, the IAS is certainly dispensable. Not so, if it is the latter.
And the question again is whether the IAS is providing the basic governance as described above. That is where the rationale of the service established by the founding fathers of the Republic comes into play. When India became independent, Sardar Vallabhai Patel forcefully argued for retaining the administrative edifice fashioned by the British. He probably had in mind the prophetic words of India’s first Governor General CR Rajagopalachari in 1922 when he was a freedom fighter: “Elections and corruption, injustice and the power and tyranny of wealth and inefficiency of administration will make hell of life as soon as freedom is given to us”.
IN April 1948, Sardar Patel wrote to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru 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 the Assembly in October 1949, the Sardar said: “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—if you do not adopt this course, then do not follow the present system, substitute something else.”
Sardar Patel had his way and the IAS was established to “give a fair and just administration to the country and manage it on an even keel”. To ensure this and safeguard the civil servants from the “vicissitudes of political convulsions”, the service was covenanted in the Constitution. The expectation was that the liberal educational background and sharp intellect of the IAS entrants, valuable grassroots experience they gain, their wide contacts with the public and political leadership right from the stage of their first posting, and their variegated exposure in different assignments will be a boon for people-centered policy making, conceiving and designing development-cum-welfare projects/ programmes and their honest and expeditious implementation.
SEVEN decades past, the rationale of the Founding Fathers in establishing the Service stands severely eroded. Rea-sons are manifold: large annual intake touching nearly 200; wild age-relaxation; tech-education replacing liberal education; personality test losing primacy; vagaries of valua-tions of answer papers in different languages; sub-optimal calibre of Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) members, affecting their evaluation skills; skullduggery in nominating State officers to the IAS; absence of critical exposure of probationers in the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration (LBSNAA); lack of rigour in training imparted to new appointees; abdication of leadership and enforcement of strict performance criteria by seniors; indifferent cadre management by the Department of Personnel & Training (DoPT); and, the abysmal standards of education itself. There are quite a few who openly say that they have joined the IAS to make money by fair means or foul. The arrest of a freshly appointed IAS Sub Divisional Magistrate in Bihar for taking bribes to allow overloaded vehicles is a case in point.
India conscientiously adopted the permanent civil service system. But, over a period of time, it has descended into a spoils system, imbibing the worst of both. In the event, despite constitutional protection, civil servants have abdicated their independence and political neutrality and have become willing pawns in the hands of ruling politicians. Many of them have compromised and some have become their joint venture partners to enjoy prized postings while in service, grab coveted post-retirement sinecures, acquire properties and set-up benami outfits to run business and corner lucrative contracts. Serving corrupt carpetbaggers has become their mantra, let the aam aadmi be damned.
Irony is that the IAS is the product of the Founding Father’s ‘Idea of India’. The ‘political idea’ of democracy forms part of the ‘Objectives Resolution’ moved in the Constituent Assembly by Jawaharlal Nehru in 1948: “All power and authority of the Sovereign Independent India, its constituent parts and organs of government are derived from the people.” Structurally, India’s democracy was to rise storey by storey from the foundation, consisting of self-governing, self-sufficient, agro-industrial, urbo-rural local communities—gram sabha, panchayat samiti and zilla parishad—that would form the base of Vidhan Sabhas and the Lok Sabha. These politico-economic institutions will control and regulate the use of natural resources for the good of the community and the nation.
Built on this foundation, the ‘economic idea’ of development envisages independent India as sui generis, a society unlike any other, in a class of its own that would not follow the western pattern of mega industrialisation, urbanisation and individuation. India’s would be agro-based people’s economy that would chart out a distinct course in economic growth, which would be need-based, human-scaled and balanced while conserving nature and livelihoods. Such a ‘development’ process would be democratic and decentralised.
It is from this ‘Idea of India’ that the governance framework for the nation emerged. IAS is the bulwark of this framework. Adhering to and advancing the ‘Idea of India’, therefore, is the raison d’être of the IAS, covenanted in the Constitution, a rarity among nations. In this mission, the IAS has been increasingly failing and is now facing an existential crisis. Removing it is not the option, but the service requires thorough reforming.
THE cry of the nation today is for forward looking proactive governance that can pull the nation out of the rot of corruption and communalism that is ravaging its polity and destroying its edifice. For this, the static and sterile IAS that is administering the country should transform itself into a vibrant, dynamic management cadre. The core principle of IAS reform, therefore, is to bring about this transformation so that the unimaginative, subservient and egocentric civil servant can become an imaginative, assertive and result-oriented manager. To make this happen, IAS reformers should become iconoclastic and demolish pet theories, myths and mindsets that are not in consonance with democratic governance and a modern proactive civil service.
What can the government do to become more efficient and performance oriented? It must declare a human capital crisis that merits immediate action among legislators and executives alike. The crisis cannot be solved with the current inventory of government recruitment and training programmes, which were designed for an age bygone.
For some years now, through voluntary retirement schemes, the government has made it easy for the most talented employees to leave at a certain point, but has done virtually nothing to create entry points for mid-career candidates. If any, ‘inbreeding’ and inward-looking mindsets have taken a stronger grip over government functioning in recent years. This is one of the serious flaws of the civil service system in the country today.
For reforming a system or institution, you need catalysts with close synergy. Ordinarily, the triumvirate that has synergy—with the IAS-UPSC that recruits, LBSNAA that trains and DoPT that appoints—should have been the choice. But they are unequal to the task of being iconoclasts and we need to look elsewhere, but not to the ivy-league foreign universities or aid agencies that have no knowledge of India’s roots and ethos.
Who should take the lead? Obviously the PMO that has coined the slogans—‘minimum government, maximum governance’ and ‘sab ke saath, sab ka vikas.’ Will it take the plunge or confine itself to mere tinkering as India’s elite civil service continues to decay and degenerate? The jury is out!
The writer is a former Army and IAS officer. Email: email@example.com