India’s Civil Service Needs to Reinvent Itself
TRANSCEND MEMBERS, 11 Feb 2019
“The perfect bureaucrat everywhere is the man who manages to make no decisions and escape all responsibility.”
— Brooks Atkinson
The Indian experience of the last six decades would appear to confirm that responsive bureaucratic administration almost a contradiction in terms,. The Indian Civil Service represents the crème de la crème of the country’s university graduates who form the backbone of the country’s administration. Today, there are about 5,000 IAS officers who comprise this privileged club. The civil service has a hallowed past and was originally conceived to be a cadre of the brightest minds and boldest ideals.
However, the way events have been unfolding, the civil service has been reduced to a lifetime of serving the most despicable lot of politicians ever to be found in the world. It means a career that will rub out your individuality, dull your intellect, stifle your creativity, foster de-motivation in you and corrupt your morals. You will enter a bright young person; but you may l retire as someone you yourself may not be able to recognise, barring of course, a few courageous exceptions. Many idealized youngsters begin their careers with loads of ambition and a stock of ideals. waiting to dazzle the world with brilliance, confident that the corner office is theirs to steer along .Most enter the profession fired up with noble dreams and a sense that the multiple injustices, discriminations, double-dealings and endemic corruption in their society can be alleviated. This conviction soon starts vaporising as the bureaucrat gives in to the commands of political masters to smoothly navigate the highly volatile adminstrativ3 minefield. The other major allurement is the new ambrosia granted to him by pelf, power and prestige.
The bureaucratic delivery mechanisms absorb a disproportionately high share of the earmarked expenditure: up to 85 paise in the rupee, said Rajiv Gandhi; perhaps 85 paise, says the Planning Commission in a recent evaluation. We can leave it to experts to argue how many angels can dance on the head of a pin; for our purposes, it is enough to note that 75% to 85% of expenditure on poverty alleviation schemes is absorbed by the delivery mechanism itself. No wonder outcomes are so derisory.
The IAS has its roots in the British India Civil Service, the ICS, which administered the country as a colonial possession from 1858 until 1947 .Lloyd George called it “the steel frame on which the whole structure of our government and of our administration in India rests”. When India attained independence, Sadder Pate decided to retain the cadre d4spite reservation from several of his colleagues. He very pithily articulated the future role of civil servants:
As Vallabhbhai Patel wrote to Jawaharlal Nehru on April 27, 1948: “I need hardly emphasise that an efficient, disciplined and contented service, assured of its prospect as a result of diligent and honest work, is a sine qua non of sound administration under a democratic regime even more than under an authoritarian rule. The service must be above party and we should ensure that political considerations, either in its recruitment or in its discipline and control, are reduced to the minimum, if not eliminated altogether.”
He was brutally frank. The civil service is necessary to hold the country together. “The union will go — you will not have a united India, if you have not a good all-India service which has the independence to speak out its mind, which has a sense of security that you will stand by your word and that after all there is the Parliament, of which we can be proud, where their rights and privileges are secure… If you do not adopt this course, then do not follow the present Constitution. Substitute something else… (W)hatever you like but not this Constitution. This Constitution is meant to be worked by a ring of service which will keep the country intact.”
A distinguished civil servant, B.K.Nehru, proposed an effective reform.“The powers of promotion, suspension and transfer, which are the powers now used to bend the civil servant to the minister’s will, must be exercised, not by the political executive, but by a group of senior civil servants themselves. As we are no respecters of any convention, this result will have to be achieved by law… This is the system that today prevails in the Indian defence services and is the main reason why they have still, unlike the other public services, retained their discipline and their efficiency.”
The Constitution-makers consciously adopted a “British type of Constitution”, as Patel declared in the Constituent Assembly on June 7, 1947.There the posting, transfer, and promotion of, and disciplinary action against, a civil servant is decided by the head of the civil service department, who also holds the post of Cabinet secretary, in consultation with senior permanent secretaries.
Britain’s Civil Service Code, 2006, says: “You must not act in a way that is determined by party political considerations, or use official resources for party political purposes.”
The Indian bureaucracy is both celebrated and reviled; the opinion changing its shades according to context. It has been called the ‘steel frame’ and also derided as ‘babudom’. It has disillusioned many but has earned qualified praise from several others. But the overwhelming agrees that it is no longer a ‘steel frame’ but a ‘creaking structure’.
It is in this backdrop that the government had decided to allow lateral entry into IAS. While it is true that those entering though this channel may face tough resistance from the IAS lobby which is highly possessive of its power club, the attempt is really worth trying .in the case of the IAS, once a candidate clears the exam he is assured of promotion throughout his career, irrespective of his performance. The only disincentive he may incur is a fringe posting. There is no mechanism for weeding out inefficiencies. Moreover, in view of the complexity of issues confronting the country, we need specialists as well as those from relevant sectors, so that we get diverse talent and varied perspectives in policy formulation implementation.
Even in the days of the ICS, officers could select a branch of governance after a period of service, such as the social sector or economics, so that they could specialize and perform better. That practice has since been abolished. The government had earlier tried this experiment by establishing the Industrial Management Pool (IMP) in 1959. The IMP envisaged hiring talent from private-sector to man high- and mid-level managerial posts. But the attempt failed .After just one hiring in 1959, the IMP came to a formal end in 1973.
There are several reasons for the dilution of excellence in the civil services which produced giants like K P S Menon, L K Jha, and P N Haksar is the poor encouragement the system provides for meritocracy. Vision is one thing, creativity is another. But what can you do when you are up against a calcified system, fickle-minded political leaders who change their opinions faster than they change their clothes and crude local interests who can make life miserable for an upright official. We must sympathise with those who suffer the taint and stigma of vigilance strictures and sometimes even dismissal from their service for a small slip in a career studded with professional achievements and sacrifices of their families. The IAS is hamstrung by political interference and outdated personnel procedures. The Government must adopt safeguards to promote accountability while protecting bureaucrats from political meddling.
The system has been paralysed with precedents, so every year we accrete new ones. The wheels hobble at a slow lugubrious pace. The British bequeathed us hierarchical machinery-but when it comes to hierarchical institutions, nobody can teach India anything. Today our bureaucracy is twenty times more bureaucratic, our snobberies more snobbish, our deference to the chain of command more cringing and decorous, our worship of paper more entrenched. To quote Hyman Rickover:” If you are going to sin, sin against God, not the bureaucracy. God will forgive you but the bureaucracy won’t “.
A bureaucracy that wastes its precious human potential is morally indefensible. This does not mean that there should be fewer oversight checks. An administration certainly needs “guardrails” in the form of non-negotiable rules. Without such rails, the system can stray badly; but requiring a dozen signatures where a few can do is a criminal surfeit of supervisory controls. Similarly, we have a colossal army of paper-pushing subordinates churning out work of frivolous value. Honest and competent civil servants—and there are several- need to initiate human capital reform to create a high-performing state that does fewer things but does them better. A bureaucracy must be an enabler and not a hinderer that clogs the decision making pipeline. British Prime Minister Theresa May has observed: “We’re getting rid of bureaucracy so that we’re releasing time for police officers to be crime fighters and not form writers”.
As most retired senior civil servants in India argue, there are three tenets underpinning the functioning of the civil service, which are permanence, neutrality, and anonymity. These tenets provide continuity and change that are important for a democracy so that we have a continuously evolving system of governance. While it is a challenge in modern democracy to live up to these values ,the autonomy and protection that the Constitution guarantees the civil servants is enough reason why they cannot be practiced .The civil services are certainly a tightrope walk and much depends on the sagacity and instincts of the role bearers themselves. As the well known retired civil servant, Najeeb Jung says, “A civil servant often finds himself or herself in unsolvable, peculiar, and unpredictable situations. He tackles them to the best of his or her ability, planning with care but often hitting in the dark some times; with luck he gets away, unscathed but sometime luck runs out”.
There are still horizons of hope. The system still has its stars which keep twinkling even in this looming darkness. Some may feel that their position is hopeless, that there is nothing they can do. The ‘system’ is too strong for them. Perhaps the best antidote to this despair is to study the examples and lives of those who have fought against the odds and succeeded. In every country, there are some courageous people who have refused to give in, who have stuck by their principles and whose lives shine as examples to others of what can be done. Few people outside the system realize the very personal cost, aside of incarcerations from the system and the police, the high cost of lawyers and the strain on the immediate family that follows the decision to risk it all in an act of conscience.
But there are always unexpected floods of support. Not all can expect recognition or to become folk-heroes. For most of those who put the last first, the satisfaction and rewards are not fame, but in knowing that they have done what was right and that things are, definitely better than they would have been. Their small deeds may not command attention; but in merit, they may equal or exceed the greater and more conspicuous actions of those with more freedom and power.
Jawaharlal Nehru once said the Indian Civil Service was “Neither Indian, nor Civil, nor a Service”. However, his Deputy Sardar Patel considered the civil service “the steel frame of Government machinery”. Both worked to create a model for civil servants that served India well when the primary task was nation-building. Now that it has shifted to public welfare we need bureaucrats with a new ethos, more attuned to performances on the ground, and not just policy designs.
Moin Qazi, PhD Economics, PhD English, is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment and a member of NITI Aayog’s National Committee on Financial Literacy and Inclusion for Women. He is the author of the bestselling book, Village Diary of a Heretic Banker. He has worked in the development finance sector for almost four decades in India and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 11 Feb 2019.
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