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The Civil Services - a tarnishing steel-frame !

Updated: Feb 1, 2021

Vallabhbhai Patel, the first home minister and the maker of modern India while emphasising upon the utility of continuing with the colonial-era Imperial civil services then rechristened as Indian administrative service, envisioned it to be the “steel-frame” of independent India. The endorsement assumes authenticity coming from the Iron-man of India himself.

Patel, while interacting with the first batch of IAS officers at Metcalfe House on 21st April 1947, stressed on treating the common men of India as their own, implying that the imperial tradition of staying aloof was to be done away with. Patel exhorted the values of “swarajya” or good governance, empathy and compassion. While doing so, he envisioned an integral role for civil servants to further this cause. India was perhaps blessed to have an up and running bureaucracy, while many other newly independent states struggled to put up an administrative framework.

The civil servants initially played a commendable role, from practically rescuing India from the horrors of partition, making India self-sufficient in food production to efficiently managing the commanding heights of the economy, they were very instrumental in putting India on the road to progress and development.

To paraphrase William Wordsworth, “If the spring is here, can winter be far behind ?”. Indian administration was in for a long winter, which eventually set-in in 1967. It was a time when Congress started losing many states to regional parties. The blame was put on the inefficiency of the administration to further the socialist goals of the congress government. The blame came from none other than the prime minister Indira Gandhi herself. Demands were now raised for a committed bureaucracy.

From here began the deterioration and decline of India bureaucracy. A culture of undue interference in the civil servants’ sphere of work began. This set in motion the perverse tradition of arbitrary postings, transfers and punishments. The civil servants who were too concerned to enhance their career graph and the politicians who wanted to achieve their partisan ends in a short period of time were too happy to look after each other. The public interest went for a toss. Herein lies the genesis of the politician-babu-criminal nexus.

Gradually with the opening up of the economy in the 1990s, there came additional actors in governance like private players, NGOs, civil society. To keep up its superiority the bureaucracy weaved a complex web of intricate procedures, complex laws and arbitrary discretion, known in the common parlance as “red-tape”.

It was only after the passage of Right to information act 2005, that there is some semblance of accountability of the bureaucracy. But even this law is more of an exception, it is easily eclipsed by the Official secrets act of 1923. Even the prevention of corruption act provides for seeking the permission of higher authorities of the same department to pursue any corruption charges against a civil servant. Thus, there is impunity for official excesses, with little or nominal transparency and accountability. It is a well-known fact that corruption thrives in dark places.

Another major issue with All India services is with respect to federalism. The members are selected and trained by the centre but work mostly under state-based cadres with deputations to centre. Further, the disciplinary authority too lies with the centre. However, it must be kept in mind the All India Services were deliberately designed as such to maintain an all India outlook and prevent parochial tendencies. This leaves states with little discretionary powers, at the maximum it can transfer an officer for her intransigence.

But, the frequency and intensity of these transfers are telling. Almost no officer completes a minimum tenure of 3 years (suggested by bureaucrats themselves) at one location. By the time a district collector understands all the dynamics of her district, she is shunted out. Now, she has to start afresh at another location, doing everything all over. Many officers like D.Roopa or Ashok Khemka have been transferred more than 50 times in less than 25 years of service.

Last but not the least, the civil servants are essentially generalists. They lack domain expertise. Instead, the focus has been on hands-on training in the field, which they are too sophisticated to undertake. At the time when industry 4.0 based on cyber-physical systems is knocking at our doors, we need administrators with sector-specific expertise.

It is not an overstatement to say that the civil servants are the “new despots”. Although it cannot be generalised, there are a few administrators who have done a remarkable job. But, fairly, squarely and unfortunately they represent only exceptions and not the norms. Perhaps it is time we dismantle this rusting steel frame- a colonial vestige and put in its place a more robust, resilient and responsible structure true to its time and needs.







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