Archive for November, 2015

IAS at the crossroads

The Indian Administrative Service (IAS), that inheritor of the mantle of the Indian Civil Service (ICS), has reached a decisive point in its almost seven decade existence. There has been a growing groundswell in the police and central services (referred to hereafter, for the sake of brevity, as the “other services”) for parity in pay and promotion prospects vis a vis the IAS. While reliable data is not available, recent trends seem to indicate a growing tendency to appoint more non-IAS officers as Joint Secretaries, Deputy Secretaries, etc. The clamour for pay parity grows as the date for the report of the Seventh Central Pay Commission draws near. With the central government acting on the “one rank one pension” (OROP) demand of the military forces with unusual alacrity, it should cause no surprise if the demand of the other services for equality in pay with the IAS does not strike a sympathetic chord with the government of the day. Once this becomes a reality, the hitherto enjoyed predominance of the IAS in postings in the central government would come to an end.

A lot of water has, indeed, flowed under the bridge since Sardar Patel’s decision to constitute the All India Services (the IAS and the IPS) as successor services to the ICS and the Imperial Police. These two services were to serve as the administrative link between the Union and the States in a fledgling democracy. The Central Services (Income Tax, Customs & Central Excise, Railway Traffic & Railway Accounts, Audits & Accounts, etc.) were intended to perform specialized functions like direct and indirect tax collections, audit of government accounts and a host of other activities linked to government monopoly over the economic and infrastructure sectors. However, over time, the need to provide promotion opportunities to members of the central services saw a proportion of posts in the Central Secretariat being filled in by officers of these services; this was in addition to the posts in their respective service organisations which were reserved only for officers of these services.

The original rationale for having a two-way flow of IAS officers (for specific time periods) from the states to the centre, and vice versa, was to draw on the expertise and knowledge acquired by them in the state so that policy formulation at the central level would benefit from an understanding of the situation at the ground level. With the exception of areas which are the exclusive preserve of the central government, this reasoning still holds good today. It still makes sense to post an officer in the Ministry of Women & Child Development who understands how an anganwadi works or a Joint Secretary in the Ministry of School Education who has observed the functioning (or otherwise) of a village school.

The problem with the IAS has arisen with the increasing need for domain expertise and the failure of the IAS as a service to meet this need of the times. Shifting between different departments, often with short tenures, and not having the opportunity (or the compulsion) to specialize in a particular field, the IAS officer is in a situation where her sister-officer from the other services can claim, with some justification, that the IAS officer brings no specific domain expertise to the job; ergo, anyone can be appointed to do that job. The issue gets compounded further because of the failure of many IAS officers to act as change agents in the positions they occupy. Procedures, rather than outcomes, rule their thinking: aligning government systems with the latest technology and promoting more responsive and efficient governance are neither their priority nor the touchstone on which their worth to the organisation is assessed. A fair share of the blame for this state of affairs goes to the highest echelons of the bureaucracy, which have neither pushed for the acquisition of specialized knowledge by officers nor put in place mechanisms to ensure an officer spends adequate time in a particular post to assess her contribution fairly and honestly. In fact, the “transfer” disease has now spread from the states to the centre. Secretaries, Additional Secretaries and Joint Secretaries at the centre, who used to enjoy uninterrupted tenures in one post, are now shuffled around at frequent intervals, hardly a recipe for acquiring knowledge about a particular job.

Another phenomenon which has pushed the IAS on the back foot is the tendency to allow almost every officer to rise to the very top of the service (at least in terms of pay scales), especially in the states. What this implies is that even officers not found suitable for occupying positions of Joint Secretary and above in the central government invariably move up the hierarchy and occupy posts in state governments carrying salaries equal to those paid to Secretaries of the Government of India (most officers in the Indian Police Service also benefit from this largesse when they remain in the states). Not surprisingly, this leads to howls of protests from members of other services, who are not similarly favoured. A lot of the recent fireworks over OROP arose from the grievance of the military that those among them who did not make the cut had to retire much earlier, depriving them not only of their pre-retirement benefits but also entitling them to lower pensions, since they retired at lower levels of the military cadre.

As the service which has generally been considered primus inter pares and is expected to set the standard for all other services, the IAS has certainly been found wanting. But let me place the matter in perspective by stating that the other services (All-India and Central) suffer from the same deficiencies as the IAS, namely, lack of professionalism and absence of domain expertise. The problem lies not in a particular service, but in the structure of governance we have given ourselves over the past seven decades. My colleagues in all the services would be well advised to introspect on whether they have taken to heart John F. Kennedy’s words in his inaugural presidential address in 1961: “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” From my side, I offer some suggestions, which have also been outlined in two earlier blogs ( Why blame the IAS alone? ) and ( Reconstructing the bureaucracy ).

Trimming the bureaucracy should be the first priority of government. This will not only enable expenditure control but will improve efficiency. Governments everywhere, but especially in India, suffer from the operation of Peter’s Principle (“Everyone in an organization keeps on getting promoted until they reach their level of incompetence”) and Parkinson’s Law (“work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”). To this, I would add one more principle/law: “Staff expands to create work for its expansion” (dare I immodestly claim the name Ramani’s law for it?). More staff leads to more paperwork and more levels of processing of decisions. Staff creation proposals tend to exhibit the “middle age spread” syndrome — heavy towards the lower parts of the body. If you don’t believe me, see any request for new staff; there is always a preponderance of clerks and peons rather than of knowledge workers.

Moving completely to a system of contractual appointments at all levels of government will enforce accountability. The process should be started immediately using the carrot of the Seventh Central Pay Commission recommendations, which are rumoured to be fairly generous. It will also enable the appointment of persons with knowledge in specific fields to run departments and organisations. If Justin Trudeau can stock his Canadian Cabinet of Ministers with experts, India should try to do the same at least in its bureaucracy, for a start. Not only can deadwood in government be effortlessly weeded away, we can hopefully call an end to the current battles between “generalists” and “specialists” and between the IAS and other services.

Moving policy and decision making down the governance ladder to local governments will promote more enthusiastic citizen participation, improve administrative responsiveness and enable shedding of administrative flab in central and state governments. Implementation diktats from Delhi and state capitals have destroyed local initiative and have often starved local governments of sorely needed funds. It is time, more than twenty years after the passage of the 73rd and 74th amendments to the Constitution of India, to pay more than token obeisance to these legislations and to move further down the road of empowering local elected representatives of the people.

The IAS can reinvent itself and lend a new dimension to efforts to restructure the civil services if the top levels of the bureaucracy, still largely manned by the service, move to implement the suggestions given above. That all senior government services, including the IAS, require thorough overhauling is no longer in doubt. Individuals in the IAS and other services rendered, and continue to render, invaluable public service: the examples of those who headed organisations like the Reserve Bank of India, the Securities and Exchanges Board of India and the Konkan Railway Corporation/Delhi Metro Rail Corporation as well as many police officers and administrators come to mind. But twenty first century India needs a different administrative paradigm; the challenges before the country brook no further delay. Rather than squabble over short-term service benefits, my colleagues in the decision-making apparatus today need to go in for a radical remake of the civil services, on the lines of their colonial cousins in the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand. They would do well to heed Brutus’ admonition:

There is a tide in the affairs of men,

Which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune. 

(William Shakespeare: Julius Caesar)






Killing Mockingbirds – A Twenty First Century Syndrome

It is not often that a writer hits the bestseller list with her first novel. Harper Lee achieved that with her masterpiece “To Kill A Mockingbird”, which describes the racism and social inequality prevalent in the 1930s in the American South. A black man, Tom Robinson, is falsely accused of raping a white woman from one of the most wretched white communities on the fringes of society. The prevailing animosity of whites towards blacks, seventy years after slavery was formally abolished, manifests itself in efforts of some members of the white community to lynch the accused. In the ensuing trial by an all-white jury, Tom is sentenced to death, despite a brilliant defence put up by his white lawyer, Atticus Finch. Atticus is able to discredit the evidence of the rape complainant very comprehensively, although this does not lead to a verdict of acquittal. Despairing of getting justice in a system weighted against his community, Tom is killed while trying to escape from jail. The father of the complainant, a down and out reject of society, seeks to avenge his humiliation at the trial by attempting to kill Atticus’ children, losing his own life in the process. What the novel highlights is the number of innocents who are caught in the web of this bigotry and hatred. The author likens these to mockingbirds, which cause no trouble to humans and give pleasure through their singing. Hence the injunction of Atticus Finch to his children never to hunt mockingbirds. Tom Robinson, like many others in the novel, is the mockingbird caught in a vortex not of his making but of which he has to reap the grim consequences.

Twenty first century India is in some ways (and unfortunately increasingly so) reminiscent of the American South of an earlier generation. In recent times, women, children, householders, truckers, scholars, writers and journalists have been at the receiving end of lynch mobs for just trying to live their lives as they deemed best, without in any way interfering in the lives of others. The provocation (as so termed by vigilante groups) can be linked to a certain worldview about “culture”, which gives no space to diversity of individual behaviour, intellectual thought and even dietary practices. Women in Mangaluru (and elsewhere) have been targeted for expressing their individuality in ways which in no sense constituted any violation of the law of the land but “offended” patriarchal mindsets of some groups. Violence against women has been a longstanding feature of Indian society (protestations of its veneration of women notwithstanding) – what is disturbing in recent years has been the concentration of violence against women seen as bucking traditional mores and behaviours expected of women – whether it is association with the opposite sex, visiting places (e.g. pubs) seen as male prerogatives or even establishing their financial independence through gainful employment. Freedom of expression (enshrined in Article 19 of the Constitution of India) has been sought to be curbed extra-legally ever since the forcible exile of M. F. Husain two decades ago. Then we had the unedifying spectacle of hooligans from the Nationalist Congress Party (in power in Maharashtra at the time) vandalizing the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute in Pune  and destroying priceless manuscripts to protest the research support it is supposed to have given to a “controversial” book on the Maratha ruler, Shivaji. More recently, writers like Perumal Murugan in Tamil Nadu have been pressurized to disown their writings which some social groups objected to, apart from the as yet unsolved murders of three rationalist scholars over the past two years. The last straw on the camel’s back has been the recent incidents of mob violence against members of minority denominations by socially dominant groups enjoying political patronage, ostensibly on the grounds of offending religious sensitivities related to alleged beef consumption.

There are two disturbing aspects to these developments that make all right-thinking, sober Indians reflect on (and despair of) the direction that Indian society seems to have taken. The first refers to what the political theorist Hannah Arendt has termed as “tribal nationalism” in her book “The Origins of Totalitarianism”. As she puts it “(Tribal nationalism) can be easily recognized by the tremendous arrogance, inherent in its self-concentration, which dares to measure a people, its past and present, by the yardstick of exalted inner qualities and inevitably rejects its visible existence, tradition, institutions and culture…tribal nationalism always insists its own people is surrounded by “a world of enemies”, “one against all”, that a fundamental difference exists between this people and all others. It claims its people to be unique, individual, incompatible with all others and denies theoretically the very possibility of a common mankind…”. The concept of an Indian nation is barely seventy years old. National pride was sought to be rekindled during the two hundred years of British rule by hearkening back to a pre-Muslim conquest glorious past, as though to deny the existence of history after 1192 CE (the Battle of Tarain), which marks the start of Muslim political ascendancy in India. It is unfortunate that, today, history is sought to be rewritten on the same basis, ignoring six centuries of social and political evolution which influenced the mosaic that is present-day India. It is even more unfortunate that this ersatz history has had its impact on certain sections of society, especially those exposed to a limited worldview founded on prejudice and a marked sense of inferiority, leading to a conviction that the majority community must assume its “rightful” place in the country. The “other” then becomes a convenient scapegoat for all one’s shortcomings and no effort is spared to impose a majoritarian worldview on all other communities.

The second aspect, and this is one that can be fatal to the very existence of a democracy, is the lack of respect for and observance of the rule of law. The police and security forces have, on a number of occasions, been swayed by partisan considerations in the maintenance of law and order and in the prosecution of criminal offences. Matters have not been helped by a creaking judicial system that takes decades to punish the guilty, if at all they are brought to trial. It is not surprising, therefore, that two tendencies manifest themselves: (a) using every loophole in criminal investigation and judicial procedures, those with money, influence and power delay, or thwart, the course of justice; (b) in frustration, those denied justice take the law into their own hands. A sense of impunity develops where the absence of the fear of deterrent punishment encourages vigilante groups and mobs to go on killing sprees; India’s experience is testimony to numerous such cases.

All sections of the state and society in India bear some of the blame for this sorry state of affairs. Political parties in India have always operated on the basis of expediency and short-term political gains. Right from Indian independence, the political class has used divisions of religion, caste and language to further its agenda of survival. With the cynicism (or should I say, realism) of thirty years in government, I would say the Indian political class amply justifies Goethe’s description of “estimable in the individual and wretched in the generality.” While there must be many politicians who are unhappy with the state of affairs today, it is rather optimistic to expect a statesmanlike response from them to promoting communal harmony and refraining from using sectarian propaganda to further their political prospects. The media has tried to highlight the various instances of intolerance and hatred; unfortunately, in the babble of voices and utterances in print, electronic and social media, no reasoned debate on issues based on factual evidence is possible, with battle lines already drawn in advance. There are only two silver linings in an otherwise rather dark thundercloud: the judiciary and independent citizens in different spheres of society. The courts have upheld a number of individual freedoms and have, especially at the highest levels, sought to jealously guard their independence from executive encroachment and ensure that the basic structure of the Constitution of India is not tampered with. Even more heartening has been the fearless response from people representing a wide spectrum of opinion, cutting across gender, community, religion and caste barriers.

Ultimately, the India that the framers of the Constitution dreamed of (and that every right-thinking Indian aspires for) will be realised only when two prerequisites are met. Firstly, reason has to guide actions, rather than blind emotions arising from intolerance, hatred and a sense of inadequacy. Every Indian has to put the past behind and focus on the path ahead. Today’s situation has to be taken as a given, to be improved on, rather than ventilating past grievances and manufacturing unrealistic future scenarios. Secondly, every individual and institution in the country has to abide by and promote the rule of law. At the individual level, this requires adherence to laws and regulations. At the institutional level (especially the executive and judicial arms), this requires the fair and impartial administration of these laws and prompt delivery of services to the aam aurat/aadmi to address common needs that are often the source of frustration and anger. Above all, at a time, when the world is wracked by violence and destruction linked to religious and ethnic differences, there is a special responsibility cast on the inhabitants of the world’s largest democracy to set an example of compassion, love and humanity for their brothers and sisters in India and across the globe. In this context, it is apposite to end with portions selected from the masterpiece of the immortal bard, Rabindranath Tagore:

Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;

Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;

Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.