The Emperor’s New Clothes

“But he hasn’t got anything on” a little child said (Hans Christian Andersen)

 Three measures taken by the central government in recent years do not seem to be yielding dividends, at least in the short term. Demonetisation started off with the promise of unearthing black money, moved on to promising a cashless nirvana and has finally only succeeded in damaging growth prospects. The Goods and Services Tax (GST), after so many years in the making, was rushed through in a matter of months with inadequate software readiness and with poor education of the masses of small retailers and traders who, willy nilly, had to move overnight to online systems for which they were totally unprepared. The informal sector has been particularly hard hit by the speed of GST imposition. Implementation of Aadhaar was pushed through as a money bill. It is still facing civil society resistance in the Supreme Court, especially because of the stubborn bureaucratic insistence on treating it as a panacea for all of India’s ills, including tax leakages and terrorism, instead of first focusing on streamlining the process of beneficiary entitlements.

What has marked all these three “initiatives” has been the attempt by the political executive to display its so-called dynamism, consequences be damned. What has been even more noteworthy is the failure of the civil service, especially at the highest levels, to caution its political masters in rushing through with measures that affect the lives of large masses of people. Like the courtiers in Andersen’s fable, they are effusive in rushing to extol these policies, without sparing a thought for harsh realities. The same could be said for the inordinate haste of BJP state governments in pushing through legislation banning the sale and consumption of beef, which has jeopardised the livelihoods of large numbers, especially from the Muslim and Dalit communities, apart from rendering them vulnerable to vicious attacks by vigilante groups.

And now, the government has dropped a bombshell — it seems to want to tinker in a major way with the manner in which senior civil servants are allotted services after selection and the states to be allotted to those selected for the All-India Services. The only document available in the public domain is a letter from a Joint Secretary in the central government’s Department of Personnel to the Deputy Director General in the Department of Telecommunications. Ordinarily, such a letter would not even be deemed worthy of notice. What has set the cat among the pigeons is the mention in the letter that the measure is sought to be implemented from later this year, which means that the batch just selected (2019 batch) will serve as the guinea pigs. As a member of the 1980 civil service batch which served as guinea pigs for the last effort at civil service recruitment process reform, courtesy the Kothari Committee report, I am bemused that views of departments are being sought without any background paper or report serving as the basis for the thought process. It almost seems as though (à la demonetisation) the decision has already been taken and a perfunctory consultation process is being gone through before orders are issued.

Many of my colleagues in the civil services (all retired) have expressed themselves forcefully on this issue. While we are almost unanimous in our view that the civil service recruitment system is in need of reform, our apprehensions stem from the rather flimsy methodology suggested for the service/state cadre allocation, which would strike at the very roots of the concept of a competent, impartial civil service. The faculty at the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration, Mussoorie and at other institutes, where foundation courses are conducted, are hardly equipped to critically assess the capabilities of officers for deciding their suitability for different services. There are likely to be three deleterious implications if the proposed course of action is gone through in haste, without addressing fundamental issues of evolving a sound selection process.

Cronyism is the probable first evil that has to be factored in. India is still a country where regional, language and caste factors exercise a strong pull. Without disparaging my erstwhile colleagues from the northern states, it is a fact that, barring the Rajiv Gandhi era, there was a predominance of three or four states, especially Uttar Pradesh, in the senior echelons of administrative decision making at the centre, in the first fifty years after independence. While this phenomenon may be partly attributed to the reluctance of officers from the southern and western states to go on central deputation, it is also a fact that positions in key economic ministries were occupied by officers from the northern states or those who kept in close touch with the levers of power in Delhi. That the fulcrum has now moved to Gujarat is no cause for comfort: it only proves that bureaucrats most in sync with the political dispensation of the day at the centre rule the roost. But, at least, central deputation has finite time limits, till repatriation or retirement ends the bureaucrat’s tenure. The mind boggles, however, at the thought that a protégé can be given a lifetime job guarantee by a favourably disposed godparent at the time of service selection.

Corruption will inevitably follow any such non-transparent process, following Lord Acton’s dictum that “…absolute power corrupts absolutely”. In an ocean of corrupt State Public Service Commissions, the Union Public Service Commission maintained its reputation for integrity in the selection process for over six decades. While one may quibble over the manner of selection — bookish, elitist, etc. — there has never been a question of individuals (or coaching classes) using the lure of lucre to manipulate the selection process. I shudder at the prospect of the future of the country’s administration being subject to the possibility of temptations being dangled before faculty in training academies, who are called on to adjudicate between the relative merits of different candidates who qualify for the civil services, especially when one witnesses the debasement of so many institutions by the pernicious influence of money power.

Politicisation of the civil services will be the obvious corollary of any post-selection evaluation mechanism. The candidate who is smart enough to qualify for the foundation course will also be smart enough to realise that s(he) can use political strings to swing the desired service/state in his/her direction. The reign of different political dispensations every five years will only add masala to the selection process. And, heavens forbid, if the same party continues to rule at the centre for two or three decades, nothing stops it from packing the civil services with officers loyal to its ideology, fulfilling the Emergency dream of a “committed bureaucracy”. In a federal set up, where parties opposed to each other may be in power at the centre and in the states, nothing short of anarchy will reign when civil servants of the All-India Services assigned to different states are looked at with suspicion by state governments. We have already had a foretaste of this in Delhi because of no love lost between the Delhi government and the central government.

Merit is likely to be a casualty of the proposed changes. But the issue of choice also rises. Young Indians spend the best part of their productive years attempting to seize the holy grail of the civil services. Now, when the grail seems to be within reach, it could be snatched away by the whims of a few instructors or the machinations of colleagues, aided and abetted by unscrupulous elements. When certain services continue to exercise an allurement for prospective civil servants similar to that of the songs of the Sirens for sailors in Greek mythology, introducing an element of uncertainty for a further period of six months to one year after selection could lead to one of two consequences: (a) it could discourage bright young women and men from seeking to join the civil services, or (b) more damagingly, it could encourage the entry of elements who seek to obtain their desired service/state through any means, mostly foul. If you doubt me, just see the type of candidates who are standing for elections to legislatures and Parliament. Gresham’s law of the civil services will then operate with a vengeance.

Let me hasten to add that I, and most of my retired friends in the civil services, are strongly in favour of reforms in the processes of selection to the civil services as well as subsequent career advancement. We recognise that there has been considerable heartburning over the fact that a single examination decides the future life trajectory of an individual. You could argue that so does an IIT or IIM selection process, but then these are not lifetime guarantees. The IIT/IIM graduate still has to compete with others for entry into a particular line of employment. At the same time, given that there is so much hype to get a “prestigious” civil service job, the selection process has to be insulated from pressures and influences. In an earlier blog (Reshaping India’s bureaucracy – a blueprint for action), I had proposed wide ranging changes in the structure of the civil services, including the abolition of the All-India Services and making all appointments contractual, to meet the administrative challenges of the coming decades. While I am sure that there will be plenty of views on (and criticism of) my suggestions, I strongly feel that cosmetic changes are no solution to a bureaucratic system that is perceived by the mass of the people of India as unresponsive, lethargic and tyrannical. It is possible that some variant of what I have proposed could be devised, with implementation in stages. But unless the issue is addressed at all levels of government — central, state and local — and efficiency and accountability are introduced in governance, the Indian public will continue to be shortchanged in service delivery and India’s long-term growth and development prospects will be affected.

The need of the hour is a close, hard look at what is wrong with our governance systems and how to improve these. Merely toying with service allotment or state allocation is no solution: if anything, these will worsen the situation and lay the government of the day open to the charge of changing the system to suit its political requirements. It would indeed be ironical if a government that swears by Sardar Patel were to demolish the edifice of the civil services built up by him, without developing a viable long-term alternative. Were this to occur, we can only take refuge in the words of the late Jayaprakash Narayan “विनाशकालेविपरीतबुद्धि”(when one’s doom approaches, one’s intelligence works perversely).

4 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Wajahat Habibullah on June 7, 2018 at 9:39 am

    Excellent piece

    Reply

  2. Posted by Kuljit Sidhu on June 8, 2018 at 10:24 pm

    Valuable suggestions on an important subject,

    Reply

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