Ten country chickens amongst hundreds of broilers

One of my civil service colleagues coined the above phrase on our WhatsApp group site. The context was the advertisement by the Department of Personnel and Training, Government of India inviting applications for contractual appointment as Joint Secretary (JS) in the Government of India through lateral entry. Just when the Indian bureaucracy thought it was done and dusted with the debate over the service-state allocation post-entry into the civil service rather than pre-entry, the union government set off another Diwali rocket under its nether regions. Ten JS posts in coveted Ministries ranging from Revenue and Economic Affairs to Road Transport and Commerce are up for grabs.

I have long been a votary for lateral entry into the civil services. My views have been reinforced by the complacency that grips the permanent civil servant once s(he) is assured of a career path that leads to the apex scale. Nowhere is this more pronounced than in the IAS where, if you are ensconced in your state cadre, you are guaranteed an almost automatic rise to the apex scale of Chief Secretary unless death, conviction on criminal charges or lunacy parts you from that cherished goal. I am not restating my positions here, having outlined them in detail in an earlier blog (Reshaping India’s bureaucracy – a blueprint for action). But I do have certain words of caution for the union government as it steps into this minefield.

  • Never underestimate the permanent civil service: James Hacker was neither the first nor the last Minister who failed in his efforts to reform the civil service. The Humphrey Applebys in the IAS (both former and current) are aghast at the proposed lateral entry. Rest assured that all efforts will be made to stymie the initiative. In the past, even when the lateral entrant was at the level of Secretary to the Ministry, the IAS had its mechanisms to constrain him. A popular ruse was to induct a Special Secretary or Additional Secretary from the hallowed service who would, in a sense, keep a watch on the activities of the Secretary. The argument generally used was that the incumbent lateral entrant was new to administrative practices and needed support to guide him through the byzantine maze of the bureaucracy, never mind that there was a plethora of experienced JSs in the Ministry who could have done the same job, if required. Imagine the fate of a single lateral entrant in a Ministry! If her Secretary decides to allot her, say, the Administration desk in the Ministry, her specialised talents will come to naught. So, if the government is serious, it should decide, in consultation with the Minister of the concerned department, which crucial responsibility, appropriate to her skill set, will be assigned her. The Minister and, probably, the Prime Minister’s Office, may have to monitor how she is allowed to work to ensure her effective functioning.
  • Go in for more radical restructuring: This is why I advocate more radical surgery in the short to medium-term. Governments should remember that their tenure is not permanent and that their successor governments often seek to undo all their honest efforts. Given the statist mindset of the Congress and most opposition parties, I have little doubt that they will easily be swayed by the advice of the permanent bureaucracy, as their rumblings in the media already testify. If this limited move is a precursor to deep rooted change, well and good – else, the lateral entrants will be neutralised over time.
  • Insist on changes in the states: Most programmes, especially in the social sector, falter where implementation is fully or largely at the state level. Take education, health or nutrition: the southern and western states are in a different league compared to some of the states in northern and eastern India. That this is not a given is borne out by the improved statistics in some social sectors in states like Odisha and Chhattisgarh, pointing to the importance of political leadership committed to economic development. However, it is also distressing to observe that states with a very high reputation for sound administration in the past seem to be following in the footsteps of their more backward partners, especially in the area of individual (especially women) security and law and order. This is because the deteriorating administrative mechanisms in these states, coupled with countrywide weaknesses in the legal system, have led to reduced respect for the rule of law among increasingly cynical citizens. That we will continue to be governed by parties of a variety of ideological predispositions and structures is a fact of life; that all these parties, and the governments they form, need to promote strong, responsive governance mechanisms, at the state and local government levels, is equally crucial for a healthy democracy. Incentivising good governance measures, possibly through financial flows, needs serious consideration.
  • Resist the temptation of listening to party ideologues: The present union government is pilloried whenever it initiates any such measure, largely because it has been perceived as appointing persons (with particular ideological leanings), of no great public or professional standing, to head key institutions, some of whom have exposed themselves (and the government) to ridicule by the quality of their statements in public fora as well as by their performance. Granted, it may not have wanted the same set of academics and other individuals who were the favourites of the previous regime and who enjoyed positions due to the synchronisation of their worldviews with those of the then ruling dispensation. But a rigorous selection process would have seen the appointment of persons who commanded respect in the public for their erudition and scholarship and lent more credibility to the government’s decisions. I would strongly urge that an impartial, fair selection process is put in place, involving the Union Public Service Commission, so that the public (and the civil services) are assured that standards are not going to be diluted and that lateral entrants are not seen as being favourably disposed to any ideology, other than that of constitutional democracy, as enshrined in the Constitution of India.

I revert again to the title of this blog. I am told that country chickens taste better than broilers. However, ten country chicken served up amongst many broilers will occasion no culinary delight, except among the very discerning. If the chickens are jointly slaughtered, cooked and served to patrons, it would, in any case, be impossible to testify to the quality of a particular chicken. Which is why I am a supporter of thoroughgoing reforms, even if these are carried out in stages. There should be no doubt about the final objectives or of the resolve of the government to carry through its programme. The government, for its part, should look for a place in history rather than for attaining limited political goals. When our fellow Commonwealth countries like the UK, Australia and New Zealand have undertaken extensive civil service reform, there is no reason for the biggest of them all, India, to refrain from biting the bullet.

 

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