Posts Tagged ‘IAS’

Checks and Balances – A Must for a Democracy

Recently, I had a brief skirmish with the Indian Army: on Twitter. I happened to view a 15 second video of a Commanding Officer (CO) of an army unit in Arunachal Pradesh issuing a warning to those messing with his troops, after these troops had vandalised public property. In the context of reports that some of his men had allegedly been thrashed by the local police, who was being threatened by whom was quite clear. I merely pointed out that this was not behaviour expected of a commissioned officer. For the next twenty four hours and more, I was subjected to a barrage of criticism. What was a little unexpected was that two retired generals seemed to find nothing objectionable in the CO’s conduct. Possibly, the involvement of the Indian Civil & Administrative Services (IC&AS) Association in this issue rankled with them. The incident has also been viewed by military veterans as “arrogant bureaucracy and a sulking army”. I finally clarified that, in my view, while the guilty must be punished, the rule of law must be respected at all times, even under grave provocation.

What is a matter of growing concern is the erosion in India of the system of checks and balances that make for a healthy democracy, where there is respect for the rule of law. The much-maligned IAS has been engaged in a forty-year tug of war with the uniformed forces for primacy in the decision-making hierarchy. Whether it was the DGP vs. the Home Secretary or the DM vs. SP controversies, a lot of bad blood spilled out, even as law and order situations became increasingly challenging. Recent years have also seen a gradual watering down of the position of the Defence Secretary vis-a-vis the service chiefs, starting with their relative pay scales (the usual comparison of hierarchy in a status-conscious society). I am not here going into the issue of civilian-uniformed force relationships, except to reiterate that each service has its role to play in the governance structure. Weakening one at the expense of the other (or casting unnecessary aspersions) can be inimical to our democracy.

Where the problem arises is when any institution (or individuals in that institution) fail(s) to exercise a voluntary check on its/their exercise of power, mindful of the provisions of law and the Constitution of India. Just as the Constitution separates the respective roles of the executive, legislature and judiciary, the functions of different wings of the executive are also clearly defined. When differences arise among them, the political executive is tasked with the duty of resolving them and ensuring harmonious functioning of the executive machinery.

The Parliamentary system of governance diffuses power among those elected to its legislatures to prevent the concentration of powers in any one person. The leader of the ruling party (PM/CM) has to command the confidence of a majority of legislators. The existence of a Council of Ministers, elected by the people, implies the presence of alternative centres of countervailing power. Till the early 1970s, this was the pattern, which was overturned by the centralisation of powers in the Indira Gandhi years. Over the years, CMs became supplicants and Ministers were gradually reduced to decorative roles, a process that has become pronounced in recent years.

The trend towards centralisation of power has been accentuated by the growing importance of non-elected officials in decision-making processes and the bypassing of established systems of accountability. The emergence of the PMO and the CMO (in states) as alternative power centres beholden only to the Numero Uno has severely curtailed the scope for reasoned deliberation on matters of public importance. Which is why one had reservations about the reconstitution of the Strategic Policy Group (SPG) under the NSA, a non-elected official, with no indication as to whether its recommendations/decisions would be reviewed by a group of elected officials such as the Cabinet Committee on Security.

Five momentous events in independent India indicate the adverse consequences of the absence of collegial decision-making: the Indo-China War (1962), the Emergency (1975), the Shah Bano-Ram Mandir episodes (1986), the Babri Masjid demolition (1992) and the demonetisation bombshell (2016). Not for nothing have Cabinet Committees been set up at the centre for important subjects like security, economic affairs and political affairs. Given that the members of these Committees are answerable to the people, the expectation is that they will take reasoned decisions after discussion, utilising the expertise available in their respective Ministries.

Former RBI Governor Raghuram Rajan likened the role of the RBI to a seat belt in a car. When the political executive sets off on a course of action without the seat belt, a caution is sounded. To this, I would add the analogy of a pressure cooker: the colleagues of a PM/CM in the Council of Ministers are the safety valves telling the boss when the cooker is in danger of exploding, when a policy is likely to be harmful to the common man.

This is why conflicting opinions ought to be welcomed in a democratic system of governance. Since no one person or group of persons is blessed with divine perspicacity, it always helps to know whether one has worked out all the potential pitfalls in the execution of a policy, however good it may sound in theory. Packing institutions with yes men and treating contrarian views with hostility or disdain are likely to yield suboptimal outcomes. Any democratic government needs that child which innocently says “But he isn’t wearing anything at all.”


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.


Delhi-rium on the Delhi-gation of Powers

Since my recent Facebook post (shared also on the IAS Association page) has stirred a hornet’s nest, with retired and serving civil servants as well as concerned citizens voicing their opinions, I am constrained to bring out this blog on the AAP vs. AP episode (for the uninitiated, AAP refers to the Aam Aadmi Party, currently governing Delhi and AP refers to Anshu Prakash, a member of my erstwhile service and currently at the centre of a tornado for which he is in no way responsible). The facts have been aired ad nauseam on print, electronic and social media, but they bear repetition because so many of the principal actors have given their own versions or sidestepped the fundamental issue altogether.

A Chief Secretary (CS), the highest civilian functionary on the bureaucratic side of the state government, attends a meeting called by the Chief Minister (CM) at midnight. The subject of the meeting is shrouded in doubt — while the CS has mentioned in his police complaint that the discussion was regarding the release of TV advertisements on the completion of three years in office of the AAP government, the AAP has, through a written statement and through the mouth of its Deputy CM, claimed that the meeting was about the non-release of food rations because of faulty implementation of the Aadhaar scheme. Aspersions are being cast on the contention of the CS that he was assaulted by two persons in the presence of the CM and Deputy CM. Even the written complaint of the CS to the police, the record of his medical examination the next morning and the statement before a magistrate by the CM’s Adviser are being discounted, though these are now the subject of police investigations.

In my Facebook post, I had raised certain fundamental questions, none of which have been answered to this day. Calling the CS alone for a meeting, which took place at midnight, without summoning the concerned departmental secretaries, with some (apparently) MLAs present, on a subject that did not require overnight resolution, is itself enough to raise eyebrows. The studied silence of the head of the government on a complaint of assault (in his presence) of his senior most civil servant, is even more perplexing. But what takes the cake is the blasé attempt to pretend nothing ever happened, even after all the documentary evidence that is now in the public domain. And now, we have an article in a leading national daily by a leading AAP spokesperson (Ashish Khetan: Indian Express, 24 February 2018) which is a litany of complaints about the asymmetric division of powers between the Governments of India and Delhi.

The Government of National Capital Territory of Delhi Act of India, 1991 (NCT Act) has inter alia laid down the procedure for elections to the Legislative Assembly and specified the duties and responsibilities of the Lieutenant Governor and Ministers (including the Chief Minister). It is clear that there is an ocean of difference between the provisions governing the functioning of the Delhi government and those relating to any other state government in India. Public order, police, land and services are subjects not under the control of the Delhi Government. This has been the ground-level position ever since elected governments came to power in Delhi since 1993. But even when the parties in power in the Delhi government and at the national level were of different political persuasions, business was conducted smoothly between the two governments and little friction was evident. The situation changed after the 2015 Delhi Assembly elections, when the BJP was steamrollered by the AAP, which came to power with a staggering majority.

It is obvious to anyone that there is no love lost between these two parties. But, unfortunately, the mutual acrimony has poisoned the very functioning of democratic governance in Delhi. “Give and take” has been replaced by “thrust and parry”, with the odds heavily loaded in favour of the central government. Gone are the days when a Congress CM could informally obtain her choice as CS from even the NDA government. The collateral fallout has been the grinding of the bureaucracy between the BJP and AAP wheels. But what has been most unfortunate has been the conviction in the AAP that civil servants deputed to the Delhi government are Greeks in Trojan Horses fulfilling the agenda of the central government and are hell-bent on sabotaging the honest efforts of the state government to improve the lot of its people (and thereby improve future re-election prospects). This has led to the current impasse, where the fourth CS seems to be on his way out within a span of three years.

Civil servants are bound to serve the government of the day, whatever its political hue. During my service days in Maharashtra, we moved seamlessly between BJP-Shiv Sena and Congress-NCP governments, with not even a ripple in the bureaucracy as the reins of power were handed over from one to the other. Colleagues from other states with more combative political formations were surprised that the Maharashtra CS and senior officers were not disturbed even after the transfer of power. At the end of the day, since the permanent bureaucracy (whether All-India or state services) are recruited through open competition, the only scope for politicians lies in juggling officers around.

What did occasion surprise was the volatile reaction across wide sections of the Delhi civil services to the incident involving the Delhi CS. It seems to indicate a simmering resentment about the way the bureaucracy has been perceived (and treated) by the political executive over the past three years. Anti-corruption pogroms reminiscent of the French Reign of Terror are great for popular consumption, but, when not accompanied by systemic reforms, occasion insecurity in the civil service. This angry response from the Delhi bureaucracy should serve as a warning signal to the AAP leadership. You may have an astounding mandate from the people and be riding the wave of public popularity, but governance ultimately has to be through the permanent bureaucracy. Appointment of any number of party commissars and Parliamentary Secretaries can never substitute for the cutting edge that services the aam aurat/aadmi. Debasing the value of the civil service and treating them with contempt will lower the motivation and morale of even the honest, sincere workers (of whom there are many) and lead to a fall in the quality of public service delivery.

Of course, there are issues that need to taken up with the central government and the judiciary, when the state government feels its legitimate powers are being whittled down or that not enough powers have been vested in the state government to enable it to carry out its duties and responsibilities. There are democratic avenues for resolving such matters, including, finally, the court of the people, which assembles once every five years to give its verdict. Good work will be recognised and (hopefully) rewarded at the appropriate time. But frustration with legal shackles should not be vented on the bureaucratic whipping boy (and, increasingly, girl). As AAP seeks to widen its all-India reach, it would be salutary to remember that Delhi is not Bharat and that solutions have always to be sought within the constitutional framework.


The Ten Commandments – A Survival Kit for the IAS Officer

O Thou who seest all things below

Grant that Thy servants may go slow,

That they may study to comply

With regulations till they die.

Teach us, O Lord, to reverence

Committees more than common sense;

To train our minds to make no plan

And pass the baby when we can.

So when the tempter seeks to give

Us feelings of initiative,

Or when alone we go too far,

Chastise us with a circular.

Mid war and tumult, fire and storms,

Give strength O Lord, to deal out forms.

Thus may Thy servants ever be

A flock of perfect sheep for Thee.

(Hymn and Prayer for Civil Servants, published anonymously in the Daily Telegraph)

Like speeches, there are three careers an IAS officer will have: the one she visualises (often with a rosy tint) when she ascends the mountains to Mussoorie, the actual path over the next thirty-five years and the retrospective glance (post-retirement) at the career (and life while in service) she wishes she could have had. Being at the third stage of this cycle, I feel justified in offering a survival kit to the aspiring officer – “survival” because, in the light of recent events like the Harish Gupta, et al, conviction episode, just going through a controversy-free career and enjoying retired life themselves seem like unattainable goals. My homilies are addressed to only that category of officers who seek to do their job honestly and conscientiously, not to those who seek extra monetary returns from public service (kimbalam, as the Tamils call it) or those who are permanently gaming the system to occupy “plum” postings. So here goes:

  • Downplay your achievement:

You did get through what, when I qualified for the IAS, was called the “national lottery”. Notwithstanding all the coaching classes advertising the number of hours of study put in by their diligent students, let us be honest enough to admit that several factors, including Lady Luck, play a role in the process. So, with humility, accept the fact that you are now the member of a premier service, which brings with it a few privileges and don’t advertise your superiority (even if it brings you down a few notches in the marriage market). Above all, do not add the three magic initials to your nameplate and your letterhead and, please, do not rub in the fact of your success at the sweepstakes to others, especially from sister services.

  • Develop your human qualities:

It is very easy to become arrogant when surrounded by the trappings of power. Remember always the fleeting nature of things and stay focused on the essentials. Be a friend and guide to your colleagues, especially in field postings, and a source of support to every member of the public who you meet day in and day out. You can never satisfy everyone but you can certainly cultivate the habit of lending a willing ear to the grievances of the common man/woman and trying to help to the maximum extent possible. Your satisfaction should come not from the achievement of (often meaningless) targets set by your superiors but from the number of people who come to meet you when you return to your former haunts in later years.

  • In any job, insist on thorough process:

Caveat emptor” should be your motto, especially where you are the emptor (i.e., the buyer). Never buy in to arguments from bosses and subordinates that business was always done this way. We live in times where trust in the civil service has evaporated: what would have been accepted in 1975 as a good faith decision with no ulterior motives will no longer wash. Any decision on allocation of scarce resources (schools, orphanages, coal blocks, etc., etc.) should, like Caesar’s wife, be above suspicion. The allocation process should be accessible to all members of the public, have clear cut-off dates and have clear guidelines for selection. Where selection through a bidding process is not feasible, e.g., multiple applicants for an ashramshala or an old age home, selection from the bidders meeting pre-specified criteria could even be based on draw of lots at a public location. Of course, it would be best to aim at reducing discretion to the maximum extent by eliminating the need for licensing as far as possible and ensuring that ministerial approval is not required. If your Minister, or the Chief Minister or Prime Minister (for that matter) promise you full support for following time-worn processes, politely ask for a transfer to another post. Prime Ministers have ad nauseam promised, in every Civil Service Day speech in recent years, to protect honest decision making. We have seen the consequences today, when honest bureaucrats have gone to jail.

  • Keep track of the paper trail:

Even Albert Einstein would not remember the details of every decision he took in past years, and you are certainly no Einstein. Be rigorous in your paper work. The coal block allocation imbroglio arose, in part, because there were apparently no papers bringing out the rationale of allocation decisions in certain cases. I offer my grateful thanks to the hard-nosed Secretary of my Ministry who drilled into me the need to keep my paperwork up to date. After every negotiation, my first task was to prepare a gist of the viewpoints of all participating parties and the decisions taken or actions required and circulate these to all concerned. Keeping all the cards on the table helped in later years at the time of audit (though it did not spare me from bothersome investigations). But, a quarter of a century later, I am leading a quiet, retired life without any blemish on my career. As a matter of abundant caution, keep copies of important notings and papers in your personal custody. You never know when someone interposes in a file (on a subsequent date) some comment contrary to your view or when the next fire or flood hits the record room.

  • Travel light:

A popular baggage manufacturer used to advertise its products as “travel light”. Bureaucrats would do well to adopt this dictum. You will need to attune your spouse to your philosophy since, if you insist on process, you are unlikely to survive in “lucrative” posts. If the move is only from the fourth to the first floor of the State Secretariat, or within the same city, this is not a matter of great concern. But there will be this vindictive politician or bureaucrat who delights in moving you from, say, Nashik to Nagpur or from Lucknow to Gonda. Ensure you can move at short notice and set up your establishment in a jiffy at the new place. It helps particularly if you and your spouse/family possess a sense of adventure and can improvise even where creature comforts are lacking.

  • Get a life beyond work:

If I kick myself for any stupidity, it is for not following this maxim. Staying in office beyond 6 PM is more damaging to one’s personal life than any other vice. If your political or bureaucratic boss is determined to sit in office till 10 PM, you do not need to keep them company, especially in this electronically advanced age. Just sweetly tell them you are going home and they can call you on mobile or email you any document with a critical time-frame. I have had murderous thoughts about Ministers whose rank inefficiency in clearing files forced me to stay in office till midnight, photocopying notes for the next day’s cabinet meeting. Resist weekend office attendance like the plague: if you are forced to go, make it clear to your boss that you are doing her a big favour and expect compensatory time off in the future.

  • Make personal excellence, not the rat race, your goal:

In the middle phase of my career, I watched with envy (and not a little heart-burning) as colleagues and friends moved to the green pastures of international institutions and foreign universities. One of my seniors added fuel to the fire by mentioning that proximity to the top was the key to such lateral movements. It took me more years down the line to realise that I gained immense experience and knowledge from working in different challenging assignments at home. Set yourself goals in any job, no matter how lowly or insignificant it is considered in the bureaucratic pecking order. If you are Director of Archives, develop one of the finest repositories of historical information in the country. If you land the post of Officer on Special Duty (Revenue Appeals), set a time frame within which appeals will be disposed of and justice given to litigants. Very often, while participating in the rat race, we forget that the cheese is right there in the room where we are working.

  • Watch the company you keep:

As you move up the ladder, you will be gratified by the “Rockstar” reputation you seem to have. Leading businessmen, builders and even film stars flock to your office and invite you to lavish parties. Remember, none of these come without strings attached. Your subordinates draw conclusions from your apparent proximity to the high and mighty as does the public. “Owners’ pride” being “neighbours’ envy”, it won’t be long before the first complaint about a decision taken by you (which may be perfectly bona fide) favouring a particular person/group makes its way to the tables of the Chief Minister and the Chief Secretary. In a district, do not be seen at card tables in the evening or develop a fondness for the bottle that cheers. News travels fast and you find that the value of your currency with the public has diminished rather rapidly.

  • Develop competencies/interests for the future:

I am lucky I got bitten by the technology bug early in my professional life. A laptop computer was my partner over the last two decades of my career. Equipping myself with the basic skills necessary for individual entrepreneurship, I could move seamlessly from the protected confines of service to survival on my own. Your education does not need to end on the day you join service. It is noteworthy that many officers acquire additional qualifications while in service. A law degree or a diploma in finance enables you to branch out into areas you never dreamt of while in service. Apart from mundane professional attainments, you can aspire to develop your interests in music, horticulture, vintage car repair and redesign, spirituality, astrology or any one of a million pursuits that add richness to your post-IAS life.

  • C’est la vie:

Finally, develop a devil-may-care attitude to your life in the bureaucracy. You will have your share of troublesome bosses and recalcitrant subordinates. Learn to take all issues stoically: nothing is life-threatening (generally) and, in hindsight, most events are, quite often, somewhat ridiculous. You are passed over for a coveted posting or even (horrors of horrors) are superseded for promotion. The day after, the sun still rises in the east, birds are chirping in the trees and you are still in good health. Consider that, after taking all possible precautions and keeping your nose clean, you are still arraigned for a felony you did not commit, consequent on the efforts of over-enthusiastic (though inaccurate) auditors and investigation agencies, responding to the public demand for blood. Face it calmly, put your case forward to the best of your ability and prepare to avail of state hospitality in case the chips do not fall on your side. Fortify yourself with the thought “This too shall pass”. If you have faithfully adhered to these ten commandments, you will still enjoy life even in Tihar or Yeravada Jail.


The perks…and quirks…of public office

I do not offhand remember the name of the 1960s Hindi movie starring two great actors, Padmini and Pran, which I saw on Doordarshan in my student days. The girl, Padmini, is obviously not overjoyed at the prospect of being married to the villain rather than to her hero. Pran attempts to convince her by pointing out to her that her hero has no wealth while he (Pran) can provide her with “नौकर, चाकर, बंगला और गाड़ी” (servants, a palatial house and vehicles). Padmini may not have been convinced, but this argument holds a strong appeal for many who aspire to public office, whether in the political or administrative spheres. I am not for a moment suggesting that the perks of office are the sole, or even major, reason for aspiring to public office. But they are a definite added attraction, apart from the aspect of job security (not guaranteed, of course, for politicians) and the social prestige that comes attached, though often with a tinge of neighbours’ envy (sometimes masquerading as self-righteous attempts to knock these worthies off their high pedestals).

Let me (from my lengthy association with the bureaucracy) take the quintessential budding Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer and his entry into the hallowed portals of the civil service. I deliberately use the gender-incorrect “his”, since the male of the species exhibits, in my opinion, many more quirks; also, there is a far greater sample size to draw on for examples. It begins with his rapid elevation in the marriage market sweepstakes. Even apart from the sordid issue of dowry payment levels, there is a lengthy line of parents of marriageable daughters for tying up alliances with the eligible bachelor. Feted in his social circles at home, the young man proceeds to the district for his initial training and subsequent posting. The perks start here, with a comfortable house (generally far from the madding crowd), domestic help at the residence, a Group D employee (literally preceding the young officer on his travels) and a jeep with a driver. The perks multiply very soon with his elevation to the district officer level, as the officer graduates to a much larger bungalow, a chauffeur-driven car and a whole retinue of domestic staff at his beck and call. While the perks are alluring, it is the quirks that command one’s attention more as an interesting object of socio-economic analysis: let us turn to them.

Among the visible prestige symbols that are the accoutrements of office, the flashing beacon on the vehicle (jeep or car) is one that catches the public’s attention. Though popularly known as the “लाल बत्ती” (red light), the district/sub-district officer’s vehicle actually sports an orange beacon. Acquisition of this symbol gains one access to areas not easily accessible to the public, a wave-through without payment at toll booths and an occasional salute from the roadside policeman. In more recent years, there is also the armed security person in the front seat of the car and the pennant fluttering on the car bonnet to testify to the status of the occupant. Equally fascinating to observe is the seating plan in the vehicle. When the officer has just a jeep, he occupies the left side front seat, next to the driver. The problem of two officers of equal rank travelling by the same vehicle is resolved by one of them taking the steering wheel. In the case of a car, the senior officer must occupy the rear left hand seat, so that his door opens directly in front of the porch of his office, residence or the guest house. After observing these phenomena, I have termed them “jeepocracy” and “carocracy”, signifying bureaucratic vehicular hierarchy in a people’s democracy. The hierarchy extends to the arrival and departure of vehicles at offices, guest houses and public functions; the last in (who is the top honcho in the hierarchy) is the first out (LIFO), quite unlike the normal (FIFO) inventory procedure.

Once in office, the impressive chair behind the large table testifies to the importance of its occupier. The first law of babudom states: the size of the table is directly proportional to the position of the officer in the bureaucratic hierarchy. There was great discomfort among the Petroleum Ministry babus when I opted for a table measuring three feet by two feet, discarded from the Secretary’s office after the transfer of the previous incumbent. I would not even have ruled out my subordinates feeling that their boss had reduced their standing in the eyes of their subordinates. The second law of babudom is: the occupier of the chair shall surrender it to his superior in the bureaucratic hierarchy, when the latter visits his office. This can have unpredictable fallouts, like the time we in the General Administration Department were called upon to adjudicate in a dispute between the District Collector and a Divisional Forest Officer. Matters had come to a head when the Forest Officer refused to vacate his chair when the Collector (who considered himself primus inter pares) came visiting his office. The contrast was provided by one of my bosses who, when visiting my office, would take a chair on the side of the desk, refusing the proffered (and preferred) chair with the remark “That chair is yours; I have not been appointed to your post.” The conflict can arise even when two district officers occupy rooms in the guest house — matters can be precipitated especially when they are from the IAS and the Indian Police Service (IPS), two services that share a strange love-hate relationship.

Official residential accommodation is another undisputed perk of a public job, especially in the higher echelons of the political and administrative hierarchy and top-level district officers. The old British habit of isolating the rulers from the natives is alive and kicking seven decades after independence. Allied with the provision of official vehicles, this effectively insulates the public official from his ostensible masters, the aam aurat/aadmi. Not surprisingly, two of independent India’s biggest problems — public housing and public transport — remain unresolved, since those entrusted with the task of solving them do not themselves use or need them. The realisation probably dawns on the politician/bureaucrat only when they are out of office, at which time their successors in office have no time or sympathy to listen to their problems.

Little wonder then that politicians and bureaucrats stick to public posts like limpets, well past their “sell by” dates. India’s gargantuan public sector and plethora of public institutions enable the accommodation of defeated (and unelectable) politicians, keeping intraparty dissent muted and enabling the politician in power to get on with her job. The bureaucrat relies on a whole host of post-retirement sinecures, ranging from administrative tribunals to governorships of states and diplomatic postings; the really enterprising few become politicians themselves, extending their perks well into the sunset years.

But the day of reckoning must come sooner or later. That day will dawn for the majority of politicians/bureaucrats when the trappings of office recede and they must rub shoulders with the common man. I still remember my office boy recounting how the Chairman of a large public sector company was a few places ahead of him in the morning queue at the milk booth, days after his retirement. Without being cynical, their position reminds me of Timon of Athens (refer to one William Shakespeare for more information on this Grecian tragic hero). It is probably appropriate to conclude with a stanza from the Bhaja Govindam, attributed to a disciple of Adi Sankaracharya:

अंगं गलितं पलितं मुण्डं दशनविहीनं जातं तुण्डम्

वृद्धो याति गृहीत्वा दण्डं तदपि न मुंच्यत्याशापिण्डम्

(Strength has left the old man’s body, his head has become bald, his gums toothless and he is leaning on crutches. Even then the attachment is strong and he clings firmly to fruitless desires)






Reshaping India’s bureaucracy – a blueprint for action

“The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,

Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit

Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,

Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.”

(Omar Khayyam)


The eagerly awaited report of the Seventh Central Pay Commission (7CPC) has been received by the Government of India, which will, in all likelihood, give effect to its recommendations early in 2016. Omar Khayyam’s prescient words apply with particular force to an issue as sensitive as the pay packets of India’s mammoth bureaucracy: once the genie has been let out from the bottle, there is no containing its impact. The abiding regret of this writer will be that his fervent hopes that the 7CPC would address the issue of flab and sloth in government have been dashed by the report, apart from the usual pious homilies delivered by it. It is now left entirely to the government of the day to tackle this vexing issue which has important consequences for the future of effective policy-making and responsive service delivery in India. What is truly unfortunate that the IAS and the various central services have spent most of their time and energies squabbling over the spoils of office (pay parity, promotion avenues, etc.) rather than agonizing and introspecting over the growing trust deficit between them and the aam aurat on account of their collective failure in meeting her aspirations. Not a word was uttered by the doyens of the civil services about the need to make the civil services more efficient and accountable; instead, the unedifying spectacle of tawdry trade unionism only served to confirm the worst fears of the public about their “public servants”. Which goes to substantiate the point made in earlier instalments of this column that only major surgery will improve the condition of homo indicus administraticus, that exotic species of public servant that abounds in Indian climes.

The Tenth Report of the Second Administrative Reforms Commission (SARC) constituted by the previous UPA government has outlined the reforms in the bureaucracy in countries with widely differing socio-economic milieus ranging from Australia, the United Kingdom and New Zealand to Japan and Singapore. Each of the countries discussed in the SARC Report has followed its own path of reform, with the first three pursuing radical, systemic transformation in civil service structures while the latter two have been more incremental in their approach. The SARC Report has played it safe, sticking to the conventional, incremental approach of piecemeal reform, which has largely been ignored by the Government of India although seven years have elapsed since the publication of the report. To stimulate debate on this critical issue, I am going to stick my neck out and propose a course of action that will probably infuriate my erstwhile colleagues in government. I am, however, convinced that the time has come for bold action on this front; further delay will mean indefinite postponement of “India’s tryst with destiny”.

1) Reconstitution of the public services

At the stroke of the midnight hour on 31 December 2017, all Group A to Group C services of the Government of India should be merged into a single unified service, to be called the Indian Public Service (IPS) (I suggest a specific date so that there is a commitment to this reform process). All existing personnel in these services will move to a five year contract system with the government. Recruitments to all services (including Group D services) will be stopped from mid-2017 onwards; this means that 2016 will be the last year when competitive examinations for any level of the existing civil services are conducted by the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) or any other body.

2) Public Service Commissions

The UPSC will be replaced by the Indian Public Service Commission (IPSC) at the central level. The Chairperson and Members of the IPSC will be appointed by the President of India on the recommendations of a committee comprising the Vice President of India, the Prime Minister of India, the Speaker of the Lok Sabha and the Leader of the principal Opposition Party in the Lok Sabha. The IPSC will have independent powers relating to the recruitment process of IPS personnel, as well as all matters relating to the development of professional public services, maintenance of the highest standards of ethics and integrity, monitoring, reviewing and reporting on the performance of the IPS across departments and agencies and conducting disciplinary enquiries in respect of IPS personnel.

At the state level, State Public Service Commissions (SPSCs) will be set up, which will work under the overall control and supervision of the IPSC. The Chairperson and Members of the SPSCs will be appointed by the Governor of the State on the recommendations of a Committee comprising the Chief Minister of the State, the Speaker of the Legislative Assembly and the leader of the principal Opposition Party in the Legislative Assembly. The SPSCs will have the same independent powers in respect of the personnel in the State Public Services (SPSs) as listed above in the case of the IPSC.

3) Structure of the IPS and recruitment process

The IPS, a Government of India service, will comprise three levels — the Senior Management Services (SMS), the Middle Management Services (MMS) and the Junior Management Services (JMS). The IPS will man three types of service structures:

  • Departments, which will serve to formulate policy and get budgets approved by Parliament;
  • Agencies, which will exercise project execution, advisory and research functions;
  • Statutory bodies/agencies, created under different statutes.

Each of the Departments and Agencies will work under the supervision of a Minister of the relevant government.

Recruitment to the IPS will be through a competitive examination, organised by the IPSC, open to all graduates who are over 21 years of age. The pattern of examination would broadly follow the current scheme for the Civil Services examination, with multiple-choice questions designed to test the general knowledge and analytical abilities of candidates. There would be two levels of examinations: candidates for JMS posts would need to obtain a specified minimum qualifying mark in the Level 1 examination to be eligible to apply for posts. Level 1 examinations (to be held every year) would comprise one paper each in general knowledge and analytical ability. Additionally, there would be two multiple-choice papers (both of a qualifying nature) to test the language skills of candidates in English and Hindi. Based on the number of expected vacancies at JMS level in a three-year period, a list of twice that number of successful candidates (based on their latest performance in the Level 1 examination held in the three years prior to that period) would be drawn up every three years. Departments/agencies would advertise their vacancies as and when they arise; any person in the list will be eligible to apply. A selection committee comprising the department/agency head (or her representative) and a representative of the Indian Public Service Commission (IPSC) would interview a select list of candidates and pick the most suitable person(s). The selected person would be offered a five-year contract and would be eligible to reapply for the post at the end of that period, when she would get an opportunity to compete for the post with other eligible candidates. Her chances of reselection would obviously depend on the assessment of her contribution to the department during her five-year tenure.

Level 2 examinations would be held every year to determine the pool of candidates eligible for appointment to the SMS and the MMS. Candidates (graduates over 21 years of age) would be assessed on their performance in multiple-choice general knowledge and analytical ability examinations; they would also be graded on their performance in an essay-type examination that tests their understanding of the Constitution of India and of contemporary national and international trends in the economic, political and social spheres. While these three papers would determine their performance in the Level 2 examination, candidates would also be required to meet qualifying standards in the two multiple-choice papers in English and Hindi. Candidates scoring above a mark set  by the IPSC in their latest attempt in the Level 2 examination held in the previous five years would be eligible to offer themselves for appointment for SMS and MMS posts, which would be offered for a fixed five-year term. At the end of the five-year period, the post would be freshly advertised for which all eligible candidates, including the current incumbent of the post, would be eligible to apply.

For all the three levels, there would be no upper age limit for selection, though, obviously, the competence of the applicant and her health condition would be major factors in determining her selection.

4) Structure of the State Public Services (SPSs) and recruitment process

The SPSCs will be responsible for the recruitment of personnel in the state government and urban and rural local governments. As in the case of the IPS, the same three service levels — SMS, MMS and JMS — will work in the same administrative structures of departments, agencies and statutory bodies at both the state and local government levels. The SPSCs can use the same Level 1 and Level 2 examinations (for appointments to state governments and local bodies) as conducted by the IPSC (with Hindi being substituted, where appropriate, by the local language) or they can conduct their own examinations on the IPSC pattern, under the supervision of the IPSC (given the rather dismal recruitment record of most State Public Service Commissions today). Appointments will be for fixed five-year terms with the provision for the incumbent to apply for the position afresh, along with other applicants, when the post is freshly advertised. As in the case of the IPS, there would be no upper age limit for appointment.

This new system of bureaucracy is intended to be more managerial and result-oriented in its approach. It would be worthwhile to highlight the important departures from the current systems of management of the bureaucracy at different levels of the central, state and local governments:

1) No movement between different levels of government

The All-India Services would cease to exist in the new formulation and there would be no movement of officials between Central and State governments or between State and local governments. The fears of lack of cohesiveness in its newly constituted states, which haunted the newly independent Indian Republic, do not apply more than six decades later. More and more, state politicians resent the “imposition” of officers from outside the state and feel (sometimes justifiably) that these officers do not understand the local ethos. In any case, a person from one state who seeks public employment in another state can do so provided she meets the local language qualifying standards in the examination.

2) Government positions open to all

One major advantage would be the availability of talent and skills from all strata of society to fill posts in government. All positions at all levels would be open to any citizen of India (though even this requirement could be reviewed in due course). The induction of people from diverse backgrounds, including the private sector and academia, to policy-making and executive posts, would enable the introduction of fresh ideas and innovations into governance, apart from ensuring domain expertise. There would also be provision for movement from the public services to elected political posts: the only requirement would be that the incumbent of the public service post would have to resign in order to contest elections. In case she is unsuccessful in the elections, there is no bar on her applying for any position in government that may be available. This would put an end to the continuous (often meaningless) debates on the primacy of members of one service and the lack of opportunities to others who were not fortunate enough to win the “lottery” in the examinations to the civil services. The only criterion for selection to a fixed-term post would be the competence, skills and knowledge of the candidate and the value she is expected to add to her assignment.

3) Administrative and financial autonomy

All JMS personnel at the central, state and local levels will be selected by a Committee comprising the Head of the department/agency (or another officer designated by her) and a representative of the IPSC/SPSC. The logic behind this approach is that the performance of the department/agency head will depend on the calibre of the personnel selected by her Committee; hence she will exercise due diligence in selection. Similarly, SMS and MMS level personnel would be selected by a Committee comprising the Minister (or equivalent at the local body level) and Head of the department/agency and a representative of the IPSC/SPSC. This would squarely place on the Minister responsibility for the efficient functioning of the department/agency and also end once and for all the complaint often heard from Ministers that their bureaucrats do not listen to them. Substantial financial powers will also be delegated to heads of departments/agencies, with well laid-down procedures for purchases and contracts, to speed up decision making processes. There would be little scope then for the bureaucracy to blame inefficient staff and cumbersome financial rules for their lack of efficiency.

4) Compensation structures

Departments and agencies will have the authority and jurisdiction to fix the levels and nature of remuneration for the personnel working in them. This will have to designed to attract the best talent to public service and will, of course, have to be mindful of government’s revenue-raising capabilities. At the same time, this would also promote innovations in government practices to augment revenues and control expenditures.

5) Building competencies — digital governments

Since there will be a regular churning of personnel at all levels, developing the skills and capabilities of persons who will be manning positions in government at some stage is crucial to effective governance. This can be done through the following measures:

  • Offer employment in government only to those possessing requisite computer skills, including the ability to prepare documents and presentations and to handle data processing tasks;
  • develop extensive electronic databases so that employees have access to online information to assist in the efficient performance of their tasks;
  • encourage in-service employees to go in for training courses (both online and offline) to upgrade their skills and capabilities for their current and future assignments;
  • set up a continuing education fund, contributed to by government, financial institutions and the corporate sector, to enable individuals to avail of soft loans for pursuing higher studies in reputed institutions in India.

6) Reducing government departments and devolving responsibilities

The use of the phrase “no gain without pain” since time immemorial has its echoes in any efforts at administrative restructuring. With the clear delineation of department and agency functions, there will be need for far fewer departments. This implies a drastic reduction in the administrative personnel required in staff positions and a move to more of line personnel whose jobs will depend on the specific projects they execute or the functions that they perform. Redundancies could well arise because of closure of certain functions/projects and on account of even technological obsolescence. To give just a couple of examples — stenographers would become history, peons would vanish as a class and drivers would hardly be visible, except maybe for the political and administrative executive at the very top. Officials would have to type their own notes and fetch their tea/coffee from vending machines (with, hopefully, visible improvements in their health profiles!). The pain would percolate to the political class as well: fewer Ministerial posts and fewer sinecures in obscure government corporations.

Along with leaner (though not necessarily meaner) departments and agencies, a full rethink would also be required to determine what should be the role of the department as compared to the agency. Departments will confine themselves to broad policy issues and leave the formulation and execution of projects to agencies. This would reduce the need for both many departments as well as for excessive staffing of departments. It would also ensure that agencies take full responsibility for the timely execution of projects and do not pass the buck for tardy implementation to departmental delays.

The most important reform needed is to clearly demarcate the areas of responsibilities as between the three tiers of government — central, state and local. The rule of thumb should be that no function should be controlled by two levels of government, either in terms of budgeting or execution. Subjects should squarely come within the jurisdiction of one of the tiers of government — the next higher tier should be involved only in an advisory role or where coordination issues rise between the lower tier governments. This will require a relook at the existing subject distributions in the Seventh, Eleventh and Twelfth Schedules of the Constitution of India.


This has turned out to be a far longer blog than earlier ones and I must crave the indulgence of my readers. But it was not possible, in the interests of continuity and cogency, to split this article. Also, the subject matter required going into in some depth to propose possible solutions that can be debated and acted upon. Given the limitations of length, it has not been possible to touch on a number of other details like the roles and functions of the IPSC and SPSCs, the mechanisms for checking corruption and misuse of power at the political and administrative levels and the devolution of powers to lower levels of government. These and other issues can be debated in depth once there is a modicum of consensus on the broad parameters for administrative reform. I sincerely hope that this article stirs up introspection and debate on future directions for bureaucracy in India. The people of India are not interested in the musical chairs game that different sections of the bureaucracy seek to play nor in the promotion of the virtues of one service as against another. It is high time the elite bureaucracy of India (whether from the IAS, IA&AS, IRTS or IRS) is exposed to competition from all others, whether the latter did or did not participate in the same race initially. Let the serving  bureaucrat of today show that she has the skills and competence to outperform the smartest in the land. I can assure her that she will find far more personal fulfilment and acceptance from the public than is the case today.










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)






Why blame the IAS alone?

“The evil that men do lives after them;

the good is oft interred with their bones.”

                   — William Shakespeare (Julius Caesar)


Let me begin with a caveat: I worked for thirty years in the Indian Administrative Service (IAS). I clarify this at the outset so that no one accuses me of conflict of interest. The immediate urge to pen this blog arose out of recent Facebook posts by different individuals and a statement by India’s Metro Man, E. Sreedharan, which were critical of the IAS. While the Facebook comments were of the usual ill-informed, middle class genre that seeks an anti-establishment outlet for every perceived grievance, real or imaginary, Mr. Sreedharan took issue with the role of IAS officers in delays in commissioning of the Bengaluru Metro Rail Project (BMRC). In his view “An IAS officer will not have the commitment, dedication and accountability of a technocrat in executing the project on time. BMRC has had five IAS officers as chiefs so far.” His second sentence, in one sense, contradicted his first; unless Mr. Sreedharan sought to imply that IAS officers posted to the BMRC were in a tearing hurry to get themselves posted out (for which he has not offered any evidence). But it is also indicative of a tendency to lay the blame for all (or at least, most) of the ills plaguing the country on the IAS. If it were so simple, the government at the national level has only to wind up the IAS and, hey presto, the era of efficiency and prosperity would be promptly ushered in. Alas, this is a case of “If wishes were horses, beggars would ride”. Unfortunately, public governance is a far more complicated business.

Often, I get the feeling that the public associates with the IAS anyone selected by the Union Public Service Commission in its massive annual recruitment exercise to the civil services. A very large part of public services are rendered by members drawn from different branches of the civil and technical services. There is also the mistaken presumption that, since the IAS mans a majority of the top-level posts in the government, it has stifled initiative in all other services and cadres. In fact, as a former middle-level functionary in the Central Government Secretariat, I can testify that most of the inputs for decision-making come from the middle levels, especially the Joint and Deputy Secretaries. A very significant number of these officers are drawn from services other than the IAS. It would also be pertinent to point out that public organisations like the banks, railways, communications and public sector units (which have also displayed sometimes glaring inefficiencies) are staffed almost entirely by technocrats or by people with domain expertise in the relevant subjects.

I am not for a moment suggesting that the IAS does not, like every other profession in the country – politicians, lawyers, doctors and engineers – have its share of “the good, the bad and the ugly.” Unflattering comparisons of the IAS are often made with its colonial predecessor, the Indian Civil Service (ICS). It is generally forgotten that the ICS operated in a completely different milieu, responsible only to their colonial masters in India and the India Office in London and without having to factor in politicians, public opinion and the media into their operating matrix. They too had to bear the brunt of Jawaharlal Nehru’s reference to them as “neither Indian, nor civil nor a service.” Even to this day, some of the best and brightest opt for a career in the IAS. That they are perceived as not having lived up to their promise can, in my opinion, be ascribed to three reasons: (a) the short tenures in most postings; (b) the failure to develop specialisation in a particular area which contributes to economic growth and development; (c) the almost automatic kick up the ladder for all and sundry, especially in the states, which leads to a number of IAS officers assuming leadership roles in departments/organisations for which they are totally unsuited.

Short tenures because of frequent transfers have been the bane of the civil services in India, but especially the IAS, probably because of their high level of interaction with issues that are the bread and butter of the political class. This is most damaging at higher levels of policy making, where continuity for a reasonable period ensures that the implementation of the policy is overseen by the same person responsible for framing the policy. Unfortunately, things seem to have worsened on this front in recent times; in the past, bureaucrats were more or less assured of a four or five year term in the Central Secretariat. Of late, Secretaries and even Joint and Deputy Secretaries have been shifted around after a year or two in a particular post. From my personal experience, I can testify that the two jobs I feel I did maximum justice to were those where I got full five year terms.  It takes about two years to understand all the nuances of the job and the officer makes a productive contribution in the subsequent three years.

Even when an officer lasts her full term in a post, meaningful contributions are often impeded by the lack of specialised domain knowledge. The intention to promote specialisation in generalist administrators has remained just that; there have been no initiatives from government to bring this to actuality. Where officers acquire in-depth knowledge of a particular field in a posting, their subsequent assignments mostly have no relation to the expertise earlier acquired by them. When my five year term in the Petroleum Ministry in Delhi came to an end, oil industry insiders found it incredible that the government could invest in building up domain knowledge in an officer over five years and then casually dispense with this acquired expertise overnight.

But the biggest roadblock to building up a responsive, efficient bureaucracy (especially in the IAS) has been the tendency to hand out promotions along with the weekly rations. This phenomenon is particularly noticeable in state governments, with over 95 percent of officers reaching the Apex Scale of pay. Apart from demoralising creative and hardworking officers, who find no avenues for fast-track advancement in their careers, it also leads to a glut at the top. Many posts (more correctly, sinecures) are created to accommodate average quality officers, swelling the ranks of the higher bureaucracy and promoting inefficient systems. Additionally, officers who can really make a difference to governance systems get barely two to three years at the topmost levels, hardly enough to make any visible impact.

Lest it seem that these ills plague the IAS alone, let me clarify that all the civil services in India suffer from a severe lack of professionalism. This is partly due to a lack of performance accountability while in service and partly due to moribund governance structures which do not encourage creativity and risk-taking. There is also the problem of undue political interference in personnel and purchase decisions which sap bureaucratic morale and encourage participation of the bureaucracy in institutionalised corruption. In an earlier blog (The Gadfly Column: Reconstructing the Bureaucracy: 28 February 2015), I had outlined the directions for restructuring governance systems. The issue assumes greater urgency now for two reasons. The nature of bureaucratic functioning over the last one year of the present government belies its promise of achche din, more so in the states, where “business as usual” continues merrily. Another couple of years and the present national government will move into pre-election mode, with administrative reforms taking a back seat. The second cause for urgency is the report of the Seventh Central Pay Commission, due by end-2015. Governments in the past have implemented popular recommendations while ignoring the bitter medicine prescriptions. 2015 presents a historic opportunity to recast the Indian bureaucratic system, when the carrot of improved pay packages can be dangled before the bureaucracy in return for much needed changes in governance systems. Four specific suggestions are made below:

(a) implement a five year roadmap for bureaucratic restructuring: Setting 26 January 2020 as its target date for final implementation, the Indian government should enforce, from 26 January 2018, a voluntary retirement package for its employees at all levels who joined service on or before 31 December 2000. For all those recruited on or after 1 January 2000 but before 26 January 2018, a grace period upto 26 January 2023 will apply, on which date they will leave government with their severance benefits (there will be no recruitments other than contractual appointments after 26 January 2018). All central government jobs after the target date will be on five year contractual basis. The contractual recruitment process can be commenced in January 2019, so that employees who have already quit will benefit from an “early bird incentive” to apply for contractual positions. The structure of government departments and agencies has already been discussed in the earlier blog referred to. State governments should be incentivised to go in for similar reforms; the Terms of Reference of the 15th Finance Commission should include measures to link financial devolution to improvements in governance.

(b) decentralise, decentralise, decentralise: Governance at the level of the Aam Aurat/Aadmi will improve only when decision making is pushed down to the local level. The 73rd and 74th Constitution Amendments should be given real teeth by legislating devolution of powers to urban and rural local bodies. As earlier, linking incentives, including Finance Commission devolutions, to moves in this direction would motivate state governments to support and give effect to such legislation.

(c) develop effective anti-corruption mechanisms: To bring an end to the impunity of governance systems in India, the institutions of Lokpal and Lokayuktas should be set up across India to synchronise with the changes in the bureaucracy and the decentralisation initiatives. Failure to introduce this reform will breed cynicism about the new governance structures, especially at the local government level.

(d) get government out of business: Governments should learn to mind their own business, which includes provision of basic infrastructure, creation of human capital and enforcement of the rule of law. Governments at both the central and state levels should sell off inefficient and sick enterprises and reduce their shareholding in most other enterprises. These will yield revenues for the government and reduce pressure on its financial resources. Even in the few cases where the government wishes to retain ownership of flagship public sector enterprises, management control should be fully vested in the Board of Directors of the company, with full autonomy in investment decisions and in personnel matters. Government should nominate independent directors with managerial and technical skills to serve as its representatives on these Boards. This will not only remove the irritant of bureaucratic interference in commercial decisions, but also the political doling out of favours at the cost of these enterprises. Board appointments will no longer involve the current, cumbersome procedures and investment decisions will no longer have to go through the hoop of ministerial and cabinet committees.

I wish to clarify that I have no bones to pick with the tribe of IAS-bashers — please bash on, regardless. However, I would caution that attention needs to be focused not on the symptoms but on the root causes of the disease, which lie in an anachronistic and dysfunctional governance structure. Commonwealth countries like Australia and Great Britain, from whose examples India has fashioned its civil services, have overhauled their bureaucratic systems to make them more responsive and efficient. There is also little evidence to show that undertaking such major reforms undermines a political party’s electoral prospects; free of the bureaucratic yoke, the grateful citizen may actually reward the party with a further lease of power. The ruling party at the national level can do no better than implement its Vision 2020 to give effect in the administrative sphere to the late President Kalam’s Vision for India 2020. I can only close with the following comment: those who do not wish to create history may become history.