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A call to serve

By the middle of the last decade, acute crisis of officers in various departments of the Union government appeared particularly in the grade of Directors. The same crisis appeared in the corresponding grades of the All-India Services. States became reluctant to spare their officers for Central deputation. Similarly, Central government departments also hesitated in sparing officers of the organized services for manning deputation posts of the Centre

GAUTAM BHATTACHARYA | New Delhi |

The process of consultation with the States by the Union government, aimed at changing the cadre rules (1954) of the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) has created a division in our federal polity.

Media reports say that whereas nine States ruled by opposition political parties opposed the move, eight other States run by the NDA consented to the proposed amendments. Is it just an issue of managing the shortage of officers in the senior positions of the Union government as claimed by many or is it an issue that has far reaching consequences for the federal polity of the country?

To have a fair assessment of the intention of the Union government, we need to understand the role of All-India Services in general, and the IAS in particular, in our federal polity and we also need to examine how serious is the issue of alleged shortage of officers in the Union government and who are responsible for that crisis.

In our Constitution, three services viz. IAS, Indian Police Service and Indian Forest Service are categorised as “All-India Services” where the officers are recruited and appointed by the Union government but are allotted to different States at the very beginning of their career. Once allotted, the officers of these three Services are primarily responsible to the State Government unless they go on deputation to the Union Government for a fixed tenure. Senior positions in the ministries of the Union government are mostly filled by officers coming on deputation either from these three All-India Services or from equivalent grades of various Central Services under the government of India.

As a matter of legacy, however, IAS has the key share in filling up the senior positions of the Union by virtue of the varied experience that these officers gather while working in the States. The system, though it appears to be a little complicated to an outsider, has worked reasonably well for the last 75 years.

The concept of All-India Services, as opposed to various Central Services of the Union government and the services of State Governments, is a rare characteristic of the Constitution. There are certain subjects defined in our Constitution which come purely under the jurisdiction of the Union viz. security and defense preparedness of the country, External Affairs, Railways, Banking and Insurance, Telecommunication, Postal Services, Information and Broadcasting etc. There are organised services of the Union government mandated to take care of this work viz. Indian Foreign Service (IFS), Indian Revenue Service, Indian Postal Service, Indian Information Service, etc.

Similarly, there are certain spheres of work which are exclusive to State Governments such as public order, rights over land, public health etc. These matters are taken care of by the officers of specific State services. But there are many areas which are either in the Concurrent List of the Constitution (Education or Forests) or where both the Union and States have important roles to play. Indian Administrative Service was created to man the senior positions of the Union as well as of the States in all such areas.

It was expected that an officer who earns varied experience while working in the districts as well as in the State headquarter, will be of immense help when he goes to the Union on deputation in policy-making positions. Also, it was expected that the All-India Services would strengthen the federal character of the nation and vacancies in each State would be filled by a mix of ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’ in a pre-determined proportion. However, there was no compulsion for an All-India Service officer to go on Central deputation.

For Central deputation, three things were important: willingness of the officer to proceed on deputation, consent of the State government to spare his services and selection of the officer by the Union government for a specific post. The proposed amendment to the IAS cadre rules now intends to vest supreme powers in the Union government whereby an IAS officer can be dragged away on Central deputation even if he is not willing or where the State government is not prepared to spare his services.

Two reasons are being offered to defend the proposed amendment. First, in recent years, there has been a declining trend of IAS officers coming on Central deputation in the grade of Directors and Joint Secretaries. Secondly, in many instances State governments did not spare the officers selected for Central deputation on grounds of shortage. The shortage of officers in various Central Civil Services and in various All-India Services is a fact and we need to understand the reasons for this in the context of the present debate.

In June 2002, Department of Personnel & Training (DOPT) of the Union government came out with a scheme of “Optimization of Direct Recruitment to Civilian Posts” which mandated that the Direct Recruitment (DR) should be limited to 1/3rd of DR vacancies arising in a year, subject to a further ceiling that this did not exceed 1 per cent of the total sanctioned strength. This drive continued till 2009.

In consequence, recruitment in various central government departments, including the intake in higher Central Civil services, was restricted to 1/3rd of the vacancies for about seven years. A similar drive to restrict the number of new recruits was taken for various All-India Services, including IAS. Perhaps DOPT at that time had expected that because of liberalization of the economy, role of government would be diminishing over the years and government may need a smaller workforce to run the system. This did not come out to be true at senior levels. However, many had pointed out even at that time that the optimization drive would cause severe shortage of officers in senior positions in decades to come and was likely to change the composition of the cadre-character by increased importance of the officers coming on promotion from feeder cadres.

All these apprehensions came out to be true. By the middle of the last decade, acute crisis of officers in various departments of the Union government appeared particularly in the grade of Directors. Same crisis appeared in the corresponding grades of the AllIndia Services. States became reluctant to spare their officers for Central deputation. Similarly, Central government departments also hesitated in sparing officers of the organized services for manning deputation posts of the Centre as the departments had the priority of maintaining their own systems.

The shortage of officers reached such a crisis-proportion that in a central public service department I knew, out of six posts of regional directors in West Bengal, only one was manned in 2018-19, leading to unusual delay in settling of statutory obligations vested in the officers of that grade. This caused resentment amongst the employees. Similar crisis was there in most of the places and in most of the Central departments. Now the situation is getting eased out in the Director-grade, but the crisis has reached the next grade – of Joint Secretaries.

In another ten years the crisis will be there in the grade of additional secretaries and subsequently in the apex grade of Secretary. Thus, the present crisis of shortage of officers has its root in policies of the Union government followed for some years, two decades back. When a smaller number of IAS officers started coming on Central deputation in the grade of Director/JS, the deputation vacancies of the Union government were filled up by the officers of the higher Central Services.

If tomorrow, the Union government on the strength of the proposed amendment forces a greater number of All-India Services officers to come on Central deputation, vacancies in the State will be filled up by the officers of the State Civil Services. Whatever the case may be, the issue of shortage of officers is not an insurmountable one, nor one that cannot be sorted out by the Union and the States with a little homework and discussion. That did not warrant any change of cadre rules.

The Union government has already introduced a scheme of filling up certain posts in the grade of Joint Secretary by lateral recruitment of professionals from outside. Some States are also exploring similar options. The crux of the present debate originates from the deterioration of relations between the Union and certain states arising out of competitive politics.

There are instances where in the background of this bitterness, officers in opposition-run states were asked to report to the Union government without showing any reason, without consent of the State government and against the willingness of the officer. In such cases, States refused to spare the officers as they perceived such orders as infringement of their traditional rights. The present move of the Union government, aimed at undermining the authority of the States, is being looked at by most from the perspective of these recent incidents.

Many are apprehensive that the proposed amendment may facilitate the Union government to drag officers for punitive postings ~ “to teach a lesson” to Chief Ministers and to the officers perceived to be aligned with the ruling parties of the States. If that apprehension comes true, that will undermine the morale and independence of officers of the All India Services, a system which characterizes one important feature of India’s federal polity.

(The writer is a former civil servant who retired in the grade of Additional
Secretary to the Government of India