Votaries of the British Empire often described the Indian Civil Service (ICS) as the steel frame which held the British-Indian empire together. Jawaharlal Nehru, however, had a different view; he famously termed the ICS as “neither Indian nor civil and not a service.” Significantly, Nehru’s own Home Minister Vallabhbhai Patel, did not agree with him and in the teeth of opposition from many quarters, after Independence, the ICS was retained and reincarnated as the Indian Administrative Service (IAS).

Seven decades after Independence, when the chickens have come home to roost, politicians blame bureaucrats for not implementing their reformist agenda. Bureaucrats hold political interference responsible for the Government’s failure on various fronts. It is quite another matter that the public blames both politicians and bureaucrats for maladministration and loot of the country’s resources. A quick stock-taking would show that there is more than an iota of justification for all the three views.

Right from the beginning, there were people who did not view the ICS as an epitome of perfection. After forming provincial Governments in 1935, Nehru observed that the way in which ministries operated “exploded the myth of ICS competence… accustomed to work in a stereotyped way, it cannot adapt to new changes or directions. It put obstacles and showed deliberate disloyalty to the Congress ministers. It showed itself very slow and could not execute the orders issued by the ministers with promptitude.”

Delays were a hallmark of bureaucratic processes since their inception. As early as the beginning of the twentieth century, the secretariat system had come into full bloom. A British administrator of that time, Fendall Currie, observed that the secretariatwallahs kept the district officer “tied to his desk writing voluminous reports, which nobody ever reads, and compiling returns and statistics of hopeless inutility.” Practices like keeping files, making a precis of letters, “putting up” etc evolved during this period.

Perhaps, at the time of Independence, instead of taking the ICS and the Central Superior Services (pre-cursor of the Central Services) with their substantial baggage, newer services with an Indian ethos should have been constituted. But, then, India was in the throes of a bloody Partition and the interim cabinet was not in a position to break out of the status quo. Additionally, no one could fail to be impressed with the fact that little over a thousand ICS officers had managed to rule over 30 crore Indians for more than a century.

After Independence, ministers with a vastly different set of values and perspective came to wield authority. Civil servants realised that circumspection rather than pure efficiency was needed to make things work. However, no one took the trouble to educate the electorate about the fine distinction between a political party and a Government of that party. The result was a conflict between the bureaucracy and the political executive, which wanted to control all levers of power. Differences with the Finance Minister TT Krishnamachari forced the resignation of Sir Benegal Rama Rau, the longest serving RBI Governor in 1957, which was one of the many spats of the early days.

Slowly, bureaucrats and politicians decided to collaborate. Bureaucrats who brought to the table their administrative experience were hindered by their inability to achieve worthwhile results mostly because they no longer wielded sufficient power over their subordinates. Ministers controlled the Government but were hamstrung by a limited tenure and a lack of knowledge of the nitty-gritty of administration. The bureaucrat-politician partnership could have been transformative for the country but was more often than not used for ulterior purposes.

The result is that today we have a bureaucracy where the honest feel dejected and most of the others are aligned to individual politicians and factions. The mass transfer of bureaucrats and police officers on every change of regime, is proof of this fact. If more proof is needed, the ugly confrontation between police officers of West Bengal and the CBI would convince readers of the veracity of this proposition. The truth is that there is a tough competition between bureaucrats for the loaves and fishes of office; dog eat dog rather than service brotherhood is the new culture of the bureaucracy.

Unhealthy governance at the helm, combined with unionisation and politicisation, ensure that the lower levels of the bureaucracy and the police are their own masters. Therefore, governments and administrations come and go but the public, which deals with grassroots level officials, hardly perceives any change in governance. The much-reviled Emergency was the last occasion when the lower bureaucracy performed its assigned role e.g. of running trains on time and of being on time in office.

The only way to ensure a responsive and responsible administration is to get rid of the convoluted procedures which make action against bureaucrats virtually impossible. This is particularly true of lower-level functionaries who in addition to service rules are protected by their unions, which come out with all guns blazing when one of their members feels threatened. Inability to act against trouble-mongers has forced the Government to outsource ministerial functions or to shift responsibility upwards for lower level functions. The entire Class IV has been abolished by the Sixth Pay Commission because they not doing their assigned work.

On the other hand, there has been a proliferation of senior-level posts which have been created at the cost of the unfilled lower-level posts. States, which had only one Inspector-General (IG) of Police, have a number of Directors-General (DG) level posts and a proliferation of IGs. Mutatis mutandis, the same is true for the IAS and Central Services. The result has been a huge administrative imbalance; an army of commanders with few soldiers. Resultantly, we have a surfeit of paperwork with little to show on the ground.

Then, at lower levels no one is clear about what he has to do and how it is to be done because Departmental Manuals and SOPs have not been upgraded despite the change in working in the aftermath of computerisation and e-governance. All these factors have contributed to the lack of efficiency of the Government.

The all-pervasive scourge of corruption has added to the problem of governance across all Government entities. Most of the PSUs of the Government have been brought to their knees by a deficient work culture aggravated by endemic corruption; stricken by the same malady, most of the Public Sector Banks are teetering at the edge.

Clearly, administrative reforms are imperative. We need to define roles at all levels of bureaucracy. Thereafter, accountability can be fixed. The love of Mammon alone need not drive public servants; discipline can be instilled in them by having a functioning reward/punishment matrix.

Then, zero tolerance for corruption has to be made mandatory. A well- functioning bureaucracy can accelerate reforms and pitchfork us in the comity of developed nations.

Conversely put, we can make full use of our human capital only in a milieu which promotes good political and bureaucratic leadership. Otherwise, we risk ending up as a country in which “Wealth accumulates but men decay” (Oliver Goldsmith).

(The writer is a retired Principal Chief Commissioner of Income-Tax)