The government last week issued an advertisement inviting talented and motivated citizens in specific fields to be directly recruited as Joint Secretaries in the government of India. They would be on initial contract for a period of three years, extendable to five. The fields chosen were financial services, economic affairs, agriculture, cooperation and farmers’ welfare, road transport and highways, shipping, environment, forest and climate change, new and renewable energy, civil aviation and commerce.

The fields do imply specialisation, which is the least of the traits of the present system of bureaucracy. Supporting this approach, Shah Faesal, a former IAS officer of the J and K cadre and presently the Edward S Mason Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School, writes in The Print, “The structure of the UPSC exam is such that people enter the IAS with a variety of educational backgrounds and end up in a system where a potato expert is looking after defence, a veterinary doctor is supervising engineers, a history graduate is dictating health policy and so on.”

He quotes his own experience stating that as a medical science graduate he has served in agriculture, rural development, revenue administration, school education and energy sectors, implying that he served in every area except his speciality. In Faesal’s opinion an IAS officer at the JS level only acts as an interpreter between a marginalised technocrat and the politician. Therefore, he opines that domain experts would enter the system as ‘rescue pilots’ to rid the system of mediocrity.

There were essential requirements in terms of qualifications and experience for direct entry domain experts. Educational qualifications indicate at a minimum a degree with a preference for higher education. Experience stated is minimum 15 years. This has been chosen with a reason, as an IAS officer takes about 16 years to become a JS. Therefore, those who are selected cannot possess lesser service.

The government is seeking domain experts in select fields where they could become game changers. They would provide the expertise that acts as a catalyst for development. A domain expert possesses theoretical and practical knowledge in the field and can bring about immense changes in the system. In most specialities, domain experts are readily available.

This is possibly the first time the government has formally advertised for direct recruitment. However, there have been multiple occasions when individuals have been directly selected because of their expertise and even appointed as secretaries to the government. A few names that come to light are Mantosh Sondhi, who was appointed in the department of heavy industry, DV Kapur in the department of power, Dr Verghese Kurien as chairman of the National Dairy Development Board and KPP Nambiar who headed the department of electronics.

The most prominent amongst the ministries utterly lacking knowledge of the task which they are expected to perform is the Ministry of Defence (MoD). It is packed with civilians, none of whom can even claim to possess the basic knowledge essential for ensuring and monitoring national security. Its senior staff is inducted from various cadres and by the time they gain basic knowledge, they move ahead.

Not a single member of the ministry would have ever worn a uniform nor held a weapon and definitely never faced a bullet. Its multiple branches which deal with defence matters, defence land, finance, ordnance factories, procurement and welfare have people at the helm with no knowledge or understanding of those they are required to support.

Thus, it has failed on multiple fronts, whether it be procurement, managing defence, development of R and D, production in ordnance factories or welfare of ex-servicemen. This has resulted in an increased divide between the uniformed services and the MoD. The ministry has therefore come in for criticism on almost every occasion. In many cases it has faced the wrath of the parliamentary committee of defence. This is the ministry which desperately needs staff with domain knowledge if it must fulfil its task of national security.

The armed forces are the only organisation in the country, where the rise is always bottom up. It would never have any mid-level inductees. As an officer grows in stature, his knowledge is built on three pillars, institutional training, operational assignments and self-development. Hence, domain knowledge on military matters can only come from those who have donned the uniform.
Enhancing domain knowledge within the MoD implies selecting those in uniform in a similar manner as is being done in select ministries.

Those nominated would need to shed their uniform, resign from the service and join the MoD. If the government seeks direct entrants at the JS level, then logically those being considered should be serving at the Major General level. They would then function as an integral part of the MoD and would not be considered on deputation, as it could impact service interests. Retired staff should be absorbed in veterans’ affairs and welfare of ex-servicemen. This would change the outlook and performance of the MoD. It could bring positivity into a system considered unresponsive and ignorant.

Similarly, service HQs too could do with domain experts in specific technical fields. Some which immediately come to mind are cyber security, communications and weapon technology, where market knowledge would be far higher. Some posts within the services, mainly handling recruitment and retirement could become the charter of the IAS at appropriate ranks, rather than being with those in service, as their experience would be greater.

This decision could be considered as a stepping stone for further amalgamation of service HQs with the MoD. The irritants which presently exist, mainly leading to multiple delays as those at the helm lack military domain knowledge, would be removed and the system would be better geared for the future. Hopefully, the government would take this step in the near future.

The writer is a retired Major-General of the Indian Army.