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Makeshift repairs cannot fix the IAS

“The biggest problem with the IAS is ‘a deeply flawed system of incentives and penalties’, everyone getting ‘promoted by efflux of time’, the corrupt, lazy, and incompetent don’t get weeded out, breeding a system that promotes mediocrity and risk-aversion.”

SNS | New Delhi |

Former RBI governor and IAS officer, Mr Duvvuri Subbarao argue in a recent article with utmost candour, how ‘my generation of civil servants and subsequent cohorts have bequeathed a flawed legacy.’ He added that having won plaudits for competence, commitment and integrity in the challenging post-independence initial phase of governance and development, over the last fifty years, the IAS has brought ignominy for itself, by its ineptitude, indifference and corruption and, worse, its loss of a moral compass. 

Many others within the IAS lineage have likewise detected its infirmities and fault-lines. Among the latest, former Cabinet Secretary Prabhat Kumar argues in his book, Public Service Ethics that the country’s rusted steel frame is today viewed as “a well-operated gang of corrupt and incompetent members.” Recall how Prime Minister Modi’s outburst in parliament elicited public attention, purportedly hinting at IAS pervading India’s administrative structure which, in public perception, has become increasingly self-serving and sclerotic. 

Often it has been asked why the IAS alone gets the stick. The IAS, a virtual clone of the ICS, looms large in the country’s governance structure, which, though “it had some outstanding individuals”, as Jawaharlal Nehru believed, was “a symbol of inequality, casteism and amateurish dilettantism in our administration”. The country has not only persisted with the colonial structure, a maai baap sarkar, manned by people who behave as a corps d’ elite. 

According to Subbarao, the biggest problem with the IAS is ‘a deeply flawed system of incentives and penalties’, everyone getting ‘promoted by efflux of time’, the corrupt, lazy, and incompetent don’t get weeded out, breeding a system that promotes mediocrity and risk-aversion. Prabhat Kumar bemoans the zeal, energy and idealism of young officers evaporating so abruptly that after ten years or so in service, ‘they just want pay cheques’! Like Subbarao, he too rues that many unworthy people in bureaucracy often occupy top leadership positions. 

There is a lot the fraternity itself needed to ponder. The “steel frame”, the sobriquet that ICS/IAS acquired, steadily became a creaking bamboo frame, timid and pusillanimous, belying Sardar Patel’s expectations. No doubt, petty politics has had a debilitating impact on civil services. Just as an instance, imagine the average tenure of an IAS officer in a major state for a few years was just four months! And the proliferation of even top positions in states – chief secretaries and DGs/Police. But then, as Subbarao maintains, ‘Politicians will of course dangle carrots but why should officers go for them?’ 

Inexorably becoming quintessential courtiers, many in the hallowed group indulge the politicians’ whims and fancies, not unoften in order to have their own peccadilloes condoned or eke favours. Former Chief Secretary, UP, the late TSR Subramanian wrote what Chief Minister Mulayam Singh Yadav said at a state-level IAS officers’ conclave in 1990, “Why do you come and touch my feet? Why do you come and lick my shoes? Why do you come to me for personal favours? When you do so, I will do as you desire and then extract my price from you.” 

An acute leadership deficit is plaguing the civil services. Today the adage goes, IAS never retires. Too many babus spend their career’s sunset years kowtowing for post-retirement sinecures. The higher the seniority level, the more the vulnerability and timidity observed among them. As Chaucer said centuries ago, “if gold shall rust, what will iron do?” Like Permanent Secretary Humphrey in Yes Minister tied Minister Jim Hacker in knots, astute members of what now constitutes an omnipotent trade union, the IAS, force decisions the way magicians force cards on their audience in the three-card trick: ‘Choose any card, choose my card’. 

Further, greed has taken its toll. A vice-like grip maintained by IAS has ensured its total monopoly at the top layers of bureaucracy. IAS has now close to total dominance over even Constitutional institutions: Election Commission, Information Commission, so also CAG and CVC, besides regulatory bodies. Mulcting many an ex-cadre position, the clan got identified with “bureaucratic imperialism” ( Jagmohan), encroaching upon areas belonging to technocrats, educationists, and other groups. 

This critique is no indictment of people but of the system. Some of the finest brains of the country in civil services have rendered yeoman’s service to the nation under difficult circumstances and kept it ticking. Individually intelligent, industrious and idealistic, many of them atrophy and vegetate; they become avaricious, clannish, and hegemonic. 

Cognizant of deficient delivery having been an Achilles’ heel, the Modi government initiated several reforms, including a systemic review of civil servants post-30 years of service or 50/55 years of age, opening a small window of lateral entry of professionals in central ministries, and for Central services officers in senior positions. It has now launched the Shibulal-led three-member task force to help the government affect major bureaucratic reforms through Mission Karmayogi. In effect, though, claims made for several schemes appear highly exaggerated. 

While implementing the Niti Aayog’s recommendation to reduce the number of civil services, from the existing 60+cadres, and the upper age limit from the current 30-32 years to 27, there may well be just two streams for technical and civil services. It will be useful to study the way armed forces recruit, train, and select commanding officers. The Army’s “colonel threshold” may well be a template for a structured mid-service evaluation of civil servants for their career progression. 

A second, post-mid career selection by UPSC may be considered for a common panel for senior positions from all services. 

An imperative need is for an effective mechanism to be ensured to safeguard civil servants from political whims and bureaucratic vengeance, and politicians to eschew advocacy of postings and transfers of government employees like it was in the days of Sardar Patel and Jawaharlal Nehru. 

In this context, difficult it is to resolve the enigma of Prime Minister Modi upbraiding the elite cadre as the government keeps extending tenures of super babus and appoint- ing many in key positions after retirement in face of the government’s own policy that forbids the extension of service/re-employment except “in very rare and exceptional circumstances”. He extended the prescribed tenure of all Cabinet Secretaries ever since his first installation as PM in 2014. 

The history of ‘reinventing government’ shows it is not easy. Deliberated by numerous committees and commissions, the country’s administrative reform has remained a staple of perennial debate, yielding little tangible change on the ground. Recounting what he considered to be his greatest failure as Prime Minister, Nehru lamented, “I could not change the administration, it is still a colonial administration.” Notwithstanding- ing all Prime Ministers’ frustration at the country’s effete governance structure, it has become parasitic and politicised. 

Body social is cramped with the crisis of character, politics with compromises. The need for India today is of creative destruction, for re-inventing its critical institutions. When rot runs deep, as French President Macron believes, “Makeshift repairs would not do; if you keep the same structures, habits are just too strong”.