An advertisement issued by the Department of Personnel and Training on 10 June created quite a flutter in the bureaucracy and excitement among sections of the media and public. The Government of India invited “talented and motivated Indian nationals willing to contribute towards nation-building to join the Government at the level of Joint Secretary”.

Ten ministries were listed where lateral entrants would find a place. The Government was looking for ‘outstanding’ Indians in specified areas and those from state services, public sector undertakings and the private sector could apply.

At present, joint-secretary level posts are held by officers of Indian Administrative Service and other Central services. They are selected through a highly competitive Civil Services examination conducted by Union Public Service Commission. The reaction to the proposal for lateral entry at this ‘crucial’ level of senior management drew lot of comments, for and against. While many civil servants directly affected by the move were upset at this assault on career progression, they could obviously not come out in the open with criticism. A few publicly welcomed it, may be without conviction. Those who hailed the scheme included some newspapers, those from academic circles or elsewhere who appeared to be either prejudiced against the bureaucracy in general and the IAS in particular or generally ignorant of the system in place.

Some of them quoted precedents of such lateral entry (at the level of Secretary) in the past right from Indira Gandhi’s days to those of the preceding UPA government. Names like I.G.Patel, Bimal Jalan, P.L Tandon, V. Krishnamurthy, Manmohan Singh, Montek Singh Ahluwalia, R.V Shahi, Nandan Nilekeni and a few others are quoted to make a case for lateral entry. Yes, precedents exist but these were persons hand-picked for expertise and talent. Applications were not sought from them. We cannot therefore term those appointments as lateral entry recruitments in the way envisaged now. They were well known in their fields and their services were sought to gain from their domain knowledge. What we are attempting now is lateral entry recruitment at Joint secretary level which is a senior management level position for the IAS or other services.

Under the Constitution, the UPSC is mandated to make all appointments to services under the Union and the All India Services. Recruitment to the IAS and the other two All India Services – namely the Indian Police Service and the Indian Forest Service – is done by UPSC along with other Central services through the three-stage highly competitive Civil Services Examination. Are we not short-circuiting UPSC by this lateral recruitment?

The level of Joint Secretary is perhaps the most important a career civil servant, specially the IAS, can look forward to at the Centre, since in a batch of over 100 officers (the intake has been now raised to 180) only a few can expect to become Secretaries. There is of course no automatic elevation to this post. You need to get empaneled after screening by a group of Secretaries.

As a result of the unfair and non-transparent 360 procedure brought in by the Government for empanelment and promotion now – by seeking opinions of a senior, retired or serving officer and a junior who has worked under the officer under consideration – the empanelment itself has become a matter of chance rather than based on the performance of the officer. This is one reason why officers from the IAS are now reluctant to come on deputation to the Centre.

In their own state cadre, they can at least reach the level of Principal Secretary.  The government now wishes to bring in outsiders without their having gone through this rigorous selection process. Expertise and specialisation are no doubt the need of the day in some areas but what qualifications are we looking for in the delineated ten areas to determine if the applicant has the necessary specialization? Who is going to judge if the person is talented and motivated? The advertisement gives the job description but not the qualifications or acquirements which make the candidate an expert.

For recruitment to every job, recruitment rules are framed and conditions of service specified which for persons appointed to posts in connection with the affairs of the Union are formulated under article 309 of the Constitution. No such rules seem to have been framed for these lateral-entry recruits. Apart from specifying the salary package and their being subjected to Civil Service Conduct rules, nothing else is defined. The appointment will be contractual for three years to be extended by two years. What stake and accountability will such persons have in this revolving door arrangement?

Two reasons are put forward for this need for lateral entry recruitment. The shortage of IAS officers and unwillingness of states to spare some for Central deputation, and the need for specialization. The shortage is of course there with every state. Against the authorised strength of 6,396, there are at present 4,926 IAS officers. What led to this 20 per cent shortage? In 1990, when the Indian economy was in doldrums and we had to look to the World Bank and International Monetary Fund for help, they imposed a condition of downsizing the bureaucracy. Once the intake of civil services was reduced, no one reviewed the position afterwards when after liberalisation the Indian economy picked up pace and needed more personnel.

Now with the Baswan Committee (2016) recommending an increase in IAS recruits to 180 every year for some years through the Civil Services Examination, the shortage is being tackled. The Indian Foreign Service which also went through this crisis of shortage of officers overcame the problem with Cabinet approval by getting officers from other services at Director and lower levels on deputation as a one-time solution.

Many of these officers who were drawn from Railways, Indian Revenue Service, Indian Police Service and other services performed well even though they were not trained in the foreign service. They are able to handle even the Joint Secretary level posts in MEA but there is reluctance to designate them as Joint Secretaries mainly because the IFS is possessive of its turf. They are therefore called Officers on Special Duty. The relevant point is that they quickly learnt on the job and were able to show results.

This brings us to the point of specialisation. How does one acquire expertise in an area? By working in that field. IAS officers when allowed to hold a particular job for a reasonable period – be it in the departments of education, environment, power, economic affairs, commerce or any other – do become experts. Unfortunately, with the transfer industry flourishing in some states both in the past and now, frequent transfers prevent them from acquiring expertise in any area and they mostly remain generalists.

Another way to make them experts is to utilise training programmes in several institutes here and abroad to enable an officer to get specialised knowledge of the subject he is interested in. As for theoretical knowledge it is available in abundance on the Internet.

The fact of the matter is that we are just playing with a well-established system in the name of change. The bureaucracy appears to have become a whipping boy to show results. In the bargain, are we not destroying an institution which Sardar Patel defined as “steel frame” and in whom he placed so much confidence that even a rather reluctant Jawahar Lal Nehru came to trust them?

It is ironical that while we commemorate this leader by building his tallest statue, we forget his advice when he said, “Do not quarrel with the instruments with which you want to work. It is a bad workman who quarrels with his instruments”

 

The writer is a former Additional Secretary, Government of India.