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The IAS saga

Probably, the country, the bureaucracy and IAS itself would be better served if the Government leaves the IAS to its own devices and the IAS sees the non-IAS bureaucracy as colleagues, not as competitors or subordinates. Abolition of outdated rules like giving the IAS an edge of two years over other services, and of having an IAS officer as the top boss in all departments would help other services as also the IAS to realise their full potential and dispel the image of the IAS as the big banyan tree under whose shadow no plants can thrive

SNS | New Delhi |

Lately, there had been a debate in the columns of a leading newspaper on the role of the IAS in the development and progress of the country. D Subbarao, a former member of IAS, who led the RBI successfully during the global meltdown of 2008-09, had a decidedly negative perception about the contribution of the IAS, while another distinguished ex- member pulled out all stops to defend its performance.

The truth may, however, lie somewhere between these two extreme views. Supporters of the first viewpoint out that district administration, the so-called forte of the IAS, is in shambles in many places. Also, the urban rot in metropolises, which are mostly managed by IAS officers, keeps getting worse. On the other hand, die-hard supporters of the service list out the achievements of sundry distinguished alumni who have excelled in roles as important and diverse as Chief Election Commissioners and Governors of troubled states. Sadly, in current public perception, bad eggs outnumber shining stars in the IAS. 

Probably, for better understanding, we have to segregate the history of the IAS into two time periods; the first thirty years after independence, and the period thereafter. The ICS and its successor, the IAS, managed things really well in the first thirty years of Independence and the nation owes a debt of gratitude to those capable and upright men (there were hardly any women) who kept the nation together and firmly on the path of progress in those difficult times. The contribution of the Civil Service in nation-building was acknowledged by no less a person than Sardar Patel, who declared in the Constituent Assembly: “I wish this to be recorded in this house that during the last two or three years if most of the members of the services had not been serving the country efficiently, practically the Union would have collapsed.”

But the recipients of the Sardar’s accolades were an earlier generation of civil servants. In those days, sending an IAS officer to a trouble spot invariably restored public confidence and quietened trouble-mongers. Sadly, it has taken little time to lose this hard-earned reputation. Nirmal Kumar Mukarji, the last member of the ICS, famously said, after his retirement “… A suitable way needs to be found to close the IAS shop.” Probably, older members of the Civil Service felt disappointed to see the path the service and its members had taken. 

A number of scholars, government-appointed committees and even some world bodies have studied the Civil Services in detail but the reports of the two Administrative Reforms Commissions and the Committee on Civil Service Reforms (2004) are acknowledged to be the most comprehensive. Significantly, the Committee on Civil Service Reforms headed by PC Hota, himself an eminent IAS officer, lists out 42 significant shortfalls of the IAS. The Committee observed, inter-alia: 

1) By and large the civil service in India has lost its neutral and anonymous character; 

2) Increasingly, corrupt practices have become prevalent in the higher civil service; 

3) A majority of civil servants are arrogant … and by and large, they have lost touch with ground realities; 

4) Some civil servants develop an unhealthy nexus with power brokers and do not hesitate to resort to questionable means to get good postings in India or abroad; 

5) After 15 years of service, a rigorous review should be made of the performance of higher civil servants to weed out the corrupt and the inefficient; 

6) Article 311 of the Constitution should be amended to remove corrupt officials from service and give them an opportunity to defend themselves in a post decisional hearing only after their removal from service; 

7) The Indian Administrative Service should not monopolise all key posts in the Government of India. There is a large number of talented officers in the other two All-India Services and the Central Services who deserve to hold key posts in the Government of India under the Central Staffing Scheme or other key posts in the States, and, 

8) Far too many officers of different services are promoted too quickly… there are a large number of officers of the grade of Commissioners, Principal Secretaries to Government, Additional Director Generals and Director Generals of Police…. too many top-level positions in the IAS create problems in cadre management. … 

All the shortcomings mentioned above are curable; most of them by policy correction and the rest by better management and supervision. Sadly, so far, there has been no curative action ~ which would have made the IAS a future-ready service. 

The first reform that could benefit the IAS and the administration as a whole would be to correct the centralisation of all power with the IAS and stop putting them in positions for which they are not qualified. For example, till the appointment of the Chief of Defence Staff, the Defence Secretary was the senior-most officer in the Defence Ministry. Even today, the CDS is only one of the five secretaries in the Defence Ministry. The revenue departments (CBDT and CBIC) between them collect the entire tax revenues of the Central Government, Rs 27 lakh crore in the current year, but both tax departments function under the Revenue Secretary, who is invariably an IAS officer. At the cost of some simplification, one may say that generalist administrators often find themselves out of their depth in today’s complex world and the only way they can administer an unfamiliar technical department is by setting quantitative targets for their subordinates, who juggle figures to show that targets have been met, sacrificing quality in the process. 

There are numerous instances where the hunger for power of the IAS, without adequate domain knowledge, led to disastrous consequences. Nowhere was it so manifest as during the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic. To recollect, Empowered Groups, constituted as apex bodies under the National Disaster Management Authority were put in charge of Covid management. At the time the second wave of Covid-19 infections struck, out of six Empowered Groups, four were headed by departmental secretaries and two by NITI Aayog members. Despite having all resources at their command, the Empowered Groups did little to ramp up medical infrastructure between the first and second waves of Covid-19.

India has some of the world’s finest doctors, hospitals and medical staff. India is also the world’s largest producer of vaccines and an exporter of medical grade oxygen. So, theoretically, we had adequate resources to fight the second wave of the pandemic. However, in a cruel irony, India faced huge shortages of both vaccine shots and oxygen leading to heartrending stories of patients dying for lack of oxygen, doctors themselves succumbing to Covid-19 infections, over-full hospitals turning away seriously ill patients, endless queues of ambulances waiting outside hospitals and devastating fire accidents in ICUs. Thus, due to poor management, the rampaging coronavirus pandemic fully over- whelmed our healthcare system. 

Even otherwise, things are not as rosy, as apologists for the IAS would have us believe. The lack of performance of the bureaucracy has drawn adverse comments from PM Modi in Parliament. The Alapan Bandyopadhyay controversy and the tussle between the Centre and States about the proposed changes in the All-India Service Rules have put the entire IAS under an un- flattering spotlight. In a sobering reality lesson for a civil service that credits itself for having run the country competently right from its inception in 1858, the Government has launched Mission Karmayogi, which will kick- off by the Government hiring a private consultant to reform the bureaucracy. 

Probably, the country, the bureaucracy and IAS itself would be better served if the Government leaves the IAS to its own devices and the IAS sees the non- IAS bureaucracy as colleagues, not as competitors or subordinates. Abolition of outdated rules like giving the IAS an edge of two years over other services, and of having an IAS officer as the top boss in all departments would help other services as also the IAS to realise their full potential and dispel the image of the IAS as the big banyan tree under whose shadow no plants can thrive. Co- operation with rather than dominance over other services should be the mantra of the IAS. 

Cynically, one may say that the moral calibre of members of the IAS reflects the good and bad of Indian society, but the self-generated ethos, procedures and traditions of IAS do require improvement to make it a service fit for the future.