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The Steel Frame

At all times, the bureaucrat must remain connected to the ground and not allow her advice and decisions to be influenced by vested interests or political pressure. The Indian ship is too big for sudden course corrections. Each decision for major change has to be extensively and painstakingly discussed with all stakeholders. Only when a consensus is available should major changes be made.

Arvind Saxena | New Delhi |


As institutions crumble and the Constitution is ignored like an old parent by irresponsible children, what will keep our country on the path of the Directive Principles of State Policy? Proponents of ‘ease of doing business’ and ‘reducing government’ forget that an unregulated market economy, and worse a culture of crony capitalism, is a sure recipe for disaster. While small sections of the polity, judiciary and the media are struggling to maintain equity and probity in public life, the `steel frame’ has to look inwards for its ethical downslide and assert its role to uphold the Constitution in governance of our nation.

The Civil Services Examination, conducted by the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC), is among the toughest examinations in the world. Out of roughly 500,000 candidates who take the examination every year less than one thousand make the grade. The successful candidates are allocated to various services by the government based on vacancies and choice of the candidates. The selected officers thus know from day one that they are amongst the best in the country.

That they are indeed the best has been established time and again by how our officers fare in foreign training programmes at universities across the world; how well they do at international financial, environmental, law enforcement and similar organisations and last but not the least, how many of these officers are actively sought by the corporate world after they retire from service. The above reality applies to all services for which the UPSC makes the selection, including for doctors, engineers, professors, scientists and our armed forces.

All of them are selected on the basis of tough, robust and transparent selection processes ~ giving each officer the confidence that they made the grade because they were the most suitable. So, these officers start with the knowledge of being amongst the best. Added to this is the fact that many of them have fulfilled their life’s ambition. They will enjoy social prestige and have the power to deliver civic justice to the masses. They will lead developmental projects, protect India’s interests abroad, look after the security of the nation and run the huge public services which bring the benefits of economic progress to the masses.

They will constitute the ‘steel frame’ which has sustained the country for over seven decades since independence. Can any young person dream for a bigger role? I think not. This is self actualisation at its peak. Yet, something is amiss. A growing number of these elite officers do go astray ~ there are instances of corruption, misuse of power and pandering to the wishes of political leaders to further personal interests. A large number of these wayward officers forget that their allegiance is only, and only, to the Constitution and they are sworn to act without fear or favour to uphold the law of the land.

As Member and Chairman of the UPSC for over five years, I have encountered the tough question on erosion of ethical conduct amongst officers, from prominent people as also from common citizens. They obviously want to know if there is something missing in the selection process which allows candidates with anti-social proclivities to get through the tough selection process. Their observation is too important and too obvious to be glossed over, or to be superficially defended. My view is that there are indeed a small number of candidates who are able to defeat the process of selection.

The interview boards might have detected the possible shortcomings but yet the candidates could have sailed through due to their high scores in the written examination. The weight for the interview is low and no candidate gets left out because of a low interview score. The scheme of examination is, however, in the realm of the government and Constitutional propriety dictates we do not tread into the territory of other institutions. Do age and number of attempts at clearing the examination influence the quality of candidates, vis-a-vis ethical conduct?

Frankly, I have not come across any empirical data to suggest any truth in these misgivings. Corruption also has nothing to do with the caste, class, regional, linguistic or religious background of a candidate. So, accepting that a few candidates may have got through the selection by lying about themselves or giving coached responses, we still don’t have an answer to why so many officers turn truant. Since no one has reason to question the integrity of the selection process per se, I have often tried to explain the problem by stating that the examination ensures that the best quality timber, well seasoned, straight grained, free of knots and so on, is made available to the buyer.

In the hands of a proficient craftsman, the timber will be converted to beautiful furniture, pieces of art and landmark buildings. Handed over to unprofessional, unskilled and tainted craftsmen, the same timber will be converted to third rate furniture and other eye sores. This is where training and mentorship comes in. The civil service officers constitute the only institution which enjoys Constitutional protection and have an assured service span of over three decades, in which they can plan and build on their vision. No, repeat no, other institution or set of persons has this privilege. No one but these officers can be depended upon to strengthen institutional frameworks which alone can guarantee sustained development of the nation, irrespective of periodic changes which must take place in a democratic system.

By pejoratively referring to bureaucrats as ‘babus’ attempts are made to undermine the image of this body of administrators, who alone can enforce law and ensure that full procedures are complied with in decision making for our vast country in a non-partisan, judicious and secular manner ~ with a long-term perspective. The bureaucrat’s work often appears to be slow, but that is because they must respect the role of all institutions and should not cut corners or work around the regulatory and oversight mechanisms, which have been created and have evolved to protect the nation’s wealth, heritage and the interests of the voiceless multitude of our poorest.

Let me add here another important characteristic of a bureaucrat’s work. They build institutional frameworks and ensure compliance. There is no scope for them to be innovative for the sake of proving themselves. There is still a lot of consolidation of conventions which needs to be institutionalised. Knee jerk decisions are not the hallmark of the bureaucracy and they are aware that their decisions are subject to oversight by vigilance departments, the Comptroller and Auditor General of India and Parliament. The bureaucrat has to remain faceless and only his work should show.

There is no reward for them greater than being able to wipe the tears from a dispossessed, hungry and hopeless fellow citizen’s eye. At all times, the bureaucrat must remain connected to the ground and not allow her advice and decisions to be influenced by vested interests or political pressure. The Indian ship is too big for sudden course corrections. Each decision for major change has to be extensively and painstakingly discussed with all stakeholders. Only when a consensus is available should major changes be made, changes which will then have abiding value since they will be carried forward by successive governments. This is the mandate for the bureaucracy at the senior most level.

That there will be some bad eggs in any huge body of men and women is to be accepted and the disciplinary processes have to be geared up to eliminate them sooner than later. For the rest, the officers who start straight, have to be shown how to remain straight. They should be introduced to officers with a track record of propriety and upholding the law ~ also officers with a spine. In their initial years they need to be mentored by sound senior officers who can show them the rewards of remaining true to their oath of allegiance to the Constitution.

The huge impact each officer has on the lives of millions needs to be reinforced in a way that every young officer looks upon his joining the civil services as an opportunity to build the nation. Can it be done? I have no doubt the answer is yes. Though the numbers are coming down, there are still many officers who are upright, professionally outstanding, non pliable and strong leaders. They are institution builders committed to excellence and with the strength of conviction to nurture young colleague officers. We must introduce our young officers to such senior colleagues ~ before we run out of these role models.

(The writer is a former Chairman of the Union Public Service Commission)