Bureaucrats Don’t Need Fixed Tenures – They Need Stronger Spines

[ The Supreme Court on Tuesday ruled that all bureaucrats should have fixed tenures and that states must set up Civil Services Boards to decide on transfers, promotions and disciplinary action. This would improve professionalism, efficiency and transparency. It has asked the Center to frame appropriate statutes for this and report back within three months.- News report.]

Many, many years ago when I was a pimply faced Deputy Secretary in Shimla, a group of us blisters put up a skit for the annual IAS Association Night. The skit opened with the victim of a hit and run accident lying dead on the road. The police identified the body as being that of a very senior IAS officer on the basis of the post mortem report revealing that it had no backbone! This one scene from a long forgotten and much derided skit comes closer to the truth than does the Supreme Court, I dare say.

BureaucratHowever well intention-ed the Court’s order is it won’t stand the test of a reality check: not only will it not be effective, it may just worsen the situation. Consider the following.

The root of mis-governance, corruption and lack of transparency is not the politician but the bureaucrat, not only because of what he does, but mainly because of what he does not do. He does not express his own mind but goes along with what the politician wants. He does not take a stand based on principles or the law. He does not say that he will not do what is wrong. He does not enforce discipline and integrity for fear of rocking the boat.


The assumption behind the Supreme Court order is that the bureaucrat cannot act because he is intimidated by the prospect of transfer, denial of promotion, dismissal by the political executive. Nothing can be further from the truth for the following reasons:

[1] Insofar as the All India Services are concerned I can assert with all responsibility that there is no job in India which offers greater security of service – it is practically impossible to dismiss an IAS/IPS or IFS officer (the same is true of the Central Services). The services themselves have ensured this – even if the political or administrative will to take action is present (it rarely is) the process is so cumbersome (like impeaching a judge!) — consultations with state govt., Central govt.,UPSC, Vigilance Commission, Law Ministry, followed up with appeals to the President of India, Administrative Tribunal, High Court, Supreme Court – that no one even wants to initiate the process.

Getting into govt. service is tough but getting out is even tougher!

Forget dismissal even someone who wants to resign can find that its not easy to leave the govt. A friend from the UP cadre submitted his resignation six years ago: he has since retired in the normal course but his resignation has not yet been accepted! Dismissal from service, therefore, is no threat to a bureaucrat.

[2] ALL promotions in the AIS and Central services are time bound – that is to say, one is promoted almost automatically after certain years of service at every succeeding level. Performance has very little to do with it; the only relevant factor is the ACR (Annual Confidential Report) and it is extremely rare for someone to have an adverse ACR – peer pressures ensure this. As long as the assessments at the superior officer level are okay, there is very little a politician-even a Chief Minister – can do to hold back a promotion. Even if he over-rules the Secretary/ Chief Secretary he has to give detailed reasons for doing so, and any DPC (Departmental Promotion Committee) in any case goes more by the assessment of the Chief Secretary than a CM or Minister.

Proof of this is not far to seek: 99 out of 100 IAS officers retire at the maximum ( Apex) scale of Rupees 80000 per month; the same holds true of the other services. This is almost their fundamental right, no politician can deny them this, and they know it. No threat here, either.

[3] This leaves us to consider only the alleged threat of the dreaded T word-Transfers. The effect of this politician’s ” brahmashastra“, as it were, has been grossly exaggerated and sensationalised by the media and their expert panels. There are two types of transfers- those which involve just a change of job in the same place, and those which which entail both- change of job as well as station.

Now, 90% of IAS and IPS officers are invariably located at the state capital and for most of them a transfer does not even mean changing their room, personal staff or residence-only their files change, nothing else.

bureaucrat (1)I simply fail to understand how a transfer is a ” hardship” in such cases, or why it should conjure up images of Dante’s Inferno! Yes, frequent transfers for those in the field – District Magistrates, SPs, SDMs – do cause great inconvenience, especially if they are ordered in such numbers as in UP under both Mayawati and Akhilesh Yadav, but here also it is the timidity of senior bureaucrats which is to blame as much as the politicians. It is in the nature of a politician – a Minister or an MLA or even a Party worker – to try and get rid of an inconvenient officer: we can’t blame a leopard for having spots. It is for the senior bureaucracy to resist such efforts and to protect the junior officer who is doing his job.

This just doesn’t happen. It is extremely rare for a Chief Secretary or a DG police to speak up on behalf of one of their officers in such cases, primarily because they want to hang on to their own posts! (Remember how the UP Secretariat was opened up at mid-night to enable the issue of Durga Shakti’s suspension orders?) But then, why pin all the blame on the politician when the bureaucracy is just as complicit? And why build barricades all around when the enemy is actually within?!

The actual fact of the matter is that the bureaucracy in India has developed an auto-immune disease and is destroying itself-the politician is only a virus that takes advantage of the former’s weakened immune systems to invade it. It is my assessment (I could be wrong, but not far off the mark) that only about ten percent of the senior bureaucracy is actually corrupt, but the vast majority is simply pusillanimous and not bothered at what is happening to their colleagues just so long as they can hang on to their own posts.

They do more harm by their silence and indifference than what their more courageous comrades do by their cupidity. I remember an incident pertaining to roughly the same time as the skit referred to in the first paragraph. A senior Secretary was transferred because he had taken a decision (the right one, as it later turned out) which was seen to be against the interests of Scheduled caste employees.

Some of us young bloods in the IAS Association decided that we must convey our protest to the Chief Minister and took an appointment to meet him the next day. The whole day was spent in drumming up support from the Secretary level officers, all of whom assured us that they would also join us the next day in our meeting with the CM. The next day not a single one of these senior officers turned up!

Transfers are not such a big thing as they are made out to be and an honest, forthright officer should take them in his stride – if a price has to be paid in terms of inconveniencing the family, so be it. Why else should the IAS be called a premier service, if their members have the vision and commitment of only a sanitary inspector?

If the truth be told, bureaucrats today lack the breadth of vision, the underpinning of values, the sense of mission and the feeling for history that their predecessors of even twenty years ago proudly possessed and worked for. Today it is for them just a ten to five job in which the perks of office have to be protected at all costs and the devil take the hindmost. They have vacated the space where values, sense of destiny and feeling for the country should reside in favour of the politician who therefore now calls the shots.

It is in this context that the prescription of the Supreme Court should be assessed.

A ” fixed tenure” will change nothing because those who have ” plum posts” will not vacate them (a fixed tenure provides a minimum term and not a maximum one!), and those who are out of favour will be rotated among the unwanted posts.

(In any case, bureaucracy is not the second oldest profession in the world without reason: it can adapt to changing contexts with amazing versatility. It has so adapted to the transfer syndrome too: every five years, when governments change, their positions are reversed- those who were out in the cold now come in to warmth of plum postings, and vice-versa! In a way, they find this an equitable system as the loaves of office are, in the long run, fairly distributed to all!).

There is a negative side too in assuring an officer of a fixed tenure, regardless of his or her performance. Not all transfers are politically motivated. Not all transfers are bad. Many of them are necessary in the public interest and based on the officer’s lack of performance.

What does the government now do with an officer who is corrupt, does not behave properly with the public, whose work is grossly unsatisfactory ? Non-performance is not chargesheetable and there is not always evidence of corruption. In such situations the only option before the govt. is to shift the officer, but with fixed tenures that will no longer be possible.

Taking away a govt’s powers of superintendence over its officials can never be a healthy antidote to the disease.

We have just recently witnessed the consequences of such quick-fix solutions: the CBI’s infamous and highly dubious case against Kumaramanglam Birla and Mr. Parakh. Without a shred of evidence, and acting solely on presumptions of wrong-doing it has filed FIRs against both of them.

Though its Ministers were critical of it on the media, the govt. itself was a helpless spectator and could do nothing to rein in the agency because it has suddenly acquired an ” autonomous” halo. (I had warned against just such a possibility in my earlier blog- CBI-CAGED PARROT, SWOOPING EAGLE OR SITTING DUCK?). The fixed tenure rule will only end up creating similar rogue officers.

A Civil Services Board will change nothing because all those who will be on it are answerable (and owe their positions) to the Chief Minister and will do nothing that displeases him. It will only endorse the Chief Minister’s wishes: this is precisely what is happening with the Police Boards that have been set up in some states after the Supreme Court’s orders in 2006.

They are rarely consulted: Muzzafarnagar is the latest example of their vestigiousness- how else could four SPs have been transferred within one month before, during and after the riots, purely for reasons that are now known to be political?

We appreciate and laud the Supreme Court’s earnest desire to make the bureaucracy more efficient, professional and transparent. But there is no instant cure, and the primary villain is not the politician- it is the bureaucrat himself.

The cure lies within. He is paid handsomely; he has been given more than adequate protection; he enjoys the highest status in society- what more does he need to be upright and do his work fearlessly?

All he needs, actually, is a backbone. Character cannot be legislated or decreed by courts.

Avay Shukla retired from the Indian Administrative Service in December 2010. He is a keen environmentalist and loves the mountains. He divides his time between Delhi and his cottage in a small village above Shimla. He used to play golf at one time but has now run out of balls. He blogs at http://avayshukla.blogspot.in/

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  1. Every nook and corner of Himachal is so beautiful and I wonder what is there to be scared of transfers? Since the formation of state, politicians have used the tool of ‘Transfer’ to scare those who have no guts.

  2. says: kabir mustafi

    If there was a bureaucrat I ever knew who was the quintessential critique of his own profession it would be Avay Shukla. The truth of the article is inescapable and the apprehension of an uncertain future simply chilling.
    But maybe the Bureaucracy needs to set up its own think tank and figure out the best examples of evolution that the services can be made to inherit. Surely there is change at hand? Surely good change can be made to happen by the good?

    At the end of the day, the quietness with which the bureaucrat is made to go gently into the night is even worse than the military. You don’t even have medals to pin on your blazer on 26th Jan or 15th Aug. Not even a small placard saying I was here.

    So one day, bright and shining and through the prelims, then through the mains and then in Mussoorie, with a brand new beauty if a wife, and then doing an English August in various field postings, complete with beacons and lights and terrible situations to handle and making the grade and earning a reputation for uprightness (which, in all fairness to the best, actually is the one thing you can take with you when you are called upstairs) and then suddenly waking one morning in front of a fly-speckled mirror, wondering where that youngster had gone.
    Avay himself once called it the art of prostration.

  3. says: om

    TR( Transfer), DR( Disciplinary Rules and CR( confidential Report) are the three Arbitray tools designed to screw up the bureaucrats and ensure that thay can be effectively used by the Raj to loot Indians through the Indians. If Bureaucrats have spirit to serve the nation instead of contubuing the loot through Brown sahib, they shall be prepared face this arbitrariness with brave face.

  4. says: Pankaj Khullar

    Avay has, as always, hit the nail on the head.

    I too remember a joke similar to the one narrated by Avay, about the senior IAS officer being identified due to absence of a spine, but in my case it was of a hit-and-run victim being identified as a senior IFS officer because the corpse had an empty cranium. Every Service has its own way of looking at the way it functions. In a tree full of simians, the ones at the lower levels look up and see only asses, while those looking down see only monkeys.

    The UPSC selects youngsters for the AIS on the basis of their aptitude and their ability to discern right from wrong. However, once they join the States, they become subject to pressures, more from seniors than from politicians, to fall in line and not rock the boat. Young officers are seen as a minor inconvenience that has to be endured, till they can be either shaped to suit the administration or, if they do not conform, can be shipped to some inconsequential posting in the Secretariat, or the Police/Forest headquarters. In fact, each AIS has two cadres – the “field” cadre and the “special duty” cadre. Those who conform remain in the field for the bulk of their career, while the non-conformists spend most of their careers on deputation or in the headquarters.

    Whether one HAS to fall in line, depends entirely on the mindset of the individual. As rightly pointed out by Avay, dismissal from Service is almost impossible and withholding of promotions is a rarity. The only sword hanging over the head of a bureaucrat is POSTING. While IAS officers, particularly at middle and higher levels, just switch ministers and files, the position is different in the Forest Service (IFS) where the bulk of the middle level postings are in the field. A field posting carries with it certain conveniences commonly referred to as “perks” – a large house, attached vehicles, attendants and the flattery and adulation that are an essential part of Indian bureaucracy. Who would like to give all that up and move to a flat, even if a large one, at the State Capital? But there ARE people (an infinitesimal minority)who, not wanting to sacrifice their principles, willingly forego the ‘perks’ in favour of peace of mind. There is always a price to pay if one wants to stand upright in government, and a non-conformist has to face the consequences of sticking to the rules. It is choice one makes – so why crib at being left to sit on the bank of the stream and watch the water of governance flowing by?

    1. says: Avay Shuklaa

      Thanks, Pankaj, for filling in one dimension which I had omitted in my article-viz.the scramble for plum postings for which the officers themselves are solely responsible.It is disgusting to see how even senior officers prostrate themselves before politicians, willing to do anything, to get the postings of their choice. In the process they will not hesitate to stab their own colleagues in the back.Every time a Govt. changes, the lines outside the offices of the Chief Minister and senior Ministers- consisting exclusively of officers wishing to ” pay their respects”- are longer than the queues outside the emergency ward of AIIMS !The politician happily obliges-and extracts his price later, at a time of his choosing. Having already sold his soul to the devil, as it were, the bureaucrat is certainly in no position to say no. If the bureaucrats do not grease the transfer industry with their slime 80% of the transfer disease would disappear:the remaining 20% any service can take in its stride and still remain upright

  5. says: Ashok

    It is indeed educative to see such analysis from veterans of the service. What appears to be the common reason of rot in all spheres of public life is lack for commitment for the larger good: interest of the nation, state or the public.

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