What Ails the Indian Administrative Service?

One really wonders why the administrative services shy away from admitting the lack of expertise in select areas of government functioning, particularly when as a service they are not inclined to develop specialists for key functions from among their own cadres.

It was interesting to read an article in the Times of India dated 11 August 2016 about the functioning of Indian Administrative Service (IAS) by two young IAS officers. The good thing is that at least the subject has been broached and discussed in an open forum like a national newspaper. However the treatment of the subject was more in nature of presenting a defence for their current style of functioning instead of being an honest analysis of the way administrative service functions today. While elitism at the entry level has certainly taken a back seat over the last few decades, the authors fail to bring out the fact that another kind of elitism that puts IAS/IFS as first among equals has crept in which obviously is not a healthy sign. It is no secret that this has been brought about by clever machinations by the IAS/IFS lobby over the years in a very deliberate manner. Be it functional upgradation, inter-service equivalence at different levels or even pay and allowances, the IAS/IFS fraternity has ensured an upward differential with respect to other civil services. In fact in their quest to be first among equals they have not even spared the armed forces with whom they have nothing in common in terms of job content, terms of service or conditions of service. To top it all they have achieved all this with no change in their accountability status which remains as ambiguous as ever. It is pity that the young authors, both IAS officers, failed to call a spade a spade – but then that is a trait that most of them learn to shun as they gain experience in their service.

In the opening paragraph the authors state “It is not the pay scales that attract them but the platform for action – seeing the country and her people very closely and understanding their needs” that motivates young people to join the civil services. While this may be true for a few, it will be difficult to believe that it is true for all. For most the motivating factors for joining the civil service are power, good pay/perks, an exalted position in the society and an overall grand life style. This is more so today as the elitism at the entry level has given way to the entry of the common man. Working under an unenviable environment is not special to the IAS / IFS since every service has its own set of difficulties. Therefore this is hardly an argument that holds any water when it comes to delivering results. The fact that IAS/IFS are subordinated to political executive cannot be an excuse for not delivering results. An unbiased analysis will show clearly that the phenomenon of political subordination over the last four to five decades is of their own making.

IAS 2011 Batch
File Photo: 2011 IAS Batch

Most civil servants try to curry favour with their political masters for lucrative postings and promotions and in doing so many sell part of their soul to them. Over the years instead of taking routine administrative decisions on their own and then standing by them, most have passed on the baton for decision making to their political masters. This has been the bane of administrative services and is it any wonder that today they are subordinated to the political executive? A politician will invariably take political decisions that may, at times, be even be against the law of the land or in the interest of the nation as a whole. By helping them to implement those decisions the civil services have done immense disservice to the nation apart from losing the administrative powers that are actually vested in them. Why it is that today a common citizen would rather approach a politician for his problem than the concerned administrative officer? This is primarily because the administrative services have lost contact with the common man and pay no heed to his legitimate needs where as the politician in his quest for votes is more sympathetic and willing to listen. It may be a good idea for all young civil servants to read the book titled ‘The Ruling Caste’ by David Gilmour and understand how the British Civil Services in India made untiring efforts to keep in touch with the common man even in the remotest areas under their jurisdiction. The logic was to remain in touch with the common man by taking the government to him. Today despite technology and various other means we fail in that endeavour miserably. Most civil servants like to sit in their ivory offices while the man on the street keeps running from pillar to post to seek solutions to his problems. The contention that a citizen approaches an IAS officer with the confidence that he will be heard and treated without prejudice is nothing but wishful thinking that is totally divorced from ground realities.

There has been some debate on the issue of lateral entry to the civil services at certain level to bring in expertise and possibly greater efficiency in specific areas. It is a pity that administrative services dismiss this without giving it a due thought. It is argued that the problem is more systemic than the failure on part of the officers. The obvious question here is then who will correct the systemic problem? Without a doubt the IAS officers have failed to do so over the years, so does the nation continue to live with that systemic problem? Surely that cannot be allowed and therefore lateral entry is one suggested solution which needs to be considered. Whether a senior executive from the corporate sector will join the service at lower pay scales or not is not the issue here. If there are civil servants who join the service primarily because of a will to serve the nation and its people, there are surely such people in other walks of civil life too who would do the same. Nandan Nilenkani of Infosys and Raghuram Rajan of RBI are prime examples in this regard. On the other hand the perennial pathetic state of some state run enterprises like Air India where a long list of IAS officers have gone on deputation at highest levels speaks volumes of their inability to manage the same due to lack of expertise. Nationalism and patriotism cannot be deemed to be a preserve of a select few who join government service at young age. Frankly today governance is a complex science; therefore expertise is required in many areas. It is immaterial where it comes from or what one pays for the same as long as the job is done in the interest of the nation. One really wonders why the administrative services shy away from admitting the lack of expertise in select areas of government functioning, particularly when as a service they are not inclined to develop specialists for key functions from among their own cadres.

It has been suggested that bureaucracy can be made more efficient by reducing the shackles and giving them more independence. By shackles one presumes the reference is mainly to political control. Now that is one area where the bureaucracy has to put its own house in order. Even a constitutional amendment, if one were possible, is not likely to help them in this regard. The only way forward is for senior IAS / IFS officers to take the mantle to ward off political influence and show strength of character and leadership to their juniors. As far as greater independence in working is concerned once again all officers at various levels have to show courage to take decisions and then stand by them instead of writing vague notes on files or passing the buck on most occasions. The officers must ensure that mass transfers of officers every time a government changes are resisted since transfers must be based on rules and needs of the service rather than the whims and fancy of political leaders. To achieve this it is obvious officers will have to refrain from aligning themselves with specific political leaders or parties to further their personal agendas; instead they must serve with dignity in a neutral and fair manner in the interest of the nation at all times in all appointments. Another step that will go a long way in making the bureaucracy more efficient is periodic training to work at different levels in the hierarchy and in different jobs. This training will have to be specifically designed to meet the job requirements as a young IAS/IFS officer moves up the ladder. The current trend of sending officers on vague courses and stints at universities abroad in UK and USA is not an answer to such needs since they do not address the actual ground realities in India nor are they customised for our needs.

Unfortunately the attitude of an average IAS officer is summed up in totality if one recalls the statement of the seventh Pay Commission Chief on hardship allowance. He said that an IAS officer is reluctant to be posted to Gauhati (a large cosmopolitan city) in Assam and therefore we had to recommend a much higher monetary hardship allowance for him than what we did for a soldier posted at Siachen glacier in Ladakh. Coming in the year 2016 this one statement says it all. Frankly Indian Administrative Services have everything going for them – what is lacking is selfless commitment and accountability. Both these can only come from within since the IAS/IFS are self governing services unlike most other civil services where the government (read IAS mainly) exercises various checks and control over their functioning. The onus is on the senior leadership within the service to set an example to others. One should not forget that officers like T N Seshan, among many others, who is largely credited for making Election Commission (EC) an epitome of efficiency too was from IAS.  It his to his credit that he withstood immense political pressure that was brought to bear on him from various political parties and their leaders. Frankly all the talk about reforming or transforming the basic structure of the administrative service is more a call out of frustration by outsiders than any genuine need for same. The real problem is that for many decades now the Indian Administrative Service seems to be a prime example of the law of diminishing returns. The sooner this view is corrected by the service, the better it will be for all concerned.

Saroj Chadha, an engineering professional, is a successful entrepreneur. Having retired from the Indian Army after having served for over 23 years, he has also been a consultant for leading Indian and Multinational electrical companies. He lives in New Delhi.

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