Reform of Higher Civil Services: What Does the DoPT Communication Imply?

Any reform of the civil services, including that in the recruitment and training phase, should aim to create a band of diligent and fearless change agents whose loyalty lies primarily with the Constitution and laws of the land. The recent letter from the Department of Personnel & Training suggesting modification in rules for service and cadre allocation has ruffled a few feathers. Is it much ado about nothing? Or is something potently sinister in the offing?

An apparently innocuous letter from the Department of Personnel & Training (DoPT) to various ministries of the Government of India has caused a flutter amongst bureaucrats, including a few distinguished public intellectuals. A great deal is being read between the lines of the communication dated 17 May 2018, reflecting the Prime Minister’s Office’s desire 

“… to examine if service allocation/cadre allocation to probationers selected on the basis of the Civil Services Examination be made after Foundation Course. Examine the feasibility of giving due weightage to the performance in the Foundation Course and making service allocation as well as cadre allocation to All India Service officers, based on the combined score obtained in the Civil Services Examination and the Foundation Course.”  (Singh 2018)

While most of the retired civil servants have made some valid suggestions, their common refrain has been that this is an attempt to undermine the authority of the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) which is a constitutional body, to weaken the steel frame of India’s administration, and to create a soft and sycophantic higher bureaucracy through an executive fiat. In fact, some of the articles use this opportunity to criticise the present dispensation as damaging the hallowed democratic institutions of the nation. Interestingly, most of the civil servants, serving and retired, that I have interacted with, share some of these concerns and are generally opposed to the proposal. Let us examine the issue in its context and the validity of some of these concerns. 

Through the three-stage nationwide common Civil Services Examination (CSE) conducted by the UPSC every year, each selected candidate is allocated a service, based on their marks in the said examination and preference indicated. Out of the Group A organised civil services, there are three All India Services (Indian Administrative Service, Indian Police Service and the Indian Forest Service) and many Central Services (Indian Foreign Service, Indian Revenue Service, Indian Audit and Accounts Service, Indian Postal Service, Indian Railway Services and the like), the former category having been created under a specific provision of our Constitution. Forest service officers are recruited through a separate “mains” examination, though the preliminary examination is common for the All India Services (AIS) and Central Services. Since the three AIS are required to staff senior positions both at the state and union governments and play a special role in the federal structure of our government, candidates selected for the AIS are also allocated state cadres, based on their rank in the CSE examination, preference for the state and requirements of the states concerned for that particular service, and keeping in view the fixed ratio of 1:2 between “insiders” and “outsiders.”

The Arithmetic of Marks

The total marks of CSE against which the candidates are assessed are 2025, including 275 for interview. Once selected to various services, officer trainees (OTs) have to undergo a common foundation course in academies (training institutions) at Mussoorie, Hyderabad, and Nagpur, to be followed by professional courses in their respective professional institutions that are spread all over the country. This totals a period of about two years. The professional course for the IAS is conducted by the academy at Mussoorie, that for the IPS at Hyderabad and so on. The total marks allocated for the training period for IAS trainees, for example, are as follows: 300 for the foundation course and 900 for the professional course and field training. These assessments are made at the respective training institutions and the final seniority lists for the IAS and most other services are prepared on the basis of the candidate’s marks obtained at the CSE and subsequent marks obtained at the training institutions put together. This practice has been in vogue for years and is usually accepted as reasonable. 

In this context, the communication from the DoPT may be examined. The total marks for the foundation course, for which the trainees are assessed in the academy in Mussoorie and elsewhere, amounts to less than 15% of the total marks for which they were examined by the UPSC. Would it make such a huge difference in the final assessment of the OT, even under the worst case scenario as is being projected by the critics? Does it really amount to undermining the authority of the UPSC and enhancing the power of the executives selected carefully to run the training institutions? Does it not, in reality, underestimate the integrity and capability of the directors and senior faculty of such institutions? The critics opposed to the present proposal might argue that in future this ratio may be altered and that more marks could be allocated to the foundation course. This fear can be obviated if the UPSC’s consent is taken before changing this ratio.

Apprehensions about Neutrality of UPSC Are Exaggerated

There is no doubt that the UPSC has been a venerated constitutional body. But the national academies at Mussoorie, Hyderabad, Dehradun, Shimla, Delhi, Baroda, Ghaziabad, Nagpur, etc have also been playing their roles well. No head of such an academy has been selected through a process that is less rigorous or more political than that employed for other key functionaries of the government. Personally speaking, during my stint at the academy at Mussoorie in the late 1980s, I do not remember a single case of political interference, nor have I heard of such interference amongst my colleagues and juniors serving in such institutions. That tradition continues. Hence, no questions have ever been raised at the way final seniority lists are prepared based on the sum total of marks obtained in the CSE and those obtained during the two-year training period. Therefore, the apprehensions about the UPSC’s neutrality vis-à-vis that of the concerned training academies, based on cumulative experience so far, appear to be somewhat exaggerated. 

The Perception and Reality of the Services

However, there is a reason why many concerned citizens are a little wary. That lies deep inside one’s perception of the “service” one is selected for and the “cadre” (in case of the All India Services) one is allotted to. While there is near universality in case of the most sought-after service, there is broad perceptual clarity amongst the aspirants about which cadres are considered preferable to others. Insofar as service is concerned, the IAS is perceived, for the job opportunities and varietal experience it offers, as a cut above the rest. As such, candidates selected for other services, except the Foreign Service, are offered many opportunities to try for the IAS again. As regards cadre, states like Maharashtra and Karnataka have traditionally been preferred to some other states, depending upon the perception of the quality and complexity of experience, degree of overt politicisation of bureaucracy and, in general, on how the society at large has been treating the members of the higher civil services, for historical and other reasons. The challenges and job satisfaction that a young officer faces in a district of, say Andhra Pradesh, may be qualitatively different from those faced in a much smaller state or a union territory, although the latter may, by no means, be less important.

Against this perception and reality of the service and cadre, let us examine the changing profile of young entrants to the civil services today. Over the last few decades, there has been a noticeable change in the quality of direct recruit probationers/OTs. The average age of entry has increased because of an increase in the maximum age and permissible number of attempts, for each category of candidates. With democratisation of education and affirmative action in the form of reservation at full play, the young (and not so young) entrants today appear to be more representative of the complexity of our society in transition, than they were a few decades ago. Besides, the choices of career they have now were unthinkable then. The elite educational institutions of Delhi, Calcutta, Madras and Allahabad which used to steadily produce the potential candidates for the Indian civil service and, for the first few decades since independence, for the IAS and other services have lost their dominance. Whether the civil services continue to draw a fair share of the country’s best talent remains debatable. A majority of bright students from the top universities and Indian Institutes of Technology and Indian Institutes of Management would not like to spend a few years of their best productive life preparing for an examination that is so highly competitive, unless they are truly motivated. It is also widely believed that the long examination process is turning out to be at least as much a test of diligence as perhaps of merit and suitability. As such, after years of slogging when they make a cut, likened almost to hitting a lottery by many, the service and cadre appear crucial to them. Therefore, keeping both these two factors uncertain for a few months till the foundation course is over is likely to be fraught with serious consequences. 

Ideally speaking, both the service and cadre should be known to the selected candidates before they join their training courses. I am aware of meritorious candidates, having multiple lucrative career options before them, who would not like to join any service other than the IAS and even if selected to it, would not like to serve for their whole life in the most remote parts of the country. Someone not selected to the IAS may also not like to join other services and decide to take another attempt at the IAS. All selected candidates should ideally have the right to exercise this option before joining the civil services, with full and conscious knowledge of things to be expected. If need be, sophisticated computer algorithm should be developed and counselling sessions should be introduced for this purpose. Having reluctant civil servants, bearing silent grudges against the system all through their career, does not bode well for any government. 

Should that not be possible for administrative reasons, the service should continue to be decided on the basis of CSE results, but the cadre allocation may be considered to be based on the total marks obtained at the CSE and the assessment at the foundation course. In any case, currently, the allocation of cadre for the All India Services is made known a few months after the OTs join the academies. This is, under the circumstances, the second best option. To obviate criticism about fairness of assessment at the training academies, a suitable mechanism may be devised so that papers are assessed, as in the UPSC examination, by outside experts, maybe in consultation with the UPSC. Since in such a scenario also the director’s assessment, carrying 150 marks out of 300, becomes crucial, it should be based on a transparent mechanism of collective decision-making involving senior faculty members and professional psychologists, if need be. The director’s assessment, nevertheless, remains the most contentious issue. But can we build a system based on mistrust of the heads of the training institutions? Is there a real cause for dismay? Has the academy in Mussoorie, in the past, not been steered by men of the stature and calibre of P S Appu, B N Yugandhar and N C Saxena?

Role of the Academies

In the CSE, the interview carries 275 marks against which an aspirant is assessed in less than an hour’s time. In the case of the foundation course, the director and his senior faculty will get a few months (about 100 days) to evaluate the OTs. Even then, because of closeness and constant contact between the OTs and the faculty, there may be considerable scope for subjectivity, bias, and misunderstanding, giving rise to perceived favouritism and undue sycophancy. To the aspirants, the UPSC appears objective, impersonal, and distant. The training institutions, by their very nature, cannot have that advantage. As a valued colleague of mine remarked, selection to a civil service through a constitutional body gives it an ironclad framework and this has to be a non-negotiable part of the basic structure of civil services that should not be tampered with. This may be an absolutist position but indicates the distrust one has of the executive arm of the state.

The foundation course was conceived as one that would foster esprit de corps amongst various higher services and not spawn ruthless competition amongst OTs to please their bureaucratic superiors. However, since training is meant to be taken seriously, it has been suggested that the proposed move will make the foundation course more purposeful. Some opponents feel that the “jolly mood” of the elated recruits in the academies will be spoilt forever. In the past, it has often been questioned if value impartation is training-amenable and whether such training at the beginning of one’s career in the hills of Mussoorie makes any decisive imprint on the OT’s career in the rough and tumble of India’s polity. Yet, there is not the slightest of doubt that training in the academies has been deeply cherished by all stakeholders throughout their lives. As such, this process should be handled with care, not with an iron hand. Civil servants are thinking bureaucrats and their capacity to think and articulate should be nurtured and encouraged, somewhat differently from the way members of the uniformed services are trained. The government should tread softly, to paraphrase W B Yeats, because it treads on the civil servant’s dreams. Unless special care is taken, the atmosphere in the academy would be vitiated and the fears about corrosion of the steel frame may loom large. 

Conclusions

Finally, despite all criticisms, our higher civil services have played a decisive role in nation-making—in maintaining the unity and integrity of the country as envisioned by Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, in strengthening its federal structure, in fostering its democratic spirit, and in ensuring its sustained economic growth over the decades. Its robust structure has withered many storms and is unlikely to lose its sheen so easily. It should be reformed, slowly and steadily, in keeping with the times. 

On the other hand, any attempt at reforms should not, prima facie, be scoffed at. The heads of training institutions and their faculty should be selected with greater care and then be trusted. Civil servants should be trained to be neutral and speak truth to power without being unduly obstructionist, while in service and on files, and be ready to face the consequences, including damage to career. Fortunately, there are many such officers still in the system who are willing to take the risk and are prepared to pay the price. 

Any reform of the civil services, including that in the recruitment and training phase, should aim, among other things, to create a band of diligent and fearless change agents whose loyalty lies primarily with the Constitution and laws of the land and who would promote excellence in governance towards serving “we, the people of India.” One hopes that the communication from the DoPT seeking change in service and cadre allotment process has this perspective in mind.

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