ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846
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Unreformed Civil Service


A s an Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer, N C Saxena, author of “Has the IAS Failed the Nation? An Insider’s View” (EPW, 23 June 2018), has contri­buted to every field of administration. As secretary to the Ministry of Rural Deve­lopment, he developed a strategy for evaluating rural development projects for alleviating poverty. During his term as district collector of Aligarh, the communally sensitive district saw no riots. Post his retirement, he has contributed towards developing a rights-based policy, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, for providing employment to the rural poor.

In his article, Saxena talks of the issues confronting the country, primarily the provision of education and health services, as well as rations, activities that the civil service is supposed to monitor. In these areas, the IAS, as a group of administrators, is failing today. As Saxena states,

Though the IAS is failing on many fronts here one would like to concentrate on only two issues that are exclusively under its domain: monitoring programmes and flow of funds.

In the domain of primary education and health services, Saxena says their poor monitoring has affected the improvement in schooling, citing Pratham’s findings on the extent of learning at the primary level. In fact, in an evaluation of the performance of government schools in Madhya Pradesh, I found that the district collector would visit only the ashram schools and not the primary schools in the village. The same was the case with health services, where only private hospitals and not government hospitals in Odisha were visited. Both, the political leadership and civil servants in unison help private schools and private hospitals to flourish, at the cost of public institutions.

In a preliminary civil service examination conducted by the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC), an interesting question was posed: “The Indian Civil Service is unreformed. Explain.” The colonial state introduced the civil service in India with three important features: they will be generalists, they will hail from a humanist background, and they will form a young and dynamic group of administrators, capable of moving on horseback deep into the Indian countryside. They will be adventurists, working in difficult regions, casting an anthropological eye over the people in a bid to understand their castes, religions and cultural traditions.

Today, these administrators remain generalists (which is the antithesis to the technological and knowledge-based economy of modern society). The civil service was created in an agricultural society with low productivity. The role of the district collector merely entailed collection of revenue. Thus, the work of the officers was basically supervisory. In practice, they used to enjoy horse riding and club activities, and in cities without these facilities, they would remain absent from the district headquarters. They would wait for postings to major cities such as Calcutta, Madras and Bombay.

The shifting role of a district collector from a mere revenue collector to a deve­lopmental administrator is not an easy transition. It demands knowledge of spatial and social dimensions. Which are the social groups that have not been able to access educational and health opportunities? These issues can only be resolved through a sociological and political approach. Access to education is part of the political empowerment process.

However, IAS officers, as generalists, have no knowledge of how to improve the delivery of services. Their job requirements are still not defined by the state. This is a critical issue that the various committees and commissions on civil service reforms should have resolved. Officers must be posted in a manner that they are engaged in useful acti­vities which facilitate the delivery of services to the citizenry. Instead, many prefer to avail foreign scholarships or postings. If this is not achievable, they try to get a posting as private secretary to some minister and then go off globetrotting. Non-performance continues because of lack of knowledge.

According to Saxena, these officials do not have any connection with books or any aspirations towards the acquisition of knowledge required for policymaking. They rarely work honestly or in an ethical manner as suggested by the Second Administrative Reforms Commission. They should not aspire for post-retirement jobs, which tend to make them pliable to their political bosses. Some former bureaucrats head public institutions following their retirement, and avail various privileges. The Committee on Civil Service Reforms Report, 2004, popularly known as the Hota Committee Report, recommended that civil servants not be appointed to public institutions after their retirement, in order to ensure that they remain politically neutral. Furthermore, these postings are not handed out in a transparent manner and their accountability is not fixed.

Any reform in the economy and polity without a competent and honest bureaucracy working in a professional manner will have a negative result. Today we have created a non-serious civil service geared towards satisfying the political bosses in order to avail key administrative postings. This is hardly the way forward in the present day and age, which is highly competitive and knowledge-based. Furthermore, their ignorance seems to be rewarded by the political establishment through appointments to public institutes, while their arrogance is duly recognised by giving them additional monetary benefits in accordance with the Seventh Pay Commission, above other groups of civil services.

The ugly side of such a bureaucratic setup was revealed when, as a group, the civil servants in Delhi protested against the political establishment in a manner that was hardly constitutionally valid. In a democracy, the bureaucracy needs to be accountable to the political class. Civil servants, no doubt, have the right as a group to protest within the policymaking process. However, they should be allowed to give their opinion freely, in the domain of policymaking; this is not happening today.

In light of the state of the IAS today, the recent decision of the government to introduce lateral entry at the joint secretary-level is going to be another disaster in the domain of public administration of India. It may affect the neutrality of the Indian bureaucracy which is very critical in a communally sensitive and caste-ridden society like ours.

Radhakanta Barik


Updated On : 24th Aug, 2018


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