In his recent book, What Ails the IAS and Why It Fails to Deliver”, NC Saxena, former Secretary to the Government of India (GoI), former secretary, Planning Commission, and former member, National Advisory Council (NAC) has come down heavily on the Service. This is what he has to say:
“Despite their integrity, hard work and competence, Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officers, who occupy almost all senior administrative positions in the states and at the Centre, have not been able to improve development outcomes for citizens. India could not achieve many Millennium Development Goals, particularly in hunger, health, nutrition, gender, and sanitation. India’s social indicators are today worse than poorer countries such as Bangladesh. Besides, growth has not helped the most marginalised groups such as tribals and women. Section 46(1) of the Rajasthan Tenancy Act still places women on a par with lunatics and idiots. Of all these groups, tribals have been the worst sufferers because of anti-tribal forest policies, displacement laws, and poor governance.
“IAS officers have not been able to ensure that teachers and doctors stay in their place of postings and provide quality services. Land records are outdated with the result that two-thirds of all pending cases in the courts are related to property disputes, which take an average of 20 years to settle. The list of beneficiaries for State programmes has huge errors of inclusion and exclusion.
“IAS officers are not able to ensure regular monthly honorarium to contractual staff, such as para teachers, rozgarsahayaks, anganwadi workers, and cooks in mid-day meal programmes.
Secretaries in the states, who belong to the IAS, often collude with the junior staff, and don’t honestly report figures on hunger deaths, malnutrition and usage of toilets, leading to an erosion of accountability. Reforms initiated failed to make any impact because most IAS officers resist change, or are indifferent to the poor.”
Response for this castigation from Ex-IAS Officers has been sharp. Topping them all is the comment from Saxena’a cadre-mate and former Union Education Secretary Sushil Tripathi: “Naresh Saxena has let everyone down.He was Deputy Director for 3 years and later Director for 4 years at the National Academy of Administration, Mussoorie. He trained over 10 batches and perhaps could not present a role model to follow.” Sushil has a point. Director of the Academy is considered as the ‘Guru’ by the IAS probationers trained by him/her. Pertinent question-has Guru Saxena terribly failed his shishyas?
Be that as it may, resignations are happening in quick succession in the IAS. In January, 2019 it was Shah Faesal of the Jammu and Kashmir cadre who had topped the 2009 batch. Primary reasons for his resignation were the throttling of freedom and “unabated killings” in Kashmir. In March this year he launched his own political party, the Jammu and Kashmir People’s Movement. Soon after the lockdown of the Kashmir Valley following the abrogation of Article 370 and 35A and reducing J&K from a state into a Union Territory he was arrested and detained in Srinagar. He is still in confinement.
In August 2019, Kannan Gopinathan from the Arunachal Pradesh-Goa-Mizoram-Union Territory (AGMUT) cadre (IAS-2012) resigned stating: “We got into the service thinking that we can provide voice to people, but then we ended up with our own voice being taken away from us.” He has been bemoaning the loss of freedom of expression with particular reference to Kashmir.
Then in early September came the resignation of Sasikanth Senthil (Karnataka IAS-2009) on the ground that it would be “unethical” on his part to continue in service “when the fundamental building blocks of our diverse democracy are being compromised in an unprecedented manner.” He went on to call the system fascist. As if to prove him right, Karnataka BJP launched a no-holds-barred attack calling him anti-national and a party Member of Parliament dubbed him “paid Gaddar” asking him “to migrate to Pakistan.”
Soon thereafter, Kashish Mittal, another AGMUT cadre officer (IAS-2011), quit because he was being posted in Arunachal Pradesh. This was the reason given on the surface. But underneath there appears to be something more than what meets the eye. In any case, resigning from IAS with just eight years of service is rather drastic. All four officers are in their early thirties with over 25 years of service still left and the common refrain is a sense of distress and despair.
These early and principled resignations should be looked at from two dimensions—within the service and without.To understand the first, we should go back to the framing of India’s Constitution and the ‘Idea of India’ propounded by the Founding Fathers for a free nation.
The ‘political idea’ was for India’s democracy to rise storey by storey from the foundation, consisting of self-governing, self-sufficient, agro-industrial, urbo-rural local communities—gram sabha, panchayat samiti and zilla parishad—that would form the base of VidhanSabhas and the Lok Sabha. These politico-economic institutions will control and regulate the use of natural resources for the good of the community and the nation.
Built on this foundation, the ‘economic idea’ of development envisages independent India as sui generis, a society unlike any other, in a class of its own that would not follow the western pattern of mega industrialisation, urbanisation and individuation. India’s would be agro-based people’s economy that would chart out a distinct course in economic growth, which would be need-based, human-scale and balanced while conserving nature and livelihoods. Such a ‘development’ process would be democratic and decentralised.
It is from this ‘Idea of India’ that the governance framework for the nation emerged with IAS as its bulwark. Adhering to and advancing the ‘Idea of India’ is the raison d’être of the IAS, covenanted in the Constitution (Article 312), a rarity among nations. With such kind of prestige and protection, IAS was to be the bastion against “convulsive politics” and “self-seeking politicians” and its mandate was to “give a fair and just administration to the country and manage it on an even keel”. This service was meant to “attract the best material available in the country transgressing political boundaries.”
Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel was the architect of this civil service. Responding to the grave crisis created by partition and post-British administrative vacuum, he wrote to Prime Minister Nehru in April 1948 advocating the formation of independent civil service in the functioning of which “political considerations, either in its recruitment or in its discipline and control, are reduced to the minimum.” There was strong opposition from the Chief Ministers of the states and many members of the Constituent Assembly. In his speech to this Assembly in October 1949, the Sardar thundered: “The Indian Union will go. You will not have a united India if you do not have a good All India Service which has independence to speak out its advice….” Sardar Patel had his way and IAS was established to be the bulwark of post-independence governance.
Seven decades later exactly the opposite of what the Founding Fathers envisaged seem to have happened. ‘Idea of India’ has collapsed. Democracy is in disarray and IAS officers are forced to implement a centralised, predatory, crony-capitalist, nature-killing, land-grabbing and money-guzzling ‘development model’.They are unable to speak up because of a cobweb of myths and mindsets that have crippled the independence and dynamism of the service.
First and foremost is the ‘bureaucratic gagging— ‘a civil servant should only be seen, not heard’. Under this anachronistic arrangement, some of India’s best minds that constitute the IAS are being throttled and wasted as mere status quo time-servers. What is worse, by remaining silent and unable to speak up against arbitrary policies and autocratic rule the conscientious among the IAS are fast losing their values, principles and personality. This is unacceptable.
The notion of ‘subservience to political masters’ envisages a meek and ‘abdicating’ role for IAS officials and therefore self-defeating. IAS has a constitutional role to play in giving honest, fair and just governance to the people, particularly those the ruling politicians do not represent. In our skewed electoral system of ‘first-past-the-post’ ruling politicians hardly represent 25-30 per cent of the people. If the IAS officials strictly observe ‘political subservience’ and surrender to the rulers-of-the-day and do their biddings without demur ‘where will the majority flee?’
Too much of protection can reduce a person to cowardice. This is what is happening to IAS officials—they willingly become cowards since they do not have the courage even to face a transfer or some minor inconvenience for upholding principles of honest governance. Like a ‘coward who dies a thousand deaths’, they are compromising and acquiescing every time just to keep their posts and positions safe. This is pure hypocrisy.
The practice of ‘jack-of-all-trades’, fitting round-pegs in square holes and square-pegs in round holes, is the villain of professionalism and probity in civil service. By perpetrating non-professionalism and non-performance in governance, this feudal practice enables politicians to play favourites and gives them the unbridled power to post anybody for any job, the main criteria being their meekness and pliability!
Dismantling these archaic hangovers to make IAS vibrant and effective was the challenge for any government. Even from top positions as Secretary to GoI, Planning Commission and Member, NAC, Saxena does not seem to have done much to take up any of this challenge. In 2014, with a sound mandate for NDA-2, one expected the PMO under the new Prime Minister to assume leadership position, declare an administrative crisis, rally the legislature and executive and come out with a comprehensive reform/ reconfiguration blueprint so that IAS could again become the bulwark of people-centred governance which was badly lacking!
That was not to be and in the last five years the reverse has happened and with extreme centralisation of authority IAS has lost even the little independence it had. And like many institutions and instruments of democratic governance, IAS has also been under severe assault. First came the steep reduction of the role of IAS at the decision-making level of Joint Secretaries in GoI and replacing them with personnel from other services that have no all-India character or exposure.
Then came the proposal to trash the merit list for civil services recommended by the constitutionally mandated UPSC and instead allotting service as well as cadre based on the trainee’s performance at the Academy during the short Foundation Course. Soon thereafter, through ‘lateral-entry’, nine private sector personnel were inducted as Joint Secretaries to GoI.
Within days of NDA-3 taking over, Department of Personnel & Training started preparing a proposal for inducting 400 ‘domain experts’ to fill Deputy Secretary/Director post in the Central Government. This is 60 per cent of the 650 posts at this level under the Central Staffing Scheme which are currently available mostly to IAS officers. This is virtual dismemberment and nothing but choking and strangulation of the service within!
Outside the service and in the nation at large, what Civil Rights stalwart Rajni Kothari wrote about the Emergency period is playing out mutatis mutandis: “It was a state off-limits, a government that hijacked the whole edifice of the state, a ruling party and leader who in effect treated the state as their personal estate. It was the imposition of a highly concentrated apparatus of power on a fundamentally federal society and the turning over of this centralized apparatus for personal power… It was one big swoop overtaking the whole country spreading a psychosis of fear and terror….”
Though political despots rule the roost, it is the IAS officers, especially the younger ones, who bear the brunt and are forced to carry the can. In the event, there is unspoken anguish and agony among those who came into the IAS as a mission and not mercenary service. Some of them are imploding and this could turn into explosion if not promptly addressed and remedied.
Under these circumstances should IAS be discredited or remedied? This is a question that begs to be answered.
Writer is a former Army and IAS Officer
GOVERNANCE / Civil Services / by MGDevasahayam