Did India err in reposing too much faith in IAS?

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Did India err in reposing too much faith in IAS?

Thursday, 08 July 2021 | deepak kumar jha

Did India err in reposing too much faith in IAS?

Why should the revenue department or telecom department be headed by an IAS officer and not a revenue officer or an IT department officer?

India’s first Home Minister Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel said that the Indian bureaucracy is the steel frame of the Indian administrative system. Sadly, over time, the British legacy of administration gained more strength and power, alienating the administrator from the administered masses. The government of the day always saw an advantagein its presence penetrating every district in the form of an officer of the Indian Administrative Service (IAS).

As the maxim goes there are only three seats of acclaimed real power in India - PM (Prime Minister), CM (Chief Minister), and DM (District Magistrate). The latter, vested with both revenue as well as administrate powers, is also called District Collector. It was a British design of convenience to drain away wealth from India through these agents of theirs. The rest of the bureaucracy was required to assist them in servile obligations. This culture of servile submission to an IAS by other members of the bureaucracy continues to date resulting in a demoralized and weakened bureaucracy.

The craving for this coveted service has its genesis in the Indian feudal mentality where each one dreamt of attaining a regal stature and the masses addressing them as “Mai Baap” or My Lord.

It is a general notion today that Civil Services is the most difficult but prestigious competitive exam. It follows a process of elimination rather than talent determination. After three stages of elimination, the system selects around 1000 officers who are all equally talented. Gradually, however, a class divide emerges among them. The top 150 officers who get the highest marks probably because of doing well in languages like Sanskrit, Pali or Persian become an elite class, supposed to be omniscient and competent to administer any place or sector in the country.

This is probably why Prime Minister Narendra Modi once said in Parliament that the same “Babu” cannot fly a plane and run a chemical industry at the same time. He meant that you need specialized people for different sectors. It is possible to find such men among the band of 1000 officers, but not after the system straightjackets them in various services silos — IRS, IPS, IRTS, India Audit, Indian Ordinance, etc. An officer with a chemical engineering background could well be handling audit and accounts much to his dislike.

The divisive system pits one set of officers against another because of an irrational system of selection. The top 150 officers in a batch get into the IAS. The rest are collectively known as Group B. In other words. even though the officers qualified after taking the same exam, faced the same interviews, and secured nearly the same percentage of marks, the 1000 officers except the 150 are allotted subjugated positions in the services.

These Group B officers are required to report to and submit themselves before officers who were in the race with them a few years ago. Is this not class discrimination? Where did we go wrong? The British left us with a flawed and discriminatory administrative structure. In those days the British were the rulers and they owed their allegiance to the Crown. They had no love lost for India. The country was essentially a hunting ground for resources, just like other colonies. This colonial administrative structure continued even after Independence.

A young IAS officer of around 30 years is made a District Magistrate and asked to take all decisions in a district. He or she has merely four to five years of work experience and yet is supposed to know everything from land revenue to taxation to the criminal code and hundreds of Acts that are used in routine governance. It is too much to expect from such a junior officer.

What is the way out? Over 700 districts are the core administrative units of the country. Many are large and diverse enough to be mini-Indias with elected municipal corporations and own tax revenue bases. Leaving these complex units in inexperienced hands is a gamble. Therefore, the DMs should be officers with at least two decades of service. Experienced hands are needed in the field and not in ministries where there is no dearth of experience and knowledge.

The IAS hegemony needs to be exposed and reduced. The 5000-odd IAS officers across the country form such a strong “trade union” that not even the Prime Ministercan shake its network. These officers have become arrogant over time and even a junior IAS officer will not report to a senior bureaucrat who is not an IAS, however smart and knowledgeable the latter may be. This arrogance gets bolstered by the bureaucratic structure where the secretaries of all departments or any sensitive and powerful posts are occupied by and earmarked for IAS officers only.

Why should a revenue department or and telecom department be headed by an IAS officer and not a Revenue officer or an IT department officer? The power in the Indian bureaucratic system flows from the Cabinet Secretariat where the Cabinet Secretary is invariably an IAS officer. Naturally, all government departments are also headed by IAS officers, continuing their hegemony.

It is necessary to periodically audit the performance of officers and reassess their potential, at least once every five years. The batch of 1000 officers should be re-tested on various administrative parameters that mayinclude written examinations and an interview by an independent board. The rank and assignment of the officers should be revised according to their performance. Care should be taken to ensure that their assignments are compatible with their educational qualifications.

This way, the Prime Minister need not look to the private sector for lateral entry of talent into the bureaucracy. Instead, the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT) should be asked to look at its own talent pool so that only those IAS officers who upgrade their skills regularly go to the top of the scale while those who fail the assessment test should lag behind. Only the threat of losing their status will encourage the IAS officers to work hard for the assessments. The bureaucracy would gradually benefit from such professional competition among officers.

It is time to rethink the IAS-centric bureaucracy if at all India wants to nurture public service-oriented officers. With the current dispensation being strong-willed, itdoesnot look so daunting a task. The choice is between now or never. 

(The writer is Special Correspondent, The Pioneer, New Delhi. The views expressed are personal.)

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