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Why is India's civil service no longer a steel frame, as desired by Sardar Patel, but a creaking structure

By Moin Qazi*
Does a career in the Indian civil service mean a life of ‘public service’? It is a puzzling question given the sloth and thickets of red-tapism that have eroded the bureaucracy. Moreover, the way events have been unfolding, most will tend to agree that all it means is a lifetime of serving the most despicable lot of politicians ever to be found in the world. It means a career that will rub out your individuality, dull your intellect, and corrupt your morals. You will enter a fine young person; you will retire as someone you yourself will not be able to recognise, barring of course, a few courageous exceptions.
Many idealised youngsters begin their careers with loads of ambition and a stock of dreams, waiting to dazzle the world with brilliance, confident that the corner office is theirs for taking. Most enter the profession fired up with noble visions and a sense that the multiple and manifest deprivations, injustices, double-dealings in their society can be alleviated. This conviction soon starts vaporising as the bureaucrat begins reveling in the new ambrosia granted to him by money, power and prestige.
The Indian bureaucracy is both celebrated and reviled, the opinion changing its shades according to context. It has been called the ‘steel frame’ and also derided as ‘babudom’. It has disillusioned many but has earned qualified praise from several others. But the overwhelming agree that it is no longer a ‘steel frame’ but a ‘creaking structure’.
A lingering view that corruption and politicisation of the civil services have become more entrenched is concluded by a research paper by Carnegie Endowment for International Peace on India’s elite civil service cadre, the Indian Administrative Service (IAS), has noted while calling for urgent reforms. In describing how the British avoided politicising their bureaucracy, Ivor Jennings, their famous constitutional scholar, once noted, “The intrusion of politics is the first step towards the intrusion of corruption”.
The paper, titled, “The Indian Administrative Service Meets Big Data”, suggests that immediate reforms should be brought about by the Government to “reshape recruitment and promotion processes, improve performance-based assessment of individual officers, and adopt safeguards that promote accountability while protecting bureaucrats from political meddling”.
The paper said many of its suggestions have been echoed in the various reports of the Second Administrative Reforms Commission (SARC), a major Government-led initiative launched in 2005 to prepare a roadmap for overhauling the Indian bureaucracy. The commission had recognised that “inefficiency, corruption and delays have become, in public perception, the hallmarks of public administration in India”. A World Bank assessment similarly shows a deteriorating rank from 35th in 1996, to 46th in 2014. There are several reasons for the loss of shine of a cadre which produced giants like K P S Menon, L K Jha, and P N Haksar.
The IAS has its roots in the British India Civil Service, the ICS, which administered the country as a colonial possession from 1858 until 1947. Lloyd George called it "the steel frame on which the whole structure of our government and of our administration in India rests", and the IAS has kept the steel frame pretty much intact
A major reason for the dilution of bureaucratic excellence is the poor encouragement the system provides for meritocracy. Vision is one thing, creativity is another. But what can you do when you are up against a calcified system, fickle-minded political leaders who change their opinions faster than they change their clothes and crude local interests who can make life miserable for an upright official.
We must sympathise with those who suffer the taint and stigma of vigilance strictures and sometimes even dismissal from their service for a small slip in a career studded with professional achievements and sacrifices of their families. The IAS is hamstrung by political interference and outdated personnel procedures. The Government must adopt safeguards to promote accountability while protecting bureaucrats from political meddling.
The system has been paralysed with precedents, so every year we accrete new ones. The wheels hobble at a slow lugubrious pace. The British bequeathed us hierarchical machinery-but when it comes to hierarchical institutions, nobody can teach India anything. Today our bureaucracy is twenty times more bureaucratic, our snobberies more snobbish, our deference to the chain of command more cringing and decorous, our worship of paper more entrenched. Honest and competent civil servants — and there are several-must initiate human capital reform to create a high-performing state that does fewer things but does them better.
A bureaucracy that wastes its precious human potential is morally indefensible. This does not mean that there should be fewer oversight checks. An administration certainly needs “guardrails” in the form of non-negotiable rules. Without such rails, the system can stray badly; but requiring a dozen signatures where a few can do is a criminal surfeit of supervisory controls. Similarly, we have a colossal army of paper-pushing subordinates churning out work of frivolous value. A bureaucracy must be an enabler and not a hinderer that clogs the decision making pipeline. Bristish Prime Minister Theresa May observed: “We’re getting rid of bureaucracy so that we’re releasing time for police officers to be crime fighters and not form writers”.
As most retired senior civil servants in India argue, there are three tenets underpinning the functioning of the civil service, which are permanence, neutrality, and anonymity. These tenets provide continuity and change that are important for a democracy, which is a continuously evolving system of governance. While it is a challenge in modern democracy to live up to these values ,the autonomy and protection that the Constitution guarantees the civil servants , there is no reason why they cannot be practiced.
The civil services are certainly a tightrope walk and much depends on the sagacity and instants of the role bearers themselves. As the well known retired civil servant, Najeeb Jung says, “A civil servant often finds himself or herself in unsolvable, peculiar, and unpredictable situations. He tackles them to the best of his or her ability, planning with care but often hitting in the dark some times; with luck he gets away, unscathed but sometime luck runs out”.
There are still horizons of hope. The system still has its stars which keep twinkling even in this looming darkness. Some may feel that their position is hopeless, that there is nothing they can do. The ‘system’ is too strong for them. Perhaps the best antidote to this despair is to study the examples and lives of those who have fought against the odds and succeeded.
In every country, there are some courageous people who have refused to give in, who have stuck by their principles and whose lives shine as examples to others of what can be done. Few people outside the system realize the very personal cost, aside of incarcerations from the system and the police, the high cost of lawyers and the strain on the immediate family that follows the decision to risk it all in an act of conscience.
But there are always unexpected floods of support. Not all can expect recognition or to become folk-heroes. For most of those who put the last first, the satisfaction and rewards are not fame, but in knowing that they have done what was right and that things are, definitely better than they would have been. Their small deeds may not command attention; but in merit, they may equal or exceed the greater and more conspicuous actions of those with more freedom and power.
Big simple solutions are tempting but full of risks. For most outsiders, most of the time, the soundest and the best way forward is through innumerable small steps could be just nudges and tiny pushes. Slower and smaller steps also help to build up people’s adaptability to changes. We should look for small innovations, not just blockbusters.
Small gains well consolidated as part of a sequence can mean more than big gains which are unstable and short-lived. They then support each other and together build up towards a greater movement. By changing what they do, people move societies in new directions. Some contribute from a distance. Others work directly with and for those who are rural and poor, helping them to gain more of what they want and need and to demand and control more of the benefits of development.
Jawaharlal Nehru once said the Indian Civil Service was “Neither Indian, nor Civil, nor a Service”. However, his deputy Sardar Patel considered the civil service “the steel frame of Government machinery”. Both worked to create a model for civil servants that served India well when the primary task was nation-building. Now that it has shifted to public welfare we need bureaucrats with a new ethos, more attuned to performances on the ground, and not just policy designs. Sardar Patel very pithily articulated the future role of civil servants:
“The Union will go -- you will not have a united India, if you have not a good all-India service which has the independence to speak out its mind, which has a sense of security that you will stand by your word and that after all there is the Parliament, of which we can be proud where the rights and privileges are secure… This Constitution is meant to be worked by a ring of service which will keep the country intact.”
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*Contact: moinqazi123@gmail.com

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