An abstract by Lavanya Goinka & Siddharth Sharma
The country’s civil service once heralded as the steel frame of independent India, is now a pale reflection of its golden past, when officers of high intellectual caliber, personal integrity, and the brio to deliver fair counsel ruled.
Following in the footsteps of the ‘heaven-sent’ colonial Indian Civil Service, or ICS, and the equivalent Indian Police or IP, the newly independent India’s civil services were not dissimilar. They dealt fairly with the volatile days of Partition, which were marked by bloodshed, refugee influxes, and asset split between the two newly formed nations.
They kept hope alive in the decades after that, guided by capable political leaders, by nurturing a developing democracy in the country.
They kept optimism alive in the decades after that, directed by capable political leaders, by nurturing a young democracy in a vastly varied society that few in the world thought would survive as a nation-state.
However, over seven decades later, India’s crisis-plagued bureaucracy is unrecognizable; it is hated for its inefficiency, nepotism, and corruption, but above all, for its arrogance and high-maintenance, low-mileage skills. The few diligent and upright officers who continue to boldly adhere to traditional values and keep the institution afloat are overshadowed by this prevalent impression of the civil services.
Many systems, however, continue to function pretty well as a result of the latter reducing complement of officials.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi appears to share the public’s view of Indian officials. In the Lok Sabha, he recently chastised the country’s public officials, notable members of the ‘hallowed’ Indian Administrative Service (IAS), which oversees the country’s bureaucracy.
An enraged prime minister bemoaned that India’s growth had become “hostage” to the whims and fancies of babus – a mildly derogatory word for state workers – and the unfettered power they wielded during President Ram Nath Kovind’s parliamentary address.
“Babus will do everything?” a skeptical prime minister enquired rhetorically. He raged, “Because they become IAS (officers), they operate fertilizer plants, chemical factories, and even fly planes.” “What is this great power we have created?” he wondered, before asking his colleagues if it was wise to hand over the “reins of the nation (of power and government) to babus.”
Senior government workers were irritated by the prime minister’s outburst, and instead of reflecting on the accusations levelled against them, they spent their time speculating on what had provoked Modi’s reaction. They almost universally agreed that the prime minister’s rant was motivated by a few of projects that had been delayed; of course, this was due to no fault of their own.
What Modi said in parliament on February 10 echoed the misery and helplessness of billions of Indians, who are absorbed by a bureaucracy that includes the Indian Police Service (IPS) and the Indian Foreign Service (IFS) in addition to the IAS (IFS).
Such inaccessibility contributes significantly to the public’s image of the officer’s significance and invincibility. And, despite the fact that civil workers are unable to meet or speak with everyone, there is no system in place to distinguish between those who have real issues and those who do not. This malaise has spread to the lower levels of the power structure, leaving millions of unsatisfied supplicants across the country.
A considerable deal of the business of these civil officials is handled in haloed meetings, which are attended by officers whose knowledge of the subject under discussion is usually restricted to what is included in the briefs or notes written by their juniors. Furthermore, these endless rounds of meetings are generally long and tedious, devoid of any levity or comedy, and rarely result in a final conclusion. The minutes are usually recorded on the omnipresent file, which is then kept in eternal orbit.
Sir ji’s phone calls are checked by his army of subordinates, who always ask the same questions: ‘aap kahan se bol rahe hain,’ ‘kya kaam hai,’ or a helpful ‘dekhta hun sahib kamre mein hain ki nahin.’ However, most callers are told that ‘sahib’ is either out or at a meeting, thus this is merely a ruse. This usually signifies only one thing: the caller isn’t important enough for the personal staff to bother the boss. Visitors are similarly disdainfully discouraged, either by making them wait or by advising them to meet with a lower-level official about their complaints.
Exceptions aside, there is a common thread that runs through them all, at least in public perception: power, pelf, and relative invulnerability. The calibre of government servants is directly proportional to their performance in the qualifying examination and subsequent interview. After that, for the average three decades that most officers serve, efficiency, probity, conscientiousness, and empathy become less important.
Most officers adopt the trappings of feudal grandeur in the same way that their colonial forefathers did, but without the effectiveness, devotion, or impartiality of their forefathers.
Max Weber (1864-1920), a German sociologist, famously defined bureaucracy as a highly structured organisation based on specialisation and technical expertise, a formal system of rules and regulations, a clearly defined hierarchy, and impersonality in rule execution. Weber would have a hard time, to put it gently, defining Indian bureaucracy even remotely in this broad framework a century later.
Even insiders who have spent decades in these civil services fail to describe the “Sarkari Jalebi” which impacts every Indian’s life but making the bureaucrat’s life completely indispensable. It is also a truth that an Indian government official has enormous authority, which is often proportional to the talent of the person wielding it.
The toxic chaturvarna vyavastha, or caste system, to which admission is determined by one’s performance in annual civil service and other entrance examinations, is metaphorically mirrored by India’s bureaucratic hierarchy, which is divided into four categories. And, just as one’s station in the chaturvarna vyavastha is determined by chance, one’s admission into one of these aforementioned categories dictates the future trajectory of one’s career, limiting mobility between the broad four civil service groupings.
In the Weberian plan, specialisation is an important aspect of bureaucracy, but in India, the ‘generalist’ IAS officers are the ultimate mavens in all administration branches, as Prime Minister Modi forcefully said in parliament.
An IAS officer with a bachelor’s degree in arts could be considered as knowledgeable in financial management as they are in aerospace and defence, having learned the essentials on the job in most cases. It appears that the level of knowledge and expertise required in any of these areas is not a barrier. As the prime minister put it, the “Babu’s” are capable of anything.
In 1970, India’s first Administrative Reforms Commission (ARC), tasked with restructuring the country’s bureaucracy, suggested that the lAS be given an overarching “functional field.” This, according to the Commission, might include land tax administration, magisterial tasks, and regulatory work in states in domains other than those handled by officials from various civil services.
It was also suggested that positions that do not fall into a certain “functional area” be divided into eight administrative categories: economic, industrial, agricultural, and rural development, social and education, personnel, finance, and defence.
These proposals, predictably, were never fully adopted. Instead, a hybrid system was implemented, giving IAS officials an advantage in terms of promotion, postings, and career advancement. The non-IAS services were treated like stepbrothers under this skewed system, leading to anger and demoralisation. Despite the fact that non-IAS officers are now being inducted into higher posts in the ministries in greater numbers than before, the number of officers seeking such positions remains limited.
As administration has become more technologically enabled and specialised, the suggestions of the first ARC remain applicable. Successive governments declared their intention to take office with the goal of enacting administrative reforms, but internal forces skilfully thwarted them each time, reminiscent of the BBC sitcom Yes Minister and later Yes, Prime Minister.