IAS at the crossroads

The Indian Administrative Service (IAS), that inheritor of the mantle of the Indian Civil Service (ICS), has reached a decisive point in its almost seven decade existence. There has been a growing groundswell in the police and central services (referred to hereafter, for the sake of brevity, as the “other services”) for parity in pay and promotion prospects vis a vis the IAS. While reliable data is not available, recent trends seem to indicate a growing tendency to appoint more non-IAS officers as Joint Secretaries, Deputy Secretaries, etc. The clamour for pay parity grows as the date for the report of the Seventh Central Pay Commission draws near. With the central government acting on the “one rank one pension” (OROP) demand of the military forces with unusual alacrity, it should cause no surprise if the demand of the other services for equality in pay with the IAS does not strike a sympathetic chord with the government of the day. Once this becomes a reality, the hitherto enjoyed predominance of the IAS in postings in the central government would come to an end.

A lot of water has, indeed, flowed under the bridge since Sardar Patel’s decision to constitute the All India Services (the IAS and the IPS) as successor services to the ICS and the Imperial Police. These two services were to serve as the administrative link between the Union and the States in a fledgling democracy. The Central Services (Income Tax, Customs & Central Excise, Railway Traffic & Railway Accounts, Audits & Accounts, etc.) were intended to perform specialized functions like direct and indirect tax collections, audit of government accounts and a host of other activities linked to government monopoly over the economic and infrastructure sectors. However, over time, the need to provide promotion opportunities to members of the central services saw a proportion of posts in the Central Secretariat being filled in by officers of these services; this was in addition to the posts in their respective service organisations which were reserved only for officers of these services.

The original rationale for having a two-way flow of IAS officers (for specific time periods) from the states to the centre, and vice versa, was to draw on the expertise and knowledge acquired by them in the state so that policy formulation at the central level would benefit from an understanding of the situation at the ground level. With the exception of areas which are the exclusive preserve of the central government, this reasoning still holds good today. It still makes sense to post an officer in the Ministry of Women & Child Development who understands how an anganwadi works or a Joint Secretary in the Ministry of School Education who has observed the functioning (or otherwise) of a village school.

The problem with the IAS has arisen with the increasing need for domain expertise and the failure of the IAS as a service to meet this need of the times. Shifting between different departments, often with short tenures, and not having the opportunity (or the compulsion) to specialize in a particular field, the IAS officer is in a situation where her sister-officer from the other services can claim, with some justification, that the IAS officer brings no specific domain expertise to the job; ergo, anyone can be appointed to do that job. The issue gets compounded further because of the failure of many IAS officers to act as change agents in the positions they occupy. Procedures, rather than outcomes, rule their thinking: aligning government systems with the latest technology and promoting more responsive and efficient governance are neither their priority nor the touchstone on which their worth to the organisation is assessed. A fair share of the blame for this state of affairs goes to the highest echelons of the bureaucracy, which have neither pushed for the acquisition of specialized knowledge by officers nor put in place mechanisms to ensure an officer spends adequate time in a particular post to assess her contribution fairly and honestly. In fact, the “transfer” disease has now spread from the states to the centre. Secretaries, Additional Secretaries and Joint Secretaries at the centre, who used to enjoy uninterrupted tenures in one post, are now shuffled around at frequent intervals, hardly a recipe for acquiring knowledge about a particular job.

Another phenomenon which has pushed the IAS on the back foot is the tendency to allow almost every officer to rise to the very top of the service (at least in terms of pay scales), especially in the states. What this implies is that even officers not found suitable for occupying positions of Joint Secretary and above in the central government invariably move up the hierarchy and occupy posts in state governments carrying salaries equal to those paid to Secretaries of the Government of India (most officers in the Indian Police Service also benefit from this largesse when they remain in the states). Not surprisingly, this leads to howls of protests from members of other services, who are not similarly favoured. A lot of the recent fireworks over OROP arose from the grievance of the military that those among them who did not make the cut had to retire much earlier, depriving them not only of their pre-retirement benefits but also entitling them to lower pensions, since they retired at lower levels of the military cadre.

As the service which has generally been considered primus inter pares and is expected to set the standard for all other services, the IAS has certainly been found wanting. But let me place the matter in perspective by stating that the other services (All-India and Central) suffer from the same deficiencies as the IAS, namely, lack of professionalism and absence of domain expertise. The problem lies not in a particular service, but in the structure of governance we have given ourselves over the past seven decades. My colleagues in all the services would be well advised to introspect on whether they have taken to heart John F. Kennedy’s words in his inaugural presidential address in 1961: “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” From my side, I offer some suggestions, which have also been outlined in two earlier blogs ( Why blame the IAS alone? ) and ( Reconstructing the bureaucracy ).

Trimming the bureaucracy should be the first priority of government. This will not only enable expenditure control but will improve efficiency. Governments everywhere, but especially in India, suffer from the operation of Peter’s Principle (“Everyone in an organization keeps on getting promoted until they reach their level of incompetence”) and Parkinson’s Law (“work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”). To this, I would add one more principle/law: “Staff expands to create work for its expansion” (dare I immodestly claim the name Ramani’s law for it?). More staff leads to more paperwork and more levels of processing of decisions. Staff creation proposals tend to exhibit the “middle age spread” syndrome — heavy towards the lower parts of the body. If you don’t believe me, see any request for new staff; there is always a preponderance of clerks and peons rather than of knowledge workers.

Moving completely to a system of contractual appointments at all levels of government will enforce accountability. The process should be started immediately using the carrot of the Seventh Central Pay Commission recommendations, which are rumoured to be fairly generous. It will also enable the appointment of persons with knowledge in specific fields to run departments and organisations. If Justin Trudeau can stock his Canadian Cabinet of Ministers with experts, India should try to do the same at least in its bureaucracy, for a start. Not only can deadwood in government be effortlessly weeded away, we can hopefully call an end to the current battles between “generalists” and “specialists” and between the IAS and other services.

Moving policy and decision making down the governance ladder to local governments will promote more enthusiastic citizen participation, improve administrative responsiveness and enable shedding of administrative flab in central and state governments. Implementation diktats from Delhi and state capitals have destroyed local initiative and have often starved local governments of sorely needed funds. It is time, more than twenty years after the passage of the 73rd and 74th amendments to the Constitution of India, to pay more than token obeisance to these legislations and to move further down the road of empowering local elected representatives of the people.

The IAS can reinvent itself and lend a new dimension to efforts to restructure the civil services if the top levels of the bureaucracy, still largely manned by the service, move to implement the suggestions given above. That all senior government services, including the IAS, require thorough overhauling is no longer in doubt. Individuals in the IAS and other services rendered, and continue to render, invaluable public service: the examples of those who headed organisations like the Reserve Bank of India, the Securities and Exchanges Board of India and the Konkan Railway Corporation/Delhi Metro Rail Corporation as well as many police officers and administrators come to mind. But twenty first century India needs a different administrative paradigm; the challenges before the country brook no further delay. Rather than squabble over short-term service benefits, my colleagues in the decision-making apparatus today need to go in for a radical remake of the civil services, on the lines of their colonial cousins in the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand. They would do well to heed Brutus’ admonition:

There is a tide in the affairs of men,

Which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune. 

(William Shakespeare: Julius Caesar)






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2 Responses to IAS at the crossroads

  1. Dilip Karmarkar says:

    Sir, “Ramani’s Law” is an interesting fact.

    I remember of some research paper on examining, if I remember the name correctly, something called as “Flypaper Effect” from theories of political economy. The hypothesis was simple – “More and more of decentralization should reduce the size of Governance (and / or Government) at upper levels.” The paper was trying to assess the effect of 74th CAA, and results were exactly opposite of the hypothesis. It was a good case of gap between theories and practice in Indian context.

    Anyway, this was your first blog, which I have read, and now, I would be a fan for your writings.

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