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Notebook

Reinforcing the Steel Frame

Reinforcing the Steel Frame
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A big reason for getting ‘fresh blood’ in the civil service is that governance is now too complex a task to be handled by generalist civil servants

THERE WAS A time when civil servants in India dispensed justice on horseback, and effectively at that. From ‘settling’ land revenue to writing ‘famine codes’, virtually everything an administrator could think of was done by the colonial bureaucracy. A Malcolm Darling could devise ways to do something for peasants in the Punjab while a Richard Temple handled famine in Bengal. Those ideas became outdated in the 20th century. But that doesn’tmatter. The Indian Administrative Service (IAS), anchored in a time- warp, continues plodding along. The empathy and efficiency vanished a long time ago.

That may change soon. The Narendra Modi Government plans to hire 50-odd civil servants—to be placed on a par with the regular civil servants—at the director, joint secretary and additional secretary levels. The recruitments, to be made through the NITI Aayog, will be for what are called ‘flexi-pool’ posts. In the previous Modi Government, a tentative beginning was made by recruiting 10 joint secretaries through the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC). It was probably the boldest experiment in civil service reform after many decades.

A big reason for getting ‘fresh blood’ in the civil service is that governance is now too complex a task to be handled by generalist civil servants. By 1990s, it became obvious that ministries like finance could not be handled by IAS officers who had risen up the ranks merely on the basis of seniority. At that time, economists like Montek Singh Ahluwalia and later Vijay Kelkar were brought in as finance secretaries. An effort was also made to allow IAS officers opportunities for academic training so that they could man positions in such ministries.

That experiment worked. Now, however, a finance ministry-like situation is to be found in virtually all departments. From sanitation to drinking water and from housing to trade negotiations, each task has become too specialised for a civil servant who has spent a lifetime in dozens of departments. This is not the old specialist versus generalist debate anymore: the barriers between specialists and generalists don’t exist. One simply has to be a specialist or a domain expert to deliver in any area.

If that were not enough, the culture of India’s civil service acquired its own idiosyncrasies, likes and dislikes that became detrimental tothe functioning of a welfare state. Appointments in areas like sanitation and drinking water became ‘punishment postings’ while service delivery continued to deteriorate. If anyone cares to look around and see the proliferation of criminals in politics, the answer is not hard to seek: these sort of ‘leaders’ excel in providing local services that should have come the way of citizens as a matter of right. Decay in delivering services had negative political fallout.

There are, no doubt, other reasons for crime in politics but the ability to secure key services for people—a doctor at the right time, a small loan, housing, etcetera—has a role in the rise of local criminals in politics.

The first Modi Government emphasised on low-cost housing, cleanliness drives and small loans for entrepreneurs, and other such ideas. But these are exactly the areas that a traditional IAS officer is unlikely to be interested in. There are other areas that require urgent attention as well. For example, India’s arms procurement processes are so broken that it takes prime ministerial intervention to get weapons that other countries buy in a jiffy. The ‘why’ of this question does not require elaboration.

Reforming civil service is a complex exercise. The danger is that the end goals and the means of reforms may not have a cohesive link. This may end up creating multiple risks. For one, in a diverse country like India where many provinces continue to witness secessionist trouble, local leaders may want to fish in troubled waters. For another, control by the Union Government of key civil services (IAS, IPS and the Indian Forest Service) is essential for the unity and integrity of India. The corollary to this is that any reform must take these realities into account.

One way out could be the separation of the civil service into two streams. One that handles the management of India’s districts and states and the other that works at the Central level, operating the policymaking levers. The management of districts remains a key task, one that ought to remain with career civil servants recruited through a rigorous recruitment process. It is safe to say there has been some slippage there in recent times. India has 725 districts, probably the largest number of administrative units in a country of its size and diversity. Many of these districts lack virtually everything necessary for proper administration. As recent events have shown, there are districts in Arunachal Pradesh that lack basic transport networks making governance difficult. A lateral entrant will be clueless in such circumstances.

At the same time, it is amply evident, that district administrators do not always function well at the policymaking level. At one time, ‘experience’ in managing a district was considered an essential ingredient to the formulation of realistic policies. This is not true anymore. In any case, most senior IAS officers at the level of secretaries to the Government of India (GoI), served in districts at least three decades ago. It is doubtful if the experience of that time has any validity today. The ideas of these senior civil servants remain glaciated, largely ignorant of the rapid pace of changes in India’s districts. This is not a moot question: how many secretaries of GoI have ever visited places where they began their careers as Sub Divisional Magistrates (SDMs) after they reached the top level of their service? It won’t be surprising if they number a mere handful.

For the sake of fairness, the doors to higher-level, Central appointments should not be shut to these career civil servants. But any progression to the level of joint secretary to GoI and above should be a function of aptitude—to be evaluated through continuous examination—and performance since their joining the civil service.

This is also required as a matter of caution: restricting career progression beyond a point can create perverse incentives. If one knows the upper limit beforehand, the temptation to ‘make the most’ will be too hard to resist.

There is one, allegedly big, argument dished out against any move to induct civil servants through lateral-entry programmes. It is the old claim that this is no more than crafting a new ‘committed bureaucracy’ of the kind that Indira Gandhi and her powerful Principal Secretary PN Haksar once dreamt about. This is a shibboleth. The appointment of these new officers is for a five-year term, one that is co-terminal with the life of the present Government. Once the Government goes, so do these civil servants, unless of course, the incoming government in 2024 wants to retain them. A ‘committed bureaucracy’ was an idea that was a dead end to begin with; it is too far-fetched to imagine its manufacture in a 21st century setting. India remains too big and too diverse a country for that. It is an idea that is best left to the debating talents of intellectuals in the country’s disaffected universities.

The Modi Government plans to make its second foray into bringing in lateral entrants to the civil service. While the experiment is not on a grand scale the changes it hopes to bring in may be far-reaching. It is time to add some iron to the steel frame.