What ails the Indian Administrative Service IAS? Politicisation…

Besides unstable tenure, the politicisation of the bureaucracy is a key reason for the poor delivery by the IAS officers leading to complete departure from public interest

Photo Courtes: social media
Photo Courtes: social media

Naresh Chandra Saxena

The IAS serves the state but the state structure is itself getting increasingly divorced from public interest. In some north Indian States parallel authority structures and Mafia gangs have emerged. Tribal regions in central and north-east India are out of bounds for normal administration. In such a situation it is no surprise if the bureaucracy too is in bad shape.

Many malfunctioning states in India have lost the dynamism and capacity to undertake reforms on their own without any external pressure. These States are ruled by people who understand power, patronage, transfers, money, coercion and crime. The language of professionalism, goal orientation, transparency, building up of institutions, and peoples’ empowerment is totally alien to them.

There has been a growing realisation among some chief ministers of the need to improve governance, but unfortunately only a few have been able to translate this into concrete action. This would necessarily involve keeping the MLAs and ministers under check, which is difficult when the state is under a coalition regime, or the ruling party is constrained by a thin margin in the Assembly, or is divided into factions.

The reformist chief minister is often at odds with his own party members who hate getting sidelined in the process of establishing rule-based policy procedures. In many other states, even chief ministers seem to be averse to professionalising administration. They think that benefits from such policies are delayed whereas costs are immediate.

Over the years, whatever virtues the IAS possessed - integrity, political neutrality, courage and high morale - are showing signs of decay. Some civil servants are deeply involved in partisan politics: they are preoccupied with it, penetrated by it, and now participate individually and collectively in it.

This is understandable, though unfortunate, because between expression of the will of the state (represented by politicians) and the execution of that will (through the administrators) there cannot be any long term dichotomy. In other words, a model in which politicians would be casteist, corrupt and will harbour criminals, whereas civil servants will continue to be efficient, responsive to public needs and change-agents cannot be sustained indefinitely. In the long run administrative and political values have to coincide.

Posted for weeks, collecting weekly bribes

One of the main reasons why systemic reforms have not been taken up earnestly by the states is the lack of stable tenure for IAS officials.

Postings and transfers are two well-known areas where the evolution of firm criteria can easily be circumvented in the name of administrative efficacy. Even if the fiscal climate does not allow fresh recruitment on a large scale, a game of musical chairs through transfers can always bring in huge rentals to corrupt officials and politicians.

As tenures shorten both efficiency and accountability suffer. In UP the average tenure of an IAS officer in the last 20 years is said to be as low as six months. In the IPS it is even lower, leading to a wisecrack that 'if we are posted for weeks all we can do is to collect our weekly bribes’.

Transfers have been used as instruments of reward and punishment, as tools for controlling and taming the bureaucracy. There is no transparency, and in the public mind transfer after a short stay is categorised as a stigma. Officers who are victimised are not in a position to defend themselves. Internally the system does not call for any reaction to explain one’s conduct, while externally public servants are debarred from going public to defend themselves.

While presiding over a meeting of the Planning Commission in 2001, Prime Minister Vajpayee lamented that the problem with poor states was that they did not have any industry. I made a cheeky remark, 'Sir, these states have a flourishing transfer and posting industry'. He looked angrily at me for making fun of his tribe.

While working in UP as Secretary, Food & Civil Supplies, a department known for rampant corruption, the Chief Secretary once asked me how come I had a smooth relationship with my Minister. I said, 'we have a very healthy distribution of work amongst ourselves; I look after policy and he looks after establishment'.

Lack of domain knowledge

A high degree of professionalism ought to be the dominant characteristic of a modern bureaucracy. The fatal failing of the Indian bureaucracy has been its low level of professional competence.

The IAS officer spends more than half of his tenure on policy desks where domain knowledge is a vital prerequisite. However, in the present environment prevailing in the States there is no incentive for a young civil servant to acquire knowledge or improve his skills. There is thus an exponential growth in both, his ignorance and arrogance.

It is said that in the house of an IAS officer one would find only three books - the railway timetable, because he is always being shunted from one post to the other, a current affairs magazine because that is his level of interest, and of course, the civil list - that describes the service hierarchy!

An important factor which contributes to the surrender of senior officers before political masters is the total lack of any market value and lack of alternative employment potential. Of late, some senior officers are being hired by the private sector, not so much for their professionalism, but for their ability to influence government in favour of the hiring company.

It is counterproductive to fill up senior positions with career civil servants who do not have previous experience in that broad field. Therefore, after the first ten years of service each IAS officer should be encouraged to specialise in one or two chosen sectors by not only giving them long tenures but even permitting them to join academic or research organisations where they could improve their intellectual skills.

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