What Is Corroding The Steel Frame?

Stubbornly honest IAS officers did idolise Mr Uday Kumar Varma in service while not that honest officers respected him like that so such an overall experience establishes the veteran’s examining the bureaucratic prospects of India’s civil service here as appropriate.

by Uday Kumar Varma

Not many will disagree on the Steel Frame’s erosion. Most civil servants today remain just tendril like embellishments on the frame – parasitic, even if presentable. Many have colluded with or ignored the rot that has been eating the frame. Officers of integrity heard echoes and saw strains that led some of them to doubt, question and at times condemn motives and actions of officers. But so deeply was the system entrenched in them that nothing they saw or heard could shake, shock or surprise them into action. Ostrich-like, they felt the problem would go away. But it did not. Why did the service go this way?

The Problem?

1. Obsession with power and privilege

Over the years, civil servants have become so obsessed with the power and privileges they enjoy that preserving and perpetuating them has become a necessity for them. The commensurate responsibility that accompanies such power may or may not be fulfilled – but the power must remain, it is something taken for granted and a matter of right; this is the persistent attitude.

2. Integrity no longer a necessity

Integrity and probity were their strongest suite. It made their cognition, comprehension and efficiency in meeting the endless challenges of administration stand out. It gave them the moral courage and conviction to stand against the corrupt and unscrupulous.

Over time, unfortunately, some of them became partners and allies of politicians and other vested interests. Some even chose to become the dominant entity in this cooperative. Politicians realized they were on the same page with them in our priorities and convergent on the purpose of being in power.

But the greater tragedy is that a large number of them, who did not wish to join the bandwagon, watched and kept quiet because they valued their own stable lives, children’s future and due progression in their careers. Being ensconced in positions of authority, they became so insensitive and inured of criticism that they dismissed this perception as the frustrated manipulations of other All India Services or the media.

3. Parameters for success have greatly altered

Over the years, first slowly and later rapidly, the definition of being successful altered. To survive in a post became the foremost criterion for being judged as successful. This became particularly critical in the early days of one’s career. Since most Collectors are trusted with the responsibility of effectively implementing developmental and welfare programs, doing so won them laurels, but in the process, leakages – particularly pecuniary leakages – became an integral part of implementation. So, the delivery of the program was successful, yet the full value of benefits did not reach the beneficiaries.

In other words, the criterion for successful implementation of government programs over time discounted the financial discipline and ethical underpinnings that had gone hand-in-hand with implementation in the early days. While the IAS must be given full credit for successfully translating several schemes on the ground, their inability or disinterest in neutralizing corrupt nexuses perpetuated this pernicious practice that eventually acquired an institutional status. Many of them, sometimes willingly, sometimes reluctantly, joined the commonwealth of the corrupt.

Why did this happen?

Did it begin like this when we got independence? Around this time, Sardar Patel had called the IAS the “Steel Frame” of India. For around a decade post-independence, the IAS, which had to live up to the legacy of the erstwhile ICS, went about their responsibilities and duties with the highest level of dedication and commitment. Those were difficult years –  beset with gigantic challenges following the biggest and bloodiest migration of humankind in history, a devastated economy and hunger and poverty of the worst kind. But the IAS held the country together and delivered what was expected of it in difficult times. It was also free from interference from the political leadership, which was altogether in a different class as far as their dedication, commitment and intent went. The fervor of building a new country subjugated for over eight centuries was strong, deep and pervasive. Personal comforts and privileges were relegated to the background. No sacrifice was considered big or exemplary enough in this pursuit.

While some bring in the issue of reservation as the cause for the first cracks to appear in the frame, a policy which was the first to divide civil servants internally, it is politically incorrect and socially inappropriate to question the policy of reservation, even as its consequences need objective evaluation. We must not forget that reservation is a far more complex issue with any discussion involving aspects of history, sociology, identity and economics, which one is not competent to do in a summary manner. 

1. Age of Entry

A major cause for the present day troubles of the service, in my opinion, starts with the relaxation of the age on entry. In the late seventies, the maximum age allowed for appearing in the civil service examination (the new terminology for the erstwhile IAS/IFS examination, IPS examination and IRS examination, which were earlier held separately) was raised to 27 and the number of attempts were also increased. The age limit was further relaxed by another 5 years for reserved category applicants. Consequently, there emerged a set of applicants who would invest 3-5 years of their lives in preparing for this examination. Some of them would eventually succeed. But the majority would end up seeking alternative avocation after exhausting all their attempts and in the process lose some of the best years of their lives. Many would retain that sense of bitterness towards the examination process and the successful entrants.

The modifications thus made in the recruitment process has led to a situation where the candidates may not be bringing with them the right social, cultural and ethical orientation that qualifies them to pursue a career such as the civil service, a career where apart from opportunities to serve society through positions carrying immense authority and responsibility, one has to display and genuinely pursue a life characterized by complete integrity and probity.

Today the average age of a fresh entrant to the IAS stands at 28 years plus. At this age, attitudes are more or less set and the value system inalterably shaped. To replace these deeply entrenched mindsets with a healthy and passionate ideology of service and sacrifice demands a training program, radically different from what obtains today.

2. Deficiencies of Training

The training of IAS probationers has failed to instill in them the right values and the sense of pride for being upright and beyond reproach in their conduct and comfort. In India training is often taken as a necessary but not a serious requirement. Therefore, while going through the motions of imparting training, no serious attempt is made to carefully design training content. The training of IAS probationers in India equips them well with legal knowledge and practical lessons to deal with the requirements of the job but it is woefully unmindful and casual about the ethical dimensions of an IAS officer’s duties and the underlying salience of integrity in their professional work. It is also no secret that the job of the Director of the Academy is rarely the first choice of most senior officers eligible for the post. Most of the officers of that seniority will like to serve a mainstream ministry. Consequently, while most of them try to discharge their duties as much as not to invite any criticism of lack of interest, they clearly lack the passion and personal commitment to use the opportunity to prepare the Probationers to deal with issues of corruption and ethics and instill in them an abiding value system that will make the trainees face the harsh and unsavory onslaught with fortitude and tact.

The fact remains that the trainees of the recent batches, during endless interactions, do believe that corruption is a way of life and it is not their objective in service to either eliminate them or deal with them decisively. After all, they argue, they have not joined the service to become social reformers. 

3. Willful Ignorance

There is now seen so much of deterioration in our public life and discourse that any thought of it being otherwise only engenders derision. Specifically, the bureaucrat (including police)-politician-contractor (business) nexus would not have become so strong as to control the system, if even a handful of IAS had resolutely raised the red flag. It would still have been there but it would have always been considered vile and to be carried out clandestinely. This is the difference that would have occurred. Ruefully, the majority of IAS succumbed to the machinations and manipulations of this nexus.

It is not to say that there are no honest officers in the system. There are, a lot many, but this tribe, barring rare exceptions, has chosen to look the other way, while people below and above and around go merrily plundering the resources, diminishing and robbing the entitlements at will and filling their bottomless pit of endless greed. The few, whose conscience still revolts and is likely to cause inconvenience to this nexus are suitably dealt with by the system by putting them in places where they can go on writing copious notes and preparing voluminous briefs with no real say in matters of governance.

4. No faceless bureaucracy

But the real failure for which future generations of administrators will hold them accountable and responsible, is their complete indifference to the idea of institutionalizing the good work many of us have done in the field or elsewhere.

In a typical career of an IAS officer, two positions hold special significance in terms of visible authority and potential to make noticeable impact. One is that of Collector/District Magistrate/Deputy Commissioner and the other is of Secretary to Government of India in a Ministry. In both these positions, officers have taken innovative and inspiring initiatives, many of them resulting in substantial success. However, documenting a successful initiative and institutionalizing it has never been the priority of such officers. The same is true of numerous Secretaries who have with or without the active support of their Ministers, conceived and grounded outstanding schemes and programs. But almost to the fault, they never documented the process and the thinking and philosophy behind such initiatives as also the way forward. Invariably, the successor officer has to understand these initiatives and adopt them for continuation.

This takes time and as human nature is, every officer desires to leave his own very special and personal impact in such assignments. The result is that many of these assiduously planned and developed initiatives are abandoned mid-way: often because either the successor officer did not like to carry on something his predecessor is credited with; or because it takes time to reinvent the wheel and come to the same initiative after a sizable gap of time. The streak, the weakness and the ambition to show individual brilliance and innovation almost completely overshadows the desirability of institutionalizing them and thus deprives the society and the country of the benefits of continuous, focused and sustained thinking, planning and building schemes of great value and impact.

5. Lessons given to the new generation

Today, nowhere, in the training of IAS officers, the necessity and importance of documentation of initiatives is emphasized. The question of being told that you should have zero tolerance for corruption and should not mind a transfer fighting corruption, is left open ended and vague with advice that it’s our job to “manage” politicians. The message between the lines is that the important thing is to survive, notwithstanding costs that fray your moral fiber and compromise your conscience.

6. Change is inevitable

IAS may be unique to India and a class apart but governments across the world need   bureaucracies to ground their programs and also to administer. Logically, therefore, they reflect the ideology, the vision, the compulsions and the priorities of the ruling dispensation. They, in the same vein, in many cases become the instruments to force their perverse and self–serving agenda. The bureaucracies, therefore, evolve in specific contexts. Our civil services are a legacy of British. There too, under the watch of Mrs. Margaret Thatcher reforms in civil services were initiated in 1979. A Commission headed by a non-civil servant Sir Derek Rayner deliberated and recommended reforms. Many of these recommendations were accepted and put through the grind despite stiff opposition from bureaucrats. The ‘Spoils System’ common in the US makes the term of top bureaucrats co-terminus with the President. The world over, the bureaucracies have been undergoing change and reform. The IAS must also reform to keep pace with the changing times and become more responsive and productive.       

7. It’s a wakeup call

‘Mission Karmyogi’, many believe, is the beginning of the end of supremacy of IAS in the bureaucracy. The fact that it was thought necessary to laterally induct specialists and domain experts at higher echelons of governance, is an indictment of IAS. It is like acknowledging that in certain areas, the generalist’s skills are not good enough. It also implies that many in IAS have not been able to acquire a level of subject matter knowledge and expertise necessary for certain key posts. The critics may also argue that the IAS has not worked hard enough to thoroughly understand and master critical issues related to the areas where they were at the helm of affairs.

However, this also remains a fact that this service has some of the brightest brains and many have an unparalleled commitment to the task assigned to them. But this is not universal. Its time, IAS as a group does some honest and ruthless introspection and take remedial measures at least a decade or two from now, they face the certain prospect of this service becoming a part of history.

It’s a wakeup call.

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