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‘Babu samjho ishare’ — Modi’s critique of IAS evokes shock but many also call for introspection

Doffing his hat to private sector Wednesday for its contribution to India’s growth, Modi questioned the ‘power centre we have created by handing over everything to babus’.

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New Delhi: In 2016, the IAS Association took strong exception to the growing use of the word ‘babu’ to refer to officers. The then president of the IAS Association, along with several other serving officers, called the word an “abuse” for Indian civil servants. 

Five years later, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi called IAS officers “babus” and derided the “babu culture” on the floor of Parliament, shock is being expressed in hushed tones even as some described it as a much-needed call for introspection by the community.

While doffing his hat to the private sector Wednesday for its contribution to the growth and development of the country, Modi questioned the “power centre we have created in the country by handing over everything to babus”.  

“Sab kuch babu hi karenge. IAS ban gaye matlab woh fertiliser ka kaarkhana bhi chalayega, chemical ka kaarkhana bhi chalayega, IAS ho gaya toh woh hawai jahaz bhi chalayega. Yeh kaunsi badi taakat bana kar rakh di hai humne? Babuon ke haath mein desh de karke hum kya karne waale hain? Humare babu bhi toh desh ke hain, toh desh ka naujawan bhi toh desh ka hai,” Modi said.

(Babus will do everything. By dint of becoming IAS officers, they’ll operate fertiliser warehouses and also chemical warehouses, even fly aeroplanes. What is this big power we have created? What are we going to achieve by handing the reins of the nation to babus. Our babus are also citizens, and so are the youth of India.) 

For most officers, the PM’s statement was a rare and emphatic public denouncement of the whole IAS community by the highest office of the country.  

However, it also came as a surprise to many since Prime Minister Modi’s model of governance has involved heavy reliance on a select few IAS officers — often at the cost of ministers. 

From extending the services of handpicked officers and keeping them in key posts, including the PMO, far beyond their regular tenures, to establishing one-on-one relationships with secretaries and even district magistrates across the country — the PM has been known to count on his rapport with IAS officers to govern the country, and, before that, his home state Gujarat


Also Read: 6 years on, PM Modi’s core team is in the grip of IAS, IPS, IRS officers from Gujarat


A ‘concerned community’  

A secretary-level IAS officer said on the condition of anonymity that he could not recall an earlier instance where the Prime Minister “questioned the fundamental premise of the IAS in this manner”. 

“There have been solitary instances where politicians have derided individual officers…When Rajiv Gandhi as Prime Minister rebuked his foreign secretary in a press conference, it was seen as an affront to officers, but still it was an individual officer,” said the  officer. 

T.R. Raghunandan, a former IAS officer who is an adviser with the accountability initiative of the think tank Centre for Policy Research (CPR), agreed. 

“It will not be an exaggeration to say that what the PM has said is a death knell for the IAS,” he said. “The whole argument for the need of specialists is not new, but this is a statement on the supine bureaucracy, which has kowtowed to politicians for decades… It should make them ask themselves what this kowtowing has fetched them,” he added. 

Anil Swarup, former union secretary to the Government of India, said the comment cannot be seen as an off-the-cuff remark. 

“When I was working in the government, the PM was very forthcoming when it came to IAS officers. His statement is a cause of concern and introspection,” he said. “There are officers who have worked with him for 5-6 years now, they need to introspect on what has gone wrong with the IAS,” he added. 

Not the first time 

Since coming to Delhi in 2014, Modi has on several occasions — either privately or obliquely — taken aim at the civil services over allegations of corruption and status-quoism.

In his 73rd Independence Day speech, he likened corruption to “termites” and said his government took several steps to remove corrupt government servants from cushy positions. 

“You must have seen, in the last five years, and this time after coming to power, we have dismissed several people who enjoyed cushy positions in the government,” he said. “Those who used to be roadblocks in our endeavours, we told them to pack their bags (because) the country doesn’t need (their) services,” he added. 

After returning to power in 2019, in a closed-door meeting with senior officers of the government, Modi was reported to have said that they had “spoiled” the first five years of his government, and he would not let him spoil the next five.

Union minister Nitin Gadkari made similar remarks last year. At an event in Nagpur, Gadkari said, “A day before yesterday, I was in the highest forum, where they were saying that they (officers) will start this and that. I told them why would you start? If you had that potential then why were you working here as an IAS officer? You should have started a big business. You should help those who can do it. We are the facilitators. You shall not be involved in it.” 

To tackle the problem of status-quoism and perceived lack of expertise among civil servants, who are routinely shuttled between different departments, the Modi government also introduced its ambitious lateral entry scheme to involve domain experts in decision-making — a scheme it expanded last week by inviting more applications.


Also Read: Modi govt is shaking the foundation of India’s IAS-led civil service — one reform at a time


‘Need for introspection’  

While IAS officers privately acknowledge the problems of accountability, permanence of tenure, and inefficiency within the civil services as major issues inflicting the system, some point towards a “doublespeak” in the matter. 

It is true that the government needs experts for sectoral intervention that technocrats can provide, but it also needs inter-sectoral interventions and political engagement, which even this government uses IAS officers for, said an officer. “Then why simply echo the commonly-held disdain for IAS officers? Governance is more nuanced than that.” 

The PM continues to rely on select officers immensely, and reward them for merit, competence or loyalty, the officer said. 

“There are so many officers who have been rewarded for their performance or loyalty, even post-retirement… There may not be anything wrong with it,” the officer added. “But if they are largely good for nothing, then why reward them? Lateral entry is one thing, but nothing stops the government from having experts head commissions and tribunals. Then why is it that this government continues to give post-retirement jobs to IAS officers? Why not bring in experts there?”  

Yet, most officers ThePrint spoke to said there is a need for introspection by the IAS community. 

“The reason that the IAS community will find it hard to speak up against this affront is because it has little credibility,” said Raghunandan. “They have not spoken up for so many decades now, but I think this should remind them that the political executive also turns contemptuous of you if you show uncritical loyalty.”  

Another IAS officer who is still serving in the government pointed towards a more practical problem. “I think the IAS community has for far too long had a holier-than-thou attitude where they have simply dismissed the private sector as corrupt and greedy, and viewed profit creation as an evil thing,” the officer pointed out.

“The remarks of the PM make it amply clear that this can no longer be our attitude, and, as those with positions of power in the government, we have to engage with the private sector more meaningfully. If anything, this statement tells me it is time for IAS officers to shed their arrogance,” he said.  

A CPR survey published this month appeared to corroborate the claim that most IAS officers view the private sector with a “striking disregard and suspicion”. 

 “The Prime Minister has made it amply clear that the private sector has to be treated like an ally, it would be foolish for the babu to not get the ishara,” the officer said, referring to a popular song from the 1958 Hindi film Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi.


Also Read: More reform for IAS officers as Modi govt adds new criteria to pick joint secretaries


 

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18 COMMENTS

  1. After reading all comment it is clear that two or three person have Real knowledge rest are don’t know anything.if we need specialist for every ministry why should only babus are targeted minster should also specialist why we are giving vote to arrogant and incompetent politicians who does not know anything.so stop blaming ias officers

  2. Despite dressing-down the IAS, Govts must rely on civil servants to execute govt policies. Problem is, many of the ‘babus’ still retain the mindset derived from the Socialist diet foisted on them by successive Cong govts, where govt PSUs control the ‘commanding heights of the economy’, while the private sector is seen as greedy capitalists, keen on exploiting the proletariat. Many babus still pine for the good ole days of the License and Permit Raj, when they ruled supreme, as any little babu could put the kaibosh on the plans of any of the big business houses (unless they provided the proper ‘consideration’).

  3. Honestly, PM is right in citing the hard work done by the Babus to obstruct every bit of growth needed to develop the nation. How can they help nation building by flourishing corruption. True that you need knowledge & sight to reach to formulate the programmes of community growth & development but is not it a fact that the Babus could not do it in their 12th class examination when it was most important to and reached doing IAS by hook or crook. The medical & engineering graduates out-classed these Babus in 12th class.

  4. If PM can ask why Babus should run the PSU, then what politicians are doing in Public Sector Undertaking both active or otherwise. What the BJP Spokesperson Sambit Patra who is MBBS doing in ONGC as a Director. There are many others from the ruling party who could not get elected or did not get any post, are being pushed into PSU. If the the PM and his party is serious, let them first get all these guys out of PSUs. In fact, why the party has not discontinued this practice instead of following Congress. If the polticians are removed, at least 25-50% improvement can be seen in performance of PSU. So don’t simply target IAS who no doubt are not trained to run industries. In fact IAS need to introduce any subject on Industrial and Business management. Empower them to run instead of directing by ministers. In fact why do we need PM or ministers to run the country is another matter which needs debate

  5. I fully agree with PM . Being in a senior position while in service in three CPSUs , my experience says baring a few , most of the IASs are interested in noting in files without understanding the issue and with vague comments complicating the problem . Absolutely no professional approach , indulging in frequent meetings and forming committees to avoid taking decisions and responsibility .

  6. Successive regimes since independence have pampered, overlooked, misused and partnered with the Babus, helping them to become arrogantly indispensable.
    They can be brought down to their legitimate respectable level only under a political leadership which is not using them for their illegitimate gains.
    The leaderships of the past in spite of the understanding that with every field becoming highly specialized a JACK OF ALL TRADES can only be a disaster did nothing to prevent it and AIR INDIA is the leading example of it.
    Administrative paper pushing is different from running a business where profit has to be a compulsion not an option or aim.
    The strong Babudom gave no option to self-serving and corrupt bosses in appropriating the control different businesses to themselves ensuring no accountability throwing crumps and even robbing togather. .
    ISRO is probably one example to be followed in limiting the undue influence of Babus and heights achieved are there to see.
    The permanent steel frame crumpled under the weight of corruption and self interest.

  7. The IAS has many faults but has by and large provided the framework for democracy to survive.
    Modi is without gratitude as his election and that all of others have been fair it is because the IAS DMs maintained it that way.I agree that purely technical posts shd be managed by technically qualified persons.But private sector cannot provide that culture of public service without profit.They can be engaged for special jobs.
    Modiji was wrong I as an IAS officer had a licence to fly and I was thorough with all aircraft when I was DGCA of India.There are scores of engineers and doctors in the IAS and why is Modiji not deploying them to technical posts.
    The IAS cannot reply so he is attacking them .Let him mercilessly weed out the bad eggs from the IAS.
    Why is he soft on the AIDMK when there is so much corruption and why Gadkari’s ministry not replying to me on a matter of public importance concerning registration of new vehicles.

  8. The PM is 100% correct. Most of these IAS officers are glorified clerks who have no accountability or no commitment to what they are supposed to do. It is time for the government to hire specialist resources from outside on fixed term rather than one size fits all type of IAS officers who have a career job irrespective of whether they perform or not. Take for instance of a newly recruited IAS office who is appointed as deputy collector of a district. The public does not know what he or she does for the district. The people see him/her in government vehicles escorted by a police officer. The Collector’s name should be changed as the term was used by the British for collecting taxes from the people of the land occupied by them. Most of these collectors have the same attitude and it is time we should dismantle IAS and hire technocrats and specialists who have the experience of undertaking large projects or delivering the results as per schedule. Right now, most of the IAS officers are lethargic and they play dirty politics as they do not want to hurt politicians as they fear that in case those corrupt politicians return to power they will be harmed. Many of the IAS officers earn way beyond their known source of income. It is time we have public servants in our administration who are supposed to work for the benefit of the public as it is the public who bear all their expenses. They cannot behave like masters.

  9. Even if these babus (IAS) are cut into thousand pieces, they will join and come together and dominae Government at Central and State level and will de the Politicians and the Public knowing well that they (IAS) cannot solve the problems facing the country. If they (IAS) are competent they could have solved by now most of the problems the country since independence from the British. Even for the changes to be made to babus(IAS) power structure it has come from these babu’s only as they have monopolized all the top decision making powers by virtue of becoming secretaries of all Government Departments both at the Central Government and at the states at the cost of in house department exercise. Had any of the mqjor problems facing India has been solved by these babus in the past few decades. The answer will be big NIL. Rather than taking the corrupt politicians head on most of them became hand in glove with the Politicians in corruption. All the expertise of other officers of other services in the Government has been subsumed by these IAS officers by virtue of being IAS. But the million dollar question now is can we get rid of this iron grip of IAS officers in Indian Administration.

  10. The IA S catoire had developed and institutionalised it’s own interest group with scant regard to honesty and professionalism.

    When the proposal to bring professionals as lateral entrants, IAS made a mockery of the proposal by conducting among themselves training programme (collecting TA, DA, training fees etc) and declared themselves as professionally trained !

    It is good their worth had been said openly in the Parliament.

  11. @Manish Babus are necessary more than ever before since most ministers of this regime including the supreme leader are semi-literate to illiterate. They need to be told where to put their signature on a piece of documents other than explaining the issue involved.

  12. The PM’s speech on IAS was to complement the point on how private industry plays such an important role in the country and that we cannot rely for everything on IAS officers. I don’t know why so much is made of this speech – IAS officers need not worry about their stature or power. The newspapers anyway utilise every opportunity to sensationalise every word of the PM’s speech!

  13. Really well informative analysis on the prime minister observations made about on Babu’s. The critism done by you is quite polite in comparison to prime minister tone.
    Until and unless these corrupted Babu’s shown the doors on corruption issues, by court’s nothing going change.

  14. Wasn’t there a survey a few years ago, by some think tank in SE Asia, that ranked the Indian bureaucracy the worst on the planet. The truth is that the Indian bureaucracy as a rule only exists to create obstruction. No doubt there are exceptions but if one wishes to hold up a project then the best ally is the bureaucracy. The Indian bureaucracy holds in contempt those who pay their salaries and pay obeisance to political masters. No wonder they have such low credibility and India ranks at the bottom of every human development index.

  15. The bureaucracy is one pillar of our democracy. This implies vast power and responsibility
    If we are to use a bureaucracy effectively we must free it from political control and define performance criteria.

  16. We need IAS but at the district level not at the policy framing levels, these fellows are good at execution and paper pushing, let’s not give them jobs which should ideally be done by specialists in their fields. Sir Humphreys need to be shunted out of central secretariat.

  17. The criticism by the PM is quite justified. Incompetent politicians inculcated the practice of fully empowering the IAS officers for anything everything. I have a PSU client in power sector headed by an IAS officer. After receiving legal advice on an issue, he decided to ignore it, and follow advice from a fellow IAS officer in another department which will permanently cast financial burden on the PSU. Trust IAS to take decisions based on irrelevant factors.

  18. Its not that any of the remarkable things is created by these mostly corrupt babu’s but all are done by private citizen from IT revolution to space to auto mobile to heavy engineering to building a great bridge, road and so on…these guys use the govt position to serve themselves they infact humiliate more often the people who is doing remarkable things for country. British left India 74 years back but those mindset still infected these babu’s, of course there are some who is honest and working hard.

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