The foundational stone of civil service is that it’s based on meritocracy. Not only does it demand that the chosen officers are proficient in their jobs, but it also warrants a recruitment procedure that is fair, transparent and stands the test of time. Any modification in it must not compromise its standards of neutrality. Last month, the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) announced that it had granted lateral entry to 31 candidates into senior and mid-level positions across Union Ministries. However, this is not the first attempt to bring ‘specialists’ from the private sector into the bureaucracy. In 2019, nine candidates were inducted into the Narendra Modi government.
While it’s a significant reform to bring experts into the civil service, it could disrupt the integrity of the system. India can learn from its northern neighbour, Pakistan, which had widely experimented with the lateral entry of experts into its bureaucracy in 1973 and finally shut it down in 1979 as it failed to achieve the standards of neutrality.
Pakistan’s civil service experiment
The Lateral Entry System (LES) in Pakistan was institutionalised by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1973 on the basis of the recommendation of the Khursheed Hasan Meer Committee. The induction of lateral entrants was not new for the bureaucracy of Pakistan as the military rule of Mohammad Ayub Khan (1958-68) also did the same but in an ad hoc manner. The motto of the overhaul reforms, including lateral entry, was to tackle the centralisation of power between a handful of civil servants named CSP (Civil Service of Pakistan), the descendent of Indian Civil Service (ICS). In Pakistan, this challenge was a constituent of the larger problem of the power imbalance between a well-established, centralised civil service and the weak elected institutions. Bhutto, who represented the first elected democratic government since 1947, saw this as a task to be rectified immediately in order to implement his socialist policies. Bhutto was of the view that the ‘naukarshahi’, through its snobbery and arrogant attitude, had lowered the quality of national life in Pakistan.
The LES was thought to bring some structural changes in the civil service in order to correct the power imbalance within the bureaucracy of Pakistan on one hand and democratic institutions on the other. Bhutto also thought that the lateral entry of specialists would curb the domination of generalists in the civil service. It was supposed to provide the breadth of vision and an understanding of the environment, in which the policies are formulated and eventually implemented.
Ideals sacrificed to political interests
Despite the envisaged ideals, the implementation of the LES in 1973 could not turn them into reality. The impartiality and objective recruitment procedure, which is the bedrock of meritocracy, was not ensured in the selection of lateral entrants. In Pakistan, the Federal Public Service Commission (FPSC) is the custodian of fair recruitment of civil servants but in LES, the task of recruiting lateral entrants was given to the Establishment Division Ministry under the government, culminating in direct control of the government over the selection procedure of lateral entrants. Because of this, the LES was widely misused for political purposes and led to the politicisation of the civil service. It proved to be counter-productive and did more harm than benefitting the system. The LES was widely criticised for leaving the system dysfunctional as the civil service, which was supposed to serve the citizens, was serving the interests of the politicians.
Furthermore, the LES was open not only to people from the private sector but also to government sector employees including civil servants. And because of this, it was reduced to being an instrument to reward political loyalty among the public servants. For example, an officer who found limited chances for promotion in his parental cadre could move to the Secretariat Group as a lateral entrant and could be promoted as high as per his loyalty. It was termed ‘horizontal movement’, under which civil servants hopped from one group to another to further their career prospects.
The hasty implementation of the LES left the recruitment procedure undefined, which also led to the selection of unsuitable and incompetent candidates. In many cases, there was only a loose correlation, albeit with some slippage, between the entrant’s old job background and the new job. Scholar Charles H. Kennedy, in his book, Bureaucracy in Pakistan gives an example where an officer, eventually assigned to the post of Joint Secretary, Religious Affairs Division, was a mathematician by profession and had to demonstrate his expertise in the field. Even suitable posts for the candidates selected laterally were not identified.
The generalist civil servants in Pakistan were discontented with this system. What prevailed was a hostile environment that adversely impacted the entire bureaucracy. The bureaucrats saw the lateral entrants as a hurdle to their promotion, sent to spy on the civil service. It resulted in chaos and demoralisation of the service and was finally discarded under the subsequent regime of General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq.
Lateral entry, once introduced, lives forever
The LES, introduced by Bhutto, provided an instrument in the hands of the political establishment. Due to the inherent benefits of the government controlling the recruitments, appointments, dismissals, retirements, promotions and grievances of lateral entrants, this practice could never be reverted in the political history of Pakistan. Zia, the head of the military regime, although discarded the LES, used it to institutionalise the induction of military officers into civilian bureaucracy. Under his regime, 10 per cent of vacancies in the federal bureaucracy were reserved for retired and serving military officials, who were selected by a High-Powered Selection Committee headed by Zia himself and not by the FPSC. Similarly, Benazir Bhutto opened an employment exchange in the PM’s own office by the name of ‘Placement Bureau’ to appoint her loyalists to various positions in the bureaucracy.
Over the years, the lateral entry system continued to reappear in various forms politicising the administrative structure, compromising independence and eroding neutrality and competency of the bureaucracy. Now, all governments welcome the opportunity to intervene in appointments, transfers and postings in order to exercise patronage and build long-term alliances with bureaucrats.
The lateral entry of specialists from the private sector might benefit India in the long term, but in the absence of a fool-proof system, it is a tightrope walk. In India, the scarcity of senior-level IAS officers in the policymaking, and the ever-increasing complexity of the policymaking process itself demands formal entry of professionals in the bureaucracy. However, the manner of its implementation will make all the difference. In order to not become another Pakistan, India must make the process of lateral entry legitimate and constitutional by taking the Parliament route and using Article 321 of our Constitution to create a strong framework. This will be beneficial in the next step, which is to scale up the operation. In order to have any considerable impact, the introductions must be numerically significant. Moreover, Parliamentary deliberation will open the system for public scrutiny, which will further boost confidence in the lateral entry procedure.
The author teaches Political Science at Magadh University, Bodh Gaya. She has a doctorate in Pakistan’s Civil Service with special reference to decentralisation of power. Views are personal.
(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)