Most IAS officers end up as pen-pushers and cynics, with no faith in their contribution.
The Government of India (GoI) has decided to recruit 10 outstanding individuals from the open market with expertise in the areas of (i) revenue; (ii) financial services; (iii) economic affairs; (iv) agriculture, cooperation and farmers’ welfare; (v) road transport and highways; (vi) shipping; (vii) environment, forests and climate change; (viii) new and renewable energy; (ix) civil aviation; and (x) commerce.
Their initial appointment would be for three years and extendable up to five years depending upon their performance. They would work at the level of the joint secretary, a post normally occupied by the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) or central service officers. It is a crucial level of senior management in the GoI administration, as joint secretaries lead policymaking, design programmes, and monitor their implementation.
There is an acute shortage of middle-level IAS officers with 18 to 25 years of seniority, as the annual recruitment to the IAS in the 1990s was curtailed to just about 60 to 70 as against the present recruitment of about 180 per batch. This was done under an illusion that the economic liberalisation would vastly reduce the need for central staffing. However, the reverse happened, as with enhanced revenues GoI expanded its role not only in the social sector, such as for the anti-poverty programmes, education, health, and tribal welfare, but also in many new emerging sectors such as telecommunications, information technology, climate change, and road transport.
Due to the overall shortage, most states are unwilling to release senior IAS officers for central deputation, leading to a bizarre situation where a railway traffic officer works as joint secretary, health, and an ordnance service employee finds himself in the Ministry of Tribal Affairs!
Temporary shortages apart, the larger issue is: Have the IAS officers been found deficient in their role as policy advisers? Do these officers possess the necessary domain knowledge so essential for effective policymaking and delivery?
Despite initial competence and enthusiasm, the hard reality is that many civil servants in the course of the 30 years of their career lose much of their dynamism and innovativeness, and end up as mere pen-pushers and cynics, with no faith in their own contribution to public welfare.
The fatal failing of the Indian bureaucracy has been its low level of professional competence. The IAS officer spends more than half of their tenure on policy desks where domain knowledge is a vital prerequisite. However, quick transfers from one post to the other in many states dampen the desire to learn. In Uttar Pradesh (UP) the average tenure of an IAS officer in the last 10 years is said to be as low as six months. In the Indian Police Service (IPS) it is even lower, leading to the wisecrack that “if we are posted for weeks all we can do is to collect our weekly bribes”.
With this environment prevailing in many states, there is no incentive for a young civil servant to acquire knowledge or improve their skills. There is, thus, an exponential growth in both their ignorance and their arrogance. It is said that in the house of an IAS officer one would find only three books: the railway timetable, because they are always being shunted from one post to the other, a current affairs magazine because that is their level of interest, and of course, the civil list that describes the service hierarchy!
An important factor that contributes to the surrender of senior officers before political masters is the total lack of any market value and lack of alternative employment potential. Beyond government, they have no future, because their talents are so few. Most IAS officers, thus, end up as dead wood within a few years of joining the service and their genius lies only in manipulation and jockeying for positions within the government.
Though the IAS is failing on many fronts, here one would like to concentrate only on two issues that are exclusively under its domain: monitoring of programmes and flow of funds.
At present, officials at all levels spend a great deal of time in collecting and submitting information, but these are not used for taking corrective and remedial action or for analysis, but only for forwarding to a higher level, or for answering Parliament/assembly questions. Moreover, outcomes are hardly measured and the system gets away with inflated reporting.
There is great pressure on the field staff to spend the allotted funds, but not in terms of long-term results, because those are not monitored. Thus, financial planning is divorced from physical planning. Equally, state governments do not discourage reporting of inflated figures from the districts, which again renders monitoring ineffective. As data are often not verified or collected through independent sources, no action is taken against officers indulging in bogus reporting.
The practice is so widespread in all the states, presumably with the connivance of senior officers, that the overall percentage of severely malnourished (grade III and IV) children in the 0-3 age group according to the data reaching GoI from the states is only 2 per cent, as against 9.4 per cent reported by United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) in its survey. The field officials are, thus, able to escape from any sense of accountability for reducing malnutrition.
One district head, when confronted with this kind of bogus figures, told me that reporting correct data is “a high-risk and low-reward activity”!
Flow of Funds
Many state governments, especially the poor ones, are neither able to draw their entitled funds from the GoI, nor are they able to release these to the districts/villages in time, with the result that the GoI is often constrained to divert the unclaimed funds to better-performing states.
The reason for poor performance by Bihar, Odisha, UP, and Assam is often due to the widespread shortage of staff at all levels, adversely affecting implementation and supervision of programmes. Among the states, the record of Bihar is atrocious in using central funds. In the Accelerated Rural Water Supply Programme alone, it lost about Rs 540 crore of central assistance during 1994-2005. Even salaries were not paid on time in Bihar in the pre-Nitish Kumar (currently the chief minister of the state) era.
The Inverted Pyramid
Coming back to the issue of lateral entry, the fear that the outsider joint secretary would be ideologically inclined to the present regime needs to be judged in the context of the mushrooming growth of “committed” bureaucracy (I would place their number as between 25 per cent and 50 per cent of the total, depending upon the state) that has taken place over the decades for a variety of reasons. The most important of these reasons being the cut-throat competition that exists in the IAS for important positions both at the state and central levels.
Due to the control that the IAS lobby exerts on the system, a large number of redundant posts in the super-time and superior scales have been created to ensure them quick promotions. Often a senior post has been split, thus diluting and diminishing the scale of responsibilities attached with the post. For instance, in UP, against the post of one chief secretary, there are 18 officers now in equivalent but far less important posts drawing the same salary. This inverted pyramid (too many people at the top and too few in the middle and lower rungs) has apparently been created to avoid demoralisation due to stagnation, but the net result has been just the opposite.
First, it leads to cut-throat competition within the service to grab the important slots. The old camaraderie has vanished. Second, this no-holds-barred competition is then exploited by politicians in playing up one against the other, leading to officers becoming more pliable. The lure of after-retirement sinecures further increases the number of those who would be willing to crawl when asked to bend.
However, getting only 10 joint secretaries from the open market is not enough to radically professionalise the civil service. The government needs to promote internal specialisation by insisting on stable tenure in the states so that there is incentive for the IAS to acquire expertise in their chosen sectors.
After the first 10 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. The IAS officers should take the entry of 10 outsiders as a challenge because if they do not improve their performance, there could be repetition of such recruitment every year.
Summing up, one welcomes 10 experts from the open market, but professionalising the rest of the 390 joint secretaries requires greater attention. This needs wider administrative reforms by addressing issues of governance at the state and district levels.
The article was first published in the Economic & Political Weekly. This is an edited version of the article.
Naresh Chandra Saxena (firstname.lastname@example.org) was posted at the IAS academy for eight years and trained several batches of the IAS. He retired as secretary, Planning Commission in 2002.