The opening up of the civil service to qualified outsiders has brought down one of India’s stoutest walls.

It was the most carefully examined little square of newsprint in recent Indian history. Last week, a small job ad appeared on the inside pages of some newspapers looking for candidates for the post of “joint secretary” in the Indian government. Within a few hours, the ad had gone viral: Opposition politicians had weighed in, Twitter was agog and hundreds of thousands of 40ish Indians wondered if they had one last, unexpected opportunity to make their parents proud.

Anyone unfamiliar with the Indian state would have been mystified by the uproar. After all, just 10 positions were being advertised, and successful applicants would get a three-year contract — at government salaries. What was the big deal?

Quicktake India’s Aspirations

Indians, on the other hand, immediately recognized that in opening up the ranks of the civil service to qualified outsiders, one of their country’s stoutest walls had been breached. India has the most closed and hierarchical government of any major democracy. In fact, India’s bureaucracy is more removed from its people than those in many authoritarian countries. Our politicians may get all the attention, but everyone knows that mid-level bureaucrats such as joint secretaries — there are about 350 of them in all — are India’s real policy-makers.

A tiny cadre of generalists, known as the Indian Administrative Service, currently monopolizes these posts. Members of the IAS are selected in their 20s, after a fiendishly difficult entrance examination. In 2016, 1.1 million people sat for the first stage of the selection process; all knew that only 180 of them would make it into the service. Success is about as likely as a tossed nickel landing on its edge. You have better odds of becoming an astronaut if you apply to NASA. Ten times better, in fact.

But, if you make it through the exam, you are guaranteed to be one of India’s rulers for life. Constitutionally, you can’t be fired without a time-consuming and troublesome legal process. At most, elected politicians can transfer you from one post to another.

Before your 30th birthday, you’ll be given an Indian district to run, answerable to no local politician or council, and with near-absolute power over millions of people. You’ll collect their taxes, sit in judgment over their land disputes, control the local police and disburse pensions and scholarships and welfare. You’ll travel everywhere with a retinue of junior officials and favor-seekers, live in the nicest house in the district and be the guest of honor at every social function. Unsurprisingly, after awhile it can become quite hard to remember that you are, after all, just another public servant. In fact, you might begin to suspect you are a superior breed of human.

Thus, when you’re called to New Delhi and made a joint secretary in, say, the shipping ministry, you’re confident that you will be able to devise complex new rules for berthing super-tankers in Indian ports on your second day at work. Of course, given that transfers and postings are almost random, next year you might be deciding on a trade agreement in the Ministry of Commerce. Or perhaps predicting the course of the monsoon at the Ministry of Earth Sciences. Naturally, you know you will do so correctly. Your degree might have been in 13th-century poetry or something, but training and expertise are for lesser mortals. You passed a very difficult examination 30 years ago and are thus fully qualified to rule one-fifth of humanity.

This unaccountable, walled-off governance structure helps answer a question that outsiders often ask: If India’s state is served by such intelligent and confident officers, why is it so lazy, incompetent and backward-looking? Policy is ill-conceived, rules are detached from economic reality, laws are poorly drafted and regulations gush forth from government offices to drown India’s billion-plus citizens in paperwork.

And this is why many of us see that little newspaper advertisement as not just another job posting, but the first draft of a declaration of independence. We can begin to believe that, one day, positions in New Delhi’s corridors of power — positions with real responsibility — will be given to people with demonstrated ability in the fields they are supposed to supervise.

I’m not declaring independence just yet. There are many reasons to be wary. The opposition is justly suspicious that the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi wants to stock the bureaucracy with individuals sympathetic to his party’s Hindu nationalist ideology. Others worry that a revolving door between government and the private sector is being installed, which will lead to greater corporate power over the state. Marginalized groups wonder if India’s affirmative-action policies are going to be ignored.

I myself worry that many of these positions will not be filled by world-class experts but by, for example, officers from India’s inefficient public sector. Even so, those of us who have long despaired of India reforming its byzantine administration can perhaps be permitted a smidgen of hope. -Bloomberg

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16 COMMENTS

  1. What India’s corridors of power need is greater transparency, lesser bribery, empathy and empowerment to implement creative ideas without fear or favour. Whether this is achieved through the existing system or by introducing fresh blood through lateral recruitment is a function of political vision. The biggest flaw in the present set-up is that it quickly transforms the inputs of idealism and zeal into output rife with cynicism and mediocrity.

  2. This new lateral hiring was recommended in the past by several commisions. So it is welcome that it is being put into practice. All appointment would be criticized by people not liking the appointees by the argument of their leaning towards the incumbent administration. Now government itself appoint the officers of their choice and the new government changes the staff of the previous government. Here, for lateral entry, UPSC can be given the responsibility to do hiring for lateral entry. As the position is only for three years, they can be appointed by PM like the American president.

  3. Analytical and incisive.This so-called steel frame has been at the roots of India’s underdevelopment.Half-learnt bureaucracy coupled with illiterate politicians have ruined the country.

  4. The ten persons who will be within steel frame after rigorous selection will be the cynosure of all as their every decision will be observed by one and all. If they succeed in the very first attempt things will certainly improve for the good in the days to come with real independence to the country as observed in the article.

  5. Absolutely a brilliant move of the Govt. In fact, for all the scams and dishonesty in Govt. Congresd and this cader is solely responsible .If theIAS are honest no wrong can happen. But for the MALAIDAR postings they corrupted the politicians . Randomly select any IAS of only ten yeras standing you will find him having huge assetts. Khemka like people are very few. This British system needs to be scrapped as early as possible.

  6. ‘India’s Iron Frame’ – coined by Sardar Patel was a matter of pride during the nascent years after Independence.
    The world then and now is very very different.
    As rightly said the archetypal Civil Servant can handle any subject/area under the Sun, which is an anchronism in today’s knowldege economy, similar to the telegram in the Internet Age.
    My take is that the Babu’s should be made accountable- which they are not except bearing punitive transfers at most. Babu’s cannot be done away with in a flash, but policy decisions must be left to a panel of experts based on whose recommendations decisions are made.
    Even a headstrong PM like Indira Gandhi before she ventured to fight the 1971 war had to listen to sound advice from her Army Chief Manekshaw and not from Secretaries.
    All this is easier said than done as the Civil Service is for the Civil Service and by the Civil.Service.
    NaMo’s fight against Babudom is a first baby step. Can it succeed against the entrenched IAS lobby? If any one dare do this, I think only NaMo can. Others won’t touch such a matter with a bargeole!

    • The expression was “steel frame,” coined by Lloyd George in the House of Commons in 1922. “The small nucleus of British officials in India,” he said, “are the steel frame of the whole structure. … I do not care what you build on it, but if you take the steel frame out of the fabric, it will collapse.”

  7. article seems to be written by someone suffering from sour grapes.There are hundreds of officers out there in remote areas and policy making positions who have made a huge difference to the country.How many individuals serving in the private sector high profile jobs are willing to work at these salaries in remote or disturbed areas?be balanced instead of throwing the baby out with the bathwater

  8. Why some body in the govt service should think that he is a super human. people at level go thru the process of selection as per job requirement and if selected ( not necessarily on merit alone) they get compensated. super human if at some body is the person who will mend your car tyre so that you can reach ur destination or the news paper vendor, if he was not there in the morning the whole news print is waste or perhaps a doctor who saves precious life or a scientist, or a dedicated guest teacher who makes the child learn.

  9. The existing system of civil servises is going to create the biggest divide in our public after the caste system / resrvetion system

  10. Demonstrated performance must serve as a yardstick for all office bearers. This ad is a welcome step to rein in the rusted bureaucracy where it matters…

  11. Surprisingly, the ad does not ask for a Joint Secretary for Army, Navy or Air Force. Very specialist departments that deal with the integrity of the Nation.

  12. Govt. is run by IAS officers. Many times they advise Ministers about policy decisions. Nobody can punish them even if they do great harm to an individual or to the society.
    This has to change!

  13. Civil servants the world over—with the exception of some old British India civil-, educational-, or medical service officials, who were brilliant, who wrote important gazetteers, compiled some of the best (now historical) dictionaries of Indian vernaculars, deciphered long forgotten scripts—are mediocre people who through diligent preparation have managed to succeed in an exam.

    I can speak for St Stephens College, which I visited briefly many years ago. It was then the hallowed recruiting ground for India’s diplomatic or administrative services. But the best students did not opt for taking these exams; rather, they went abroad to pursue a higher degree in academics. Among this latter group, there was very visceral contempt for the former.

    Unfortunately, there is no perfect system for recruiting the best civil servants. Streamlined civil services in democracies are strongly correlated with per capita income, the human development index, even such measures as Happiness Index. When a nation’s per capita income, and other indices are low, as India’s are, there is little that civil servants can do. They are themselves looking to collecting a tidy sum for retirement which their official job is unable to do for them.

  14. Invite civilians to Lt. General/Rear Admiral/Vice Air Marshal level…
    said no ad ever..
    Because our armed forces are career specialists with no alternate, unlike the generalist babus who specialize only in corruption

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