June 14, 2001


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R K Raghavan

Unfulfilled hopes

Without for a moment wanting to sound condescending, I am extremely pleased that a lady -- that too the sibling of a police officer -- topped the civil services examination this year. More gratifyingly, she is from the South, a region that has drifted away considerably in the recent past from the competition, owing to a phenomenal -- sometimes irritating -- obsession with migration to the US and Europe. An engineer to boot, Vijayalakshmi has done her sex proud. Let us wish her all the best in the arduous journey that awaits her.

Some statistics released by the UPSC are interesting. Nearly 20 per cent of the successful candidates were women, a 2 per cent increase over last year. A compensation for having lost out in Parliament? More importantly, an equal percentage who qualified for the main examination qualified, as against a mere 8 per cent strike rate for men.

As usual, the triumphant contingent was dominated by engineers who accounted for 25 per cent of the 427. There were also 44 medical doctors. These figures confirm that the pattern established for nearly a decade has come to stay.

When I entered service in 1963, an engineer was a rarity and a doctor was almost non-existent. What a change in profile! Only time will tell whether this has been for the better, in terms of utility to the common man.

A final statistic. In the 1960s, when there was just one entrance examination -- no division between a preliminary and a main examination as now -- about 10,000 took the test all over the country. Even then, about 20 to 30 per cent of them were considered stragglers who had no business to be there and took the examination mainly to tell the rest of the world that they also ran! Yes, it was prestige enough to have appeared at the IAS examination, and not necessary to have triumphed.

Now more than 100,000 take the preliminaries and about 5,000 the main. The competition is so intense that I often wonder whether I would cross even the first hurdle if I were to chance my arm now.

One question stands uppermost in my mind amidst the welter of statistics thrown up above. Have the civil services, especially the IAS and IPS, fulfilled the objective for which they were set up? If you go by the mood of the public and the average politician, the response would be an emphatic 'no'.

I would like to take the middle path. It has been a mixed bag. The services have definitely promoted national integration. But it is difficult to agree that they have succeeded greatly in pushing up standards of administrative professionalism or ethics. Trends in the past few years have actually been distressing.

I would like to concentrate on the IAS and IPS. I prefer not to comment on the others as I have not had the opportunity to observe them as closely as I did these two pillars on which the edifice of administration was built.

Sardar Patel, the first home minister, had a vision while conceiving the two all-India services. He believed that if free India was to be welded into a single nation, there were no better tools than the district collector, IAS, and superintendent of police, IPS.

Development work and maintenance of law and order were to go hand in hand if India was to succeed.

Chronicles of the debate that took place in the Constituent Assembly and outside speak of wide differences on whether India needed successors to the ICS. And it was in the teeth of opposition, especially with regard to permanency of tenure, that the Sardar's persuasion triumphed. The outcome was the All-India Services Act of 1951. (We now have a third all-India service, namely, the Indian Forest Service.)

The first two decades after Independence were generally marked by adherence to conventions in the civil service that had been established under the British. A respect for the independent and honest civil servant was widespread and this was reflected in the high quality of administration. Those were halcyon days when the reputation of the civil service soared.

It was sometime in the late 1960s that one discerned a sharp change in civil service perceptions of political neutrality and personal integrity. It was not as if there was earlier no political interference, or that there was no corruption in the public services. But these evils were muted and certainly did not affect the quality of service delivery as they do now. Less emphasis on professional objectivity and a greater concern for politically expedient decisions reared their heads gradually.

N S Saxena, a distinguished police officer and former member of the Union Public Service Commission and the National Police Commission, identified 1967 as the watershed year when "the downward trend became quite fast and since then we are continuously going downhill".

Looking back, I find it difficult to explain how this unfortunate situation came about. Was it merely because of the arrival of a new generation of political masters, many of whom had not taken part in the freedom struggle? Or was it because of a certain political, economic and social turbulence that swept the country around that time?

The two wars with Pakistan, the decision to devalue the rupee, and the intensification of extremist violence, especially in West Bengal and Kerala, could not but have left their impact on the polity. The weakening of the Congress monolith and the coming into being of non-Congress coalition governments possibly also brought about a feeling of insecurity among the higher echelons of the civil services -- so used to a single-party government and its clear administrative philosophy -- and the consequent caving in to the unreasonable, if not downright illegal, demands made on them.

Apart from all-India service officers being looked upon as "agents" of the Centre, one also heard at this time the questionable and dangerous slogan of a "committed civil service". The innuendo was that the civil servant was becoming too independent for the comfort of his political executive, who desired action rather than excuses for something not done.

The decline since then has been so precipitous that the image of the civil service has passed on from a professional, non-political and well-oiled machinery to that of a crassly partisan body that not merely connives at, but promotes and participates in corruption.

The current scene is very well depicted by Maharashtra Governor Dr P C Alexander in his latest book, India in the New Millennium (Somaiya Publications, 2001). His brilliant portrayal devotes a whole chapter to the civil service, before Independence and after. According to him, one major challenge facing the bureaucracy today is the absence of a healthy equation between the civil service and the political executive. Alexander's prescription is:

  • Those belonging to the political executive are the people who have received the mandate to rule. The civil servants' duty is not to rule, but to help those who have the mandate to rule... [they] should express [their] views frankly and with absolute impartiality and fairness... Failure [to do so] is not only dishonesty but... being unfair to the minister.
The fact that this is not a one-way lane is illustrated by Paul Appleby who came to India in the early 1950s from the US as a consultant to study Indian administration at close quarters. His Report of a Survey, 1953, considered to this day a classic treatise on public administration in the country, said:
  • Civil servants should be in no danger of reprisals for opinions freely and vigorously expressed to ministers, and they shall have firm support in the exercise of discretion ministers delegate and should delegate to them.

There cannot be a more lucid thesis on the minister-civil servant relationship than that of Alexander and Appleby.

Among the many disturbing trends identified by Alexander is the declining standard of integrity in the civil services. Corruption in the higher echelons is unacceptable even in an ambience of lack of ethics because:
'You are the salt of the nation's bureaucracy,' to quote from another context from the Bible, 'If the salt loses its flavour, what use is it to anyone?'

Alexander bemoans the fact that many senior civil servants have succumbed to temptation and brought odium to their whole class.

This is the most unfortunate and unedifying scene to which are inducted some outstanding young men and women who join the civil services each year, motivated largely by service to the community and accompanied by immense expectations of a career laced by professionalism and modern management principles. How does one ensure that their morale remains high during their service and they do not slip up on their integrity? This is an Himalayan task.

A lot will depend on the enlightenment of the political executive and the senior bureaucracy, especially the chief secretary and the director general of police in the states. A failure to take interest in them and motivate them to stick to standards of excellence and honesty is culpable. Excuses of a lack of time to devote to junior officers reveal a certain lack of appreciation of their responsibility to build for the future.

Is there, however, a message also for those coming into the services? There is a need to reflect on why are they entering government in preference to the private sector. In public services there is a clearer requirement for catering to the needs of customers who do not have to pay for the services received, but are entitled to them under the law. There is no quid pro quo here, but a mere demand for total dedication.

It is an entirely different matter that such dedication wears off over a course of time owing to several factors. But to discard the need for cultivating it even at the point of entry can be disastrous. By all accounts, this is what is happening in most parts of the country.

The sacred trust contemplated by the Sardar is under assault and there is a feeling of desperation among the enlightened political executives and past and present bureaucrats.

Is there any way we can stem the rot? Can we infuse confidence into the young minds that are going to adorn the services in the years to come? Is it that we are aiming at a Utopia?

I can only think of indoctrination! Right from day one, IAS/IPS probationers will have to be told that both ethics and the instinct of self-preservation demand right conduct. They should be made to understand that they are in a 'service' and not in 'commerce'. The import of the enormous distinction between the two should be conveyed to them in no uncertain terms.

This is as far as integrity is concerned. As for the correct relationship with the political executive, there cannot be a more focussed guide than the Maharashtra governor, whose phenomenal success in public service alone would testify to the validity of his clear-cut stand.

In the final analysis, Alexander's reference to the Sardar's sermon to IAS probationers in 1949 is most telling: 'We have done our duty by creating a frame in which you can work with freedom and impartiality, and from now on it is your job to do your best to the country.'

Read with Appleby's exhortation in the context of making the civil services more attractive, we have a nearly magic formula: Average persons working in an average way cannot bring a wholly new day to India. Very extraordinary people bulwarked by many other extraordinary people must carry the hope of India into the management of tasks enormously difficult and complicated.

The writer is a former director of the Central Bureau of Investigation.

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