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Mr Modi, it's time you reformed the IAS!

By T C A Srinivasa-Raghavan
June 06, 2017 17:45 IST
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Contrary to the popular belief that the IAS cadres manage the country - they are actually required to manage politicians, most of whom do not pass any sort of muster, says T C A Srinivasa-Raghavan.

Illustration: Dominic Xavier/

The conviction and sentencing of H C Gupta, former coal secretary, by a CBI (Central Bureau of Investigation) court for corruption has upset the Indian Administrative Service greatly. That’s fine, and is as it should be.

But what is surprising - or perhaps not - is that despite the IAS being the most powerful trade union in the country, their association has not threatened a strike.

Indeed, except for one or two articles in the newspapers, at the individual level every officer seems to have accepted the conviction of a man who they all say is as honest as former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

Dr Singh was the coal minister at the time. No case has been made out against him.

That leaves open the question of bribery but a vast majority of IAS officers are honest - at least in the Manmohan sense. That is, they do not take bribes but keep quiet when someone else, including the minister, does. Sometimes, they even smooth the way while keeping clean themselves.

Often, however, for a variety of reasons, the officers are helpless. Equally often - as in not insisting that a mala fide order be given in writing - they are not.

Many of them are also guilty of keeping their own record clean by getting subordinates to “do the needful”.

This is a device that allows you to have the cake and eat it too. Mr Gupta, it has been said, may have relied overly on an under-secretary in the ministry. The key lies in everyone being able to ignore the chain of command whenever it is convenient.

Now the IAS should learn an important lesson: That what is all right for a minister is not all right for a civil servant. Hopefully, from now on, they will insist on written orders from the minister for an act they believe to be wrong. This is the only safeguard they have. Would the then coal minister, Manmohan Singh, have issued such an order in writing?

Uneasy lies the head...

Life is not easy for an IAS officer. In fact, no job in India is harder. This is because - contrary to the popular belief that they manage the country - they are actually required to manage politicians, most of whom do not pass any sort of muster.

The vast majority of politicians are, to put it politely, varlets. The archaic meaning of this word, according to the OED (Oxford English Dictionary), is “dishonest or unprincipled persons”.

There are two methods of managing a politician or minister. One is known “file ko ghumana”. The second is known as “file ko gumana”.

“File ko ghumana” means to send a file into eternal bureaucratic circulation. “File ko gumana” means to lose the file.

It had been open to Mr Gupta to do either or both. He did neither, or so the CBI says. Once the deed was done, the file has vanished. And so, despite being honest, he is paying the price.

The main question, however, is this: Who signed off on the relevant file? A coal block was allotted without the minister’s signature? How very odd.

Reform or perish

This is an opportune time for the Bharatiya Janata Party to try and reform the IAS, which has distinct two parts to it.

One is its original and core function, to manage the districts; the other is an add-on function, to manage the ministries and policy.

Any sensible person would see that you need different skills for each. Yet, in the IAS, this is not recognised.

That has left Prime Minister Narendra Modi searching high and low for the appropriately qualified officers and much time has been wasted.

Also, amazingly, the core district management function is performed by the least experienced officers. The non-core function, on the other hand, is performed by the seniors, regardless of their competence to do so.

Not just this. A junior officer in the districts has to deal with the worst of the politicians. It’s the rawest of deals in the entire range of government services, bar the IPS.

There also the youngest officers are asked to do the hardest job of managing local politicians.

Two things need to be done to fix this mismatch problem. One is to build a firewall between the two functions. The other is to stop this nonsense of the centre “borrowing” officers from the states.

It should have its own permanent cadre - not the central secretariat service which is a servicing force - instead of floaters from the states. That no longer makes any sense.

Will Mr Modi undertake this basic reform?

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T C A Srinivasa-Raghavan
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